Characteristics of the U.S. Higher Education System

A disproportionate number of S&E bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degree holders graduate from a small number of universities with very high levels of research activity. But other types of institutions are making substantial contributions to educating the nation’s S&E graduates. In 2015:

  • Institutions with very high research activity awarded 72% of doctoral degrees, 42% of master’s degrees, and 37% of bachelor’s degrees in S&E fields.
  • Master’s-level colleges and universities awarded 28% of S&E bachelor’s degrees and 25% of S&E master’s degrees; 4-year colleges supplied the rest.
  • Minority-serving institutions play an important role in underrepresented minorities’ educational and career pathways. About 30% of Hispanic S&E doctorate recipients who earned their doctorates between 2011 and 2015 had obtained their baccalaureate credential at a high-Hispanic-enrollment institution, and 24% of black S&E doctorate recipients who received their doctorates in the same period had obtained their baccalaureate degree at a historically black college or university.
  • Nearly one in five U.S. citizens or permanent residents who received an S&E doctoral degree from 2011 to 2015 had earned some college credit from a community or 2-year college.

Higher education spending and revenue patterns and trends continue to undergo substantial changes with a higher share of total costs borne by students and parents.

  • Between 2000 and 2015, average revenue per full-time equivalent (FTE) student from net tuition at public very high research universities nearly doubled, whereas state and local appropriations fell by 34%.
  • Although tuition remained lower at public very high research universities than at their private counterparts, average revenue from student tuition increased more rapidly at public institutions.
  • In public very high research universities, revenues from federal appropriations, grants, and contracts per FTE student grew by 11% between 2000 and 2015, and research expenditures per FTE student grew by the same percentage (11%). In private very high research universities, revenues from federal appropriations, grants, and contracts per FTE student grew by 14%, and research expenditures per FTE student increased by 25%.
  • Between 2008 and 2010, during a period largely coinciding with the economic recession, expanding enrollment in community colleges, coupled with reductions in state and local appropriations, contributed to a 9% reduction in instructional spending per FTE student. Instructional spending per FTE student continued to decline in 2011 but increased by 14% between 2012 and 2015, while enrollment declined as the U.S. economy improved.

Between 200607 and 2016–17, estimated average net tuition and fees paid by full-time undergraduate students in public 4-year colleges increased by about 30% after adjusting for inflation.

  • With rising tuition, students rely on financial aid and loans to fund their education. Undergraduate debt varies by type of institution and state. Overall, it does not vary much by field of study.
  • Levels of debt among doctorate recipients vary by field. In S&E fields, high levels of graduate debt were most common among doctorate recipients in social sciences, psychology, and medical and other health sciences.
  • At the time of doctoral degree conferral, 43% of 2015 S&E doctorate recipients had debt related to their undergraduate or graduate education.

Undergraduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees

Undergraduate enrollment in U.S. higher education rose from 13.3 million in 2000 to 17.3 million in 2015. The largest increases occurred in 2000–02 and 2008–10 and thus coincided with the two economic downturns, continuing a well-established pattern seen in earlier economic downturns. Enrollment peaked at 18.3 million in 2010 but has since declined.

  • Associate’s colleges enroll the largest number of students, followed by master’s colleges and universities and doctorate-granting institutions with very high research activity.
  • Increased enrollment in higher education is projected to come mainly from minority groups, particularly Hispanics.

The number of S&E associate’s degrees increased from 38,000 to 91,000 between 2000 and 2015. During this period, the growth of S&E degrees at the associate’s level (136%) was higher than growth at the bachelor’s (63%), master’s (88%), and doctoral levels (60%).

  • In 2015, about 9% of the associate’s degrees awarded were in S&E, and another 14% were awarded in S&E technologies.
  • Since 2000, the number of associate’s degrees in S&E technologies, which have a more applied focus, grew by 72%, to 144,000. Nearly three-quarters of these associate’s degrees are in health technologies, and close to one-quarter are in engineering technologies.

