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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering

Undergraduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees in the United States

Undergraduate education in S&E courses prepares students majoring in S&E for the workforce. It also prepares nonmajors to become knowledgeable citizens with a basic understanding of science and mathematics concepts. This section includes indicators related to enrollment and intentions to major in S&E fields, recent trends in the number of earned degrees in S&E fields, and persistence and retention in undergraduate education and in S&E.

Undergraduate Enrollment in the United States

Recent trends in higher education enrollment reflect the expanding U.S. college-age population. This section examines trends in undergraduate enrollment by type of institution, field, and demographic characteristics. For information on enrollment rates of high school seniors, see chapter 1, "Transition to Higher Education."

Overall Enrollment

Over the last 15 years studied, enrollment in U.S. institutions of higher education at all levels rose from 14.5 million students in fall 1994 to 20.7 million in fall 2009, with most of the growth occurring in the last 10 years (appendix table 2-10). In 2009, the types of institutions enrolling the most students were associate colleges (8.2 million, 40% of all students enrolled), master's colleges/universities (4.7 million, 23%), and doctorate-granting universities with very high research activity (2.8 million, 14%). Between 1994 and 2009, enrollment nearly doubled at doctoral/research universities and increased by about 50% or more at associate's colleges, master's colleges, and medical schools/medical centers (appendix table 2-10). (See sidebar "Carnegie Classification of Academic Institutions" for definitions of the types of academic institutions.) These trends are expected to continue for the near future.

On the basis of demographics, household income, and age-specific unemployment rates,[8] NCES projects that undergraduate enrollment in higher education will increase 16% between 2008 and 2019 (NCES 2011c).[9] According to Census Bureau projections, the number of college-age individuals (ages 20–24) is expected to grow from 21.8 million in 2010 to 28.2 million by 2050 (appendix table 2-11). Enrollment of first-time freshmen is projected to increase by 13% between 2008 and 2019, although the number of high school graduates is projected to change little because of relatively flat numbers of 18-year-olds during this period (NCES 2011c).

Increased enrollment in higher education at all levels is projected to come mainly from minority groups, particularly Hispanics. Enrollment of all racial/ethnic groups is projected to increase, but the percentage for whites is projected to decrease from 63% in 2008 to 58% in 2019, whereas the percentages for blacks and Hispanics are projected to increase from 14% and 12% respectively, to 15% for both groups. (For further information on assumptions underlying these projections, see "Projection Methodology" in Projections of Education Statistics to 2019 [NCES 2011c],, accessed 14 March 2011.)

Undergraduate Enrollment in S&E

Freshmen Intentions to Major in S&E. Since 1972, the annual Survey of the American Freshman, National Norms, administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California–Los Angeles, has asked freshmen at a large number of universities and colleges about their intended majors.[10] The data have proven to be a broadly accurate picture of trends in degree fields several years later.[11] Between 1972 and 2007, about one-third of all freshmen planned to study S&E; this proportion gradually rose to 38% by 2010. Increases in the proportion of freshmen planning to major in biological/agricultural sciences in recent years account for most of this growth. In 2010, about 11% of freshmen intended to major in each of the following disciplines: biological/agricultural sciences, social/behavioral sciences, and engineering. Between 1% and 3% intended to major in physical sciences, computer sciences, and mathematics/statistics (appendix table 2-12).

In 2010, about one in three white, black, and Hispanic freshmen; 28% of American Indian/Alaska Native freshmen; and 49% of Asian American/Asian freshmen reported that they intended to major in S&E (figure 2-6). The proportions planning to major in S&E were higher for men than for women in every racial/ethnic group (appendix table 2-12). For most racial/ethnic groups, about 10%–16% planned to major in social/behavioral sciences, about 6%–15% in engineering, about 9%–18% in biological/agricultural sciences, 2%–3% in computer sciences, 2%–3% in physical sciences, and 1% in mathematics or statistics. Higher proportions of Asian American/Asian freshmen than of those from other racial/ethnic groups planned to major in biological/agricultural sciences (18%) and engineering (15%). The percentage of all freshmen intending to major in computer sciences has dropped in recent years, whereas the percentage intending to major in biological/agricultural sciences has increased. (See appendix table 2-19 and the section on "S&E Bachelor's Degrees" for trends in bachelor's degrees.)

Generally, the percentages of students earning bachelor's degrees in particular S&E fields are similar to the percentages planning to major in those fields, with the exception of engineering and social/behavioral sciences. (See section on "Persistence and Retention in Undergraduate Education and S&E.") The percentage of students earning bachelor's degrees in engineering is smaller than the percentage planning to major in it for men and women as well as for all ethnic/racial groups, but the difference is larger for blacks (figures 2-7 and 2-8). The percentage earning bachelor's degrees in social/behavioral sciences is larger than previous years' percentages planning to major in those fields. The proportion earning bachelor's degrees in the natural sciences is smaller than the proportion planning to major in these fields for women, blacks, and Hispanics (figures 2-9 and 2-10).

The demographic composition of students planning to major in S&E has become more diverse over time. The proportion of white students planning to major in S&E declined from 77% in 1995 to 71% in 2010. On the other hand, the proportion of Asian American/Asian students increased from 7% to 12% and the proportion of Hispanic students increased from 5% to 13%. American Indian/Alaska Native and black students accounted for roughly 2% and 11%, respectively, of freshmen intending to major in S&E in both 1995 and 2010 (appendix table 2-13).

Foreign Undergraduate Enrollment.[12] In the 2009–10 academic year, the number of foreign students enrolled in bachelor's degree programs in U.S. academic institutions rose 5% from the previous year, to approximately 206,000 (IIE 2010). This continues a 3-year trend in which foreign student enrollment has risen after a 4-year decline (between the 2001–02 and 2005–06 academic years). The number of foreign undergraduates enrolled in 2009–10 was 5% above the peak in 2001–02. Among new foreign undergraduates, enrollment decreased 3% in 2009–10, the first decline in 5 years following a 20% increase in 2008–09. The countries that accounted for the largest numbers of foreign undergraduates enrolled in a U.S. institution in 2009–10 were China (almost 40,000), South Korea (36,200), India (15,200), Canada (13,600), and Japan (13,100). The number of Chinese undergraduates increased 52% over the previous year, and the numbers of South Korean and Indian undergraduates decreased 2% and 3% respectively. Among all foreign students (undergraduate and graduate) in 2009–10, the number of those studying agricultural sciences increased 15%; engineering, 7%; and mathematics and computer sciences, 8%. The physical and life sciences decreased 1% compared with the preceding year (IIE 2010).

More recent data from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services show a 7% increase in undergraduate enrollment of S&E foreign students in the U.S. from November 2009 to November 2010, mostly in engineering, social sciences, and mathematics. China, South Korea, Canada, Japan, and India were among the top countries sending foreign undergraduates in fall 2010, and were also among the top countries sending foreign S&E undergraduates (figure 2-11; appendix table 2-14). Although Nepal and Saudi Arabia sent comparatively fewer total undergraduates, they were also among the top countries sending foreign undergraduates in S&E fields—more than Canada and Japan. About one-third of all foreign students in undergraduate programs at U.S. institutions are enrolled in S&E fields.[13] Undergraduate foreign enrollment in S&E has increased each year between 2006 and 2010, while growth in non-S&E fields has slowed down (table 2-7).

Engineering Enrollment. For the most part, students do not declare majors until their sophomore year, therefore, undergraduate enrollment data are not available by field. However, engineering is an exception. Engineering programs generally require students to declare a major in the first year of college, so engineering enrollment data can serve as an early indicator of both future undergraduate engineering degrees and student interest in engineering careers. The Engineering Workforce Commission administers an annual fall survey that tracks enrollment in undergraduate and graduate engineering programs (EWC 2010).

Undergraduate engineering enrollment was flat in the late 1990s, increased from 2000 to 2003, declined slightly through 2006, and rose for the next 3 years to a peak of 468,100 in 2009 (figure 2-12; appendix table 2-15). The number of undergraduate engineering students increased 15% between 2006 and 2009, with particularly steep increases in 2007 (7%) and 2009 (6%). Full-time freshman enrollment followed a similar pattern, reaching 114,700 in 2009—the highest since 1982. These trends correspond with declines in the college-age population through the mid-1990s, particularly the drop in white 20–24-year-olds, who account for the majority of engineering enrollment (NSF/NCSES 2011). Similar trends in undergraduate engineering enrollment are reported by the American Society for Engineering Education (Gibbons 2009).

Undergraduate Degree Awards

The number of undergraduate degrees awarded by U.S. academic institutions has been increasing over the past two decades in both S&E and non-S&E fields. These trends are expected to continue at least through 2019 (NCES 2011c).

S&E Associate's Degrees

Community colleges often are an important and relatively inexpensive gateway for students entering higher education. Associate's degrees, largely offered by 2-year programs at community colleges, are the terminal degree for some, but others continue their education at 4-year colleges or universities and subsequently earn higher degrees.[14] Many who transfer to baccalaureate-granting institutions do not earn associate's degrees before transferring. Associate's degrees in S&E and engineering technology accounted for about 11% of all associate's degrees in 2009 (appendix table 2-16).

S&E associate's degrees from all types of academic institutions rose from 38,400 in 2000 to 62,800 in 2003, declined to 47,500 through 2007, and increased to 54,300 in 2009. The overall trend mirrors the pattern of computer sciences, which also peaked in 2003, declined through 2007, and increased through 2009. Associate's degrees earned in engineering technology (not included in S&E degree totals because of their applied focus) declined from about 40,500 in 2000 to 29,700 in 2006, but have since increased to 33,200 (appendix table 2-16).

In 2009, women earned 62% of all associate's degrees, up from 60% in 2000, and 40% of S&E associate's degrees, down from 48% in 2000. Most of the decline is attributable to a decrease in women's share of computer science degrees, from 42% in 2000 to 25% in 2009. In 2009, women's share of S&E associate's degrees rose slightly due largely to an increase in psychology degrees (appendix table 2-16).

Students from underrepresented groups (blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives) earn a higher proportion of associate's degrees than of bachelor's or more advanced degrees.[15] (See "S&E Bachelor's Degrees by Race/Ethnicity" and "Doctoral Degrees by Race/Ethnicity.") In 2009, underrepresented minorities earned 28% of S&E associate's degrees—more than one-third of all associate's degrees in social and behavioral sciences, and more than one-quarter of all associate's degrees in biological sciences, computer sciences, and mathematics (appendix table 2-17). In the last 10 years, the number of S&E associate's degrees earned by these students increased by 52%, compared with the overall national increase of 41%.

S&E Bachelor's Degrees

The baccalaureate is the most prevalent S&E degree, accounting for about 70% of all S&E degrees awarded. S&E bachelor's degrees have consistently accounted for roughly one-third of all bachelor's degrees for at least the past 10 years. The number of S&E bachelor's degrees awarded rose steadily from 399,000 in 2000 to 505,000 in 2009 (appendix table 2-18).

In the last decade, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded increased fairly consistently, though to different extents, in all S&E fields. The exception was computer sciences, where the number increased sharply from 1998 to 2004, dropped as sharply through 2008, and remained flat in 2009 (figure 2-13, appendix table 2-18).

S&E Bachelor's Degrees by Sex. Since 1982, women have outnumbered men in undergraduate education. They have earned relatively constant fractions of all bachelor's and S&E bachelor's degrees for several years (see sidebar "Gender Gap in Undergraduate Enrollment"). Since the late 1990s, women have earned about 57% of all bachelor's degrees and about half of all S&E bachelor's degrees. Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, women also earn about half of all S&E bachelor's degrees (NSF/NCSES 2011).

Within S&E, men and women tend to study different fields. In 2009, men earned a majority of bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering, computer sciences, and physics (82%, 82%, and 81%, respectively). Women earned half or more of the bachelor's degrees in psychology (77%), agricultural sciences (51%), biological sciences (60%), chemistry (50%), and social sciences (54%) (appendix table 2-18).

In the last 10 years studied, changes have not followed a consistent pattern. The share of bachelor's degrees awarded to women declined in computer sciences (by 10%), mathematics (by 5%), and engineering (by 2%) (figure 2-14). Fields where the proportion of bachelor's degrees awarded to women grew during this period include astronomy (from 34% to 44%), atmospheric sciences (from 23% to 33%), agricultural sciences (from 46% to 51%), chemistry (from 47% to 50%), and anthropology (from 67% to 70%) (appendix table 2-18).

The number of bachelor's degrees awarded to men and women in S&E and in all fields increased in similar proportions between