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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering

The U.S. Higher Education System

Higher education in S&E is important because it produces an educated S&E workforce and an informed citizenry. It has also been receiving increased attention as an important component of U.S. economic competitiveness. In his 24 February 2009 address to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama called for every American to commit to at least 1 year of education or career training after completing high school. This section discusses the characteristics of U.S. higher education institutions providing S&E education and the financing of higher education.

Institutions Providing S&E Education

The U.S. higher education system consists of a large number of diverse academic institutions that vary in their missions, learning environments, selectivity, religious affiliation, types of students served, types of degrees offered, and sector (public, private nonprofit, or private for-profit) (NCES 2010a). Among the approximately 4,500 postsecondary degree-granting institutions in the United States in the 2009–10 academic year, 62% offered bachelor's or higher degrees, 31% offered associate's degrees, and 8% offered degrees that were at least 2-year but less than 4-year as the highest degree awarded (NCES 2010b). In 2009, U.S. academic institutions awarded more than 3.1 million associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees; 23% of the degrees were in S&E (appendix table 2-1).

Doctorate-granting institutions with very high research activity are the leading producers of S&E degrees at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels. In 2009, these research institutions awarded 75% of doctoral degrees, 42% of master's degrees, and 38% of bachelor's degrees in S&E fields. (See sidebar "Carnegie Classification of Academic Institutions.") Master's colleges and universities awarded another 29% of S&E bachelor's degrees and 26% of S&E master's degrees in 2009. Baccalaureate colleges were the source of relatively few S&E bachelor's degrees (12%) (appendix table 2-1), but they produce a large proportion of future S&E doctorate recipients. When adjusted by the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in all fields, baccalaureate colleges as a group yield more future S&E doctorates per hundred bachelor's degrees awarded than other types of institutions, except research universities (NSF/NCSES 2008).

Community Colleges

Community colleges (also known as public 2-year colleges or associate's colleges) play a key role in increasing access to higher education for all citizens. These institutions serve diverse groups of students and offer a more affordable means of participating in postsecondary education. They are likely to serve groups with lower college attendance rates in past generations. Community colleges are important in preparing students to enter the workforce with certificates or associate's degrees and in preparing students to transition to 4-year colleges or universities (Karp 2008). They provide the education needed for S&E or S&E-related occupations that require less than a bachelor's degree, and they provide the first 2 years of many students' education before they transfer to an S&E program at a 4-year college or university.

In the 200809 academic year, there were more than 1,000 community colleges in the United States. These colleges enrolled about 7.2 million students, or about a third of all postsecondary students. Nearly six out of ten of these students were enrolled part-time (NCES 2011a). With the economic recession, enrollment in community colleges increased by about 800,000 students between 2007 and 2009 (NCES 2009a and 2011a).

Community colleges play a significant role in the education of individuals with advanced S&E credentials. Among U.S. citizen and permanent resident S&E doctorate holders who received their doctorates between 2005 and 2009, nearly one in five indicated they had earned college credit from a community or 2-year college (table 2-1). According to data from the National Survey of Recent College Graduates, in the last decade, the proportion of recent bachelor's S&E graduates who reported ever attending a community college increased (table 2-2). Forty-six percent of 2006 and 2007 S&E graduates indicated they had attended a community college (49% of the bachelor's recipients and 35% of the master's recipients). Graduates in engineering and physical sciences[1] were the least likely to have attended a community college. Between 1999 and 2008, the proportion of S&E graduates who attended community colleges increased in the life sciences, social sciences, mathematics, and computer sciences (figure 2-1).

In 2008, female S&E bachelor's and master's degree recipients were more likely to have attended a community college than their male counterparts (table 2-3). Attendance was also higher among U.S. citizens and permanent visa holders than among temporary visa holders. Attendance was higher for Hispanic and black S&E graduates than for whites or Asians. The likelihood of attending a community college before receiving an S&E bachelor's or master's degree was related to parental education level. More than half of the S&E graduates who reported that their fathers or mothers had less than a high school diploma attended a community college, compared to about one-third of those whose fathers or mothers had a professional or a doctoral degree.

Over the last 10 years, the top reason for attending a community college among science and engineering graduates remained the same—earning credits for a bachelor's degree (figure 2-2). However, the prevalence of other reasons for attending a community college changed over time. The importance of community colleges as bridges between high school and college in the form of dual enrollment programs increased from 13% in 1999 to 28% in 2008. Attending a community college to facilitate a change in fields or for financial reasons also became more important, while gaining skills and knowledge in their fields, having opportunities to increase advancement, or attending for leisure or personal interest became less important.

For-Profit Institutions

Two-year, for-profit institutions enroll considerably fewer students than community colleges. Over the past 10 years, however, the number of for-profit institutions has grown rapidly and the number of degrees they awarded has more than doubled (NCES 2010c; appendix table 2-2). A large part of that increase is accounted for by the growth of University of Phoenix Online Campus. In 2009, about 2,900 academic institutions in the United States operated on a for-profit basis. About half of these institutions offer less-than-2-year programs and fewer than half are degree-granting institutions. Of the degree-granting institutions, close to half award associate's degrees as their highest degree (NCES 2010b).

In 2009, for-profit academic institutions awarded between 1% and 5% of S&E degrees at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels, and 31% of S&E degrees at the associate's level. Computer sciences accounted for 91% of the associate's degrees and 67% of the bachelor's degrees awarded by for-profit institutions in science and engineering fields in 2009 (appendix table 2-3). For-profit institutions award relatively few S&E master's and doctoral degrees; those degrees are mainly in psychology. In 2009, degrees in psychology represented 51% of the master's and 81% of the doctoral degrees awarded by for-profit institutions in science and engineering fields.

Online and Distance Education

Online education and distance education enable institutions of higher education to reach a wider audience by expanding access to students in remote geographic locations and providing greater flexibility for students who have time constraints, physical impairments, responsibility for caring for dependents, etc. Online education is a relatively new phenomenon and online enrollment has grown substantially in recent years. In 2007–08, about 4.3 million undergraduate students (20% of all undergraduates) took at least one distance education course, up from 2.9 million (16% of all undergraduates) in 2003–04. In addition, nearly 800,000 (22%) of all postbaccalaureate students took distance education courses in 2007–08 (NCES 2011b).[2]

At the undergraduate level, students at private for-profit 4-year institutions were more likely to participate in distance education courses than students at public or private not-for-profit institutions (appendix table 2-4). Similarly, a higher proportion of students at private for-profit 4-year institutions took their entire program through distance education than students at any other type of institution. Most institutions, for-profit institutions in particular, believe that online education will be a critical part of their long-term strategy (Allen and Seaman 2010).

In recent years, academic institutions have begun developing online courses for public access—examples include the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon and the MIT OpenCourseWare.[3] Other kinds of initiatives involve working with faculty and organizations such as the National Center for Academic Transformation to redesign courses to incorporate the use of information technology.

Financing Higher Education

Cost of Higher Education

Affordability and access to U.S. higher education institutions are perennial concerns (NCPPHE 2008; NSB 2003). For at least the past 10 years, tuition and fees for colleges and universities in the United States have grown rapidly, faster than median income (figure 2-3). In the 2010–11 academic year, average tuition and fees for 4-year colleges rose faster than inflation. While the Consumer Price Index increased by 1.2% between July 2009 and July 2010 (College Board 2010a), average tuition and fees rose 7.9% from the previous academic year for in-state students at public 4-year colleges, 4.5% for students in private nonprofit 4-year colleges, and 6% for students at public 2-year colleges. Another inflation index, the Higher Education Price Index, which measures the average relative level in the price of a fixed-market basket of goods and services purchased by colleges and universities each year, rose 0.9% in fiscal year 2010 (Commonfund Institute 2010).

In the 5-year interval between 2005–06 and 2010–11, average published tuition and fees rose much faster than other prices in the economy. However, compared to 5 years ago, estimated average net tuition and fees (i.e., the published prices minus grant aid and tax benefits) are lower for all sectors. Large increases in federal Pell grants and veterans' benefits in 2009–10 and the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 largely drove the decline in average net prices (College Board, 2010a). According to the College Board (2010b), in the coming years, rising tuition prices are likely to continue in response to state reductions in higher education funding (see sidebar "State Appropriations to Public Research Universities: A Volatile Decade"), but the rate of increase in grant funds is not likely to keep pace.

Undergraduate Financial Support Patterns and Debt

Financial Support for Undergraduate Education. With rising tuition, students increasingly rely on financial aid (particularly loans) to finance their education. Financial aid for undergraduate students comes mainly in the form of grants, student loans, and work study. A financial aid package may contain one or more of these kinds of support. In the 2007–08 academic year, two-thirds of all undergraduate students received some kind of financial aid: 52% received grants and 39% took out loans (NCES 2009b). A higher proportion of undergraduates in private for-profit institutions (96%) and in nonprofit 4-year institutions (85%) than those in public 4-year (71%) or public 2-year institutions (48%) received some type of financial aid.

Undergraduate Debt. Undergraduate debt does not vary by undergraduate major (NSF/NCSES 2010a); however, levels of debt vary by type of institution and state. Levels of undergraduate debt for students from public colleges and universities are almost as high as those for students from private colleges and universities. The median level of debt for 2007–08 bachelor's degree recipients who took out loans was $20,000 for those who graduated from public colleges and universities and $24,600 for those who graduated from private nonprofit institutions. Students who attend private for-profit institutions are more likely to borrow than those who attend public and private nonprofit institutions (College Board 2010b).

Levels of debt varied widely by state. Average debt for 2009 graduates of public 4-year colleges and universities ranged from $14,739 in California to $29,675 in New Hampshire. Average debt for graduates of private nonprofit colleges and universities ranged from $11,312 in Utah to $32,434 in Rhode Island (Project on Student Debt 2009).

Graduate Financial Support Patterns and Debt

Financial Support for S&E Graduate Education. More than one-third of all S&E graduate students are primarily self-supporting; i.e, they rely primarily on loans, their own funds, or family funds for financial support. The other approximately two-thirds receive primary financial support from a variety of sources, including the federal government, university sources, employers, nonprofit organizations, and foreign governments.

Support mechanisms include research assistantships (RAs), teaching assistantships (TAs), fellowships, and traineeships. Sources of funding include federal agency support, nonfederal support, and self-support. Nonfederal support includes state funds, particularly in the large public university systems; these funds are affected by the condition of overall state budgets. Most graduate students, especially those who pursue doctoral degrees, are supported by more than one source or mechanism during their time in graduate school, and some receive support from several different sources and mechanisms in any given academic year.

Other than self-support (37%), RAs are the most prevalent primary mechanism of financial support for all full-time S&E graduate students. In 2009, 27% of full-time S&E graduate students were supported primarily by RAs, 18% were supported primarily through TAs, and 12% relied primarily on fellowships or traineeships (table 2-4).

Primary mechanisms of support differ widely by S&E field of study (appendix table 2-5). For example, in fall 2009, full-time students in physical sciences were financially supported mainly through RAs (42%) and TAs (38%) (figure 2-4, appendix table 2-5). RAs also were important in agricultural sciences (51%); earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences (40%); biological sciences (39%); and engineering (40%). In mathematics/statistics, more than half (51%) of full-time students were supported primarily through TAs and another 22% were self-supported. Full-time students in computer sciences and the social and behavioral sciences were mainly self-supporting (48% for both) or received TAs (15% and 19%, respectively). Students in medical/other life sciences were mainly self-supporting (62%).

The federal government plays a substantial role in supporting S&E graduate students through some mechanisms in some fields, and a smaller role in others. Federal financial support for graduate education reaches relatively more students in the biological sciences; the physical sciences; the earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; and engineering. Relatively fewer students in computer sciences, mathematics, other life sciences, psychology, and social sciences receive federal support (figure 2-5). Appendix table 2-6 provides detailed information by field and mechanism.

The federal government was the primary source of financial support for 18% of full-time S&E graduate students in 2009 (appendix table 2-6). In 2009, the federal government funded 63% of S&E graduate students on traineeships, 49% of those with RAs, and 23% of those with fellowships. Most federal financial support for graduate education is in the form of RAs funded through grants to universities for academic research. RAs are the primary mechanism of support for 72% of federally supported full-time S&E graduate students. Fellowships and traineeships are the means of funding for 21% of the federally funded full-time S&E graduate students. For students supported through nonfederal sources in 2009, TAs were the most prominent mechanism (39%) followed by RAs (31%) (table 2-4).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NSF support most of the full-time S&E graduate students whose primary support comes from the federal government. In 2009, these institutions supported about 26,400 and 21,600 students respectively. NIH funded about 75% of such students in the biological sciences, 64% of those in the medical sciences, and 40% of those in psychology. NSF supported nearly 60% of students in computer sciences or mathematics; nearly 50% of those in earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; and 34% of those in engineering (appendix table 2-7).

For doctoral degree students, notable differences exist in primary support mechanisms by type of doctorate-granting institution. In 2009, RAs were the primary support mechanism for S&E doctorate recipients from research universities (i.e., doctorate-granting institutions with very high research activity, which receive the most federal funding). For those from medical schools, which are heavily funded by NIH, fellowships or traineeships accounted for the main source of support. Students at less research-intensive universities relied mostly on personal funds (table 2-5). These differences by type of institution hold for all S&E fields (NSF/NCSES 2000). As noted earlier in this chapter, the majority of S&E doctorate recipients (about 75%) received their doctorate from research universities with very high research activity.

Notable differences also exist in primary support mechanisms for doctoral degree students by sex, race/ethnicity, and citizenship. In 2009, among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, men were more likely than women to be supported by RAs (29% compared with 22%) and women were more likely than men to support themselves from personal sources (19% compared with 12%). Also, among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, whites and Asians were more likely than other racial/ethnic groups to receive primary support from RAs (27% and 33%, respectively), whereas underrepresented minorities depended more on fellowships or traineeships (38%). The primary source of support for doctoral degree students with temporary visas was an RA (50%) (appendix table 2-8).

To some extent, the sex, citizenship, and racial/ethnic differences in types of support mechanisms are related to differences in field of study. White and Asian men, as well as foreign doctoral degree students, are more likely than white and Asian women and underrepresented minority doctoral degree students of both sexes to receive doctorates in engineering and physical sciences, fields largely supported by RAs. Women and underrepresented minorities are more likely than other groups to receive doctorates in social sciences and psychology, fields in which self-support is prevalent. However, differences in type of support by sex, race/ethnicity, or citizenship remain, even after accounting for doctorate field (NSF/NCSES 2000, NSB 2010).

Debt Levels of S&E Graduate Students. At the time of doctoral degree conferral, 45% of S&E doctorate recipients have debt related to their undergraduate or graduate education. In 2009, 27% of S&E doctorate recipients reported having undergraduate debt and 32 % reported having graduate debt. For some, debt levels were high, especially for graduate debt: 4% reported more than $40,000 of undergraduate debt and 6% reported more than $70,000 of graduate debt (appendix table 2-9).

Levels of debt vary widely by doctorate field. In 2009, high levels of graduate debt were most common among doctorate recipients in psychology, social sciences, and medical/other health sciences. Psychology doctorate recipients were most likely to report having graduate debt and also high levels of debt.[6] In 2009, 20% of psychology doctoral degree recipients reported graduate debt of more than $70,000. Doctorate recipients in mathematics; computer sciences; physical sciences; engineering; biological sciences; and earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences were least likely to report graduate debt. A higher percentage of doctorate recipients in non-S&E fields (49%) than those in S&E fields (32%) reported graduate debt.

Although men and women differed little in level of debt, U.S citizens and permanent residents accumulated more debt than temporary visa holders, and blacks and Hispanics had higher levels of graduate debt than whites, even accounting for differences in field of doctorate (NSF/NCSES 2010b).

The proportion of S&E master's recipients with debt increased between 2000 and 2008 (table 2-6). In 2000, about 40% of all master's students had incurred debt while studying for their master's degree, with no meaningful differences between those in S&E and non-S&E. By 2008, this proportion had increased to 51% among S&E master's recipients and 58% among those in non-S&E fields. Among graduates who had incurred debt, there was a statistically significant increase in the amount of the debt for those in non-S&E fields, but not for S&E students.[7]


[1] The physical sciences include earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences.
[2] In this NCES report, distance education courses include live, interactive audio- or videoconferencing; prerecorded instructional videos; webcasts; CD-ROMs or DVDs; or computer-based systems accessed over the Internet. Distance education does not include correspondence courses.
[3] For information on site traffic statistics at the MIT OpenCourseWare, see
[6] Clinical psychology programs and programs that emphasize professional practice (professional schools and Psy.D. programs) are associated with higher debt, but even in the more research-focused subfields of psychology, lower percentages of doctorate recipients were debt free and higher percentages had high levels of debt than those in other S&E fields. For information on debt levels of clinical versus nonclinical psychology doctorates in 1993–96, see Psychology Doctorate Recipients: How Much Financial Debt at Graduation? (NSF 00-321) at (accessed 20 June 2011).
[7] In table 2-6, the difference in the average amount owed in constant 2000 dollars by S&E master's recipients between 2000 and 2008 was not statistically significant.