The number of S&E bachelor’s degrees has risen steadily in the United States over the past 15 years, peaking at more than 650,000 in 2015. S&E degrees continued to account for about one-third of all bachelor’s degree awards during this period.

  • All S&E fields experienced increases in the numbers of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2015, including computer sciences, which had declined sharply in the mid-2000s and had remained flat through 2009.
  • Women have earned about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees and about half of all S&E bachelor’s degrees since the late 1990s. Men earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer sciences, mathematics and statistics, and physics, and women earn the majority in the biological, agricultural, and social sciences and in psychology.

The racial and ethnic composition of those earning S&E bachelor’s degrees is changing, reflecting population changes and increases in college attendance among members of minority groups.

  • For all racial and ethnic groups, the total number of bachelor’s degrees earned, the number of S&E bachelor’s degrees earned, and the number of bachelor’s degrees in most broad S&E fields have increased since 2000.
  • Between 2000 and 2015, the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded to Hispanics among U.S. citizens and permanent residents increased from 7% to 13%, in S&E and in all fields combined, and remained steady at about 1% for American Indians and Alaska Natives. In the same period, the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded to blacks remained stable at 9% in S&E fields but increased from 9% to 10% in all fields.

The number of international undergraduate student enrollment in U.S. academic institutions increased consistently between fall 2012 and fall 2016 but fell 2% between fall 2016 and fall 2017.

  • The decline in international undergraduate enrollment between 2016 and 2017 is due solely to a decline in enrollment in non-S&E fields—enrollment in S&E fields held steady over this time.
  • In the most recent academic year, the number of international visa holders increased in computer sciences and mathematics (by 11% and 5% respectively) but declined in engineering (5%), social sciences (3%), and non-S&E fields (4%).
  • In fall 2017, China, Saudi Arabia, India, South Korea, and Kuwait were the top countries sending S&E undergraduates to the United States, as in the previous year. Compared to fall 2016, the number of undergraduates from China, India, and Kuwait enrolled in fall 2017 declined (by 3%, 11%, and 4% respectively) while the number from Saudi Arabia and South Korea declined (by 18% and 7% respectively).

Among students who began postsecondary education in 4-year colleges and universities in 2011–12, about 76% were still enrolled 3 years later, either at their first institution or at another and 6% had earned either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree.

  • Among students in 4-year institutions, those who had declared an S&E major were more likely to be enrolled 3 years later than those who had declared a non-S&E major.
  • Among students in 2-year institutions, the level of degree attainment or continued enrollment did not vary much by the broad field of major that beginning students had declared in their first year of postsecondary study. However, students who had been undecided about their major early on were more likely than other students to have dropped out 3 years later.

Graduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees

Graduate enrollment in S&E increased from about 493,000 to almost 668,000 between 2000 and 2015.

  • Graduate enrollment grew in most S&E fields, with particularly strong growth in computer sciences, mathematics and statistics, medical sciences, and engineering.
  • Since 2008, enrollment of international students in S&E fields has been rising, while graduate enrollment of U.S. citizens and permanent residents has declined overall. In 2015, international students accounted for 36% of S&E graduate students, compared with 26% in 2008.

In 2015, the federal government was the primary source of financial support for 15% of full-time S&E graduate students, the lowest proportion since at least 2000.

  • The recent decline in the share of S&E graduate students who rely primarily on federal financial support was especially pronounced in the biological sciences (from 36% in 2000 to 26% in 2015), the physical sciences (from 35% in 2000 to 27% in 2015), and the medical sciences (from 22% in 2000 to 9% in 2015).
  • In 2015, the federal government funded 55% of S&E graduate students who were primarily supported with traineeships, 45% of those with research assistantships, and 22% of those with fellowships.
  • Graduate students in the biological sciences, the physical sciences, and engineering received relatively more federal financial support than those in computer sciences, mathematics and statistics, medical and other health sciences, psychology, and social sciences.

The number of international graduate students in U.S. academic institutions had increased consistently between fall 2012 and fall 2016 but declined by 6% in S&E fields and by 5% in non-S&E fields by fall 2017.

  • Between fall 2016 and fall 2017, the number of international graduate students enrolled in S&E fields declined in computer sciences and engineering, increased in mathematics, and remained stable in other S&E fields.
  • A larger proportion of international graduate students than international undergraduate students enrolled in S&E. More than 6 in 10 international graduate students in the United States in fall 2017 were enrolled in S&E fields, compared with about 4 in 10 international undergraduates.
  • In fall 2017, 69% of the international S&E graduate students in the United States came from China and India, similar to prior years.

Master’s degrees awarded in S&E fields increased from about 96,000 in 2000 to more than 180,000 in 2015.

  • The number of master’s degrees awarded in engineering in 2015 was the highest in the last 16 years. The number of master’s degrees in computer sciences awarded in 2015 surpassed its peak in 2004.
  • Increases occurred in most major S&E fields, with the largest in mathematics and statistics, biological sciences, computer sciences, and engineering.
  • The number and percentage of master’s degrees awarded to women in most major S&E fields have increased since 2000.
  • The number of S&E master’s degrees awarded increased for all racial and ethnic groups from 2000 to 2015. While the proportion of degrees earned by blacks and Hispanics increased, that of American Indians or Alaska Natives remained flat, and those of whites and Asians and Pacific Islanders declined.

In 2015, U.S. academic institutions awarded about 45,000 S&E doctorates, up from nearly 28,000 in 2000.

  • The number of S&E doctorates conferred annually by U.S. universities increased among U.S. citizens and permanent residents and among temporary visa holders.
  • Among fields that award large numbers of doctorates, the largest increases in degrees awarded between 2000 and 2015 were in engineering and in computer sciences.

Students on temporary visas continue to earn high proportions of U.S. S&E doctorates, including the majority of degrees in some fields. They also earned large shares of the master’s degrees in S&E fields. In contrast, they earn smaller shares of undergraduate S&E degrees.

  • In 2015, international students earned more than half of the doctoral degrees awarded in engineering, economics, computer sciences, and mathematics and statistics. Their overall share of S&E degrees was 34%.
  • The number of temporary visa holders earning S&E doctoral degrees grew consistently between 2011 and 2014 but remained flat in 2015.
  • Students on temporary visas earned 2% of the associate’s and 5% of the bachelor’s degree in S&E fields in 2015.

International S&E Higher Education

In 2014, more than 7.5 million first university degrees, broadly equivalent to a bachelor’s degree, were awarded in S&E worldwide. Students in India earned about 25% of those degrees, those in China earned about 22%, those in the European Union earned about 12%, and those in the United States earned about 10%.

  • S&E degrees continue to account for about one-third of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States. In Japan, more than half of the first university degrees were awarded in S&E fields in 2014; in China, nearly half.
  • In the United States, about 6% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014 were in engineering. This compares with about 18% throughout Asia and 33% in China.

In 2014, the United States awarded the largest number of S&E doctoral degrees of any individual country, followed by China, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and India.

  • The numbers of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in China and the United States have risen substantially in recent years. S&E doctorates awarded in South Korea and in many European countries have risen more modestly. S&E doctorates awarded in Japan increased fairly steadily through 2006 but have declined since then.
  • As a result of large government investments in higher education, in 2007 China overtook the United States as the world leader in the number of doctoral degrees awarded in the natural sciences and engineering (which includes agricultural, biological, and physical sciences, mathematics and statistics, and computer sciences and excludes social and behavioral sciences). Since 2010, this number in China has risen more slowly.

International student mobility expanded over the past two decades as countries increasingly compete for international students.

  • The United States remains the destination for the largest number of internationally mobile undergraduate and graduate students worldwide, although its share decreased from 25% in 2000 to 19% in 2014.
  • Other top destinations for international students include the United Kingdom, Australia, France, and Germany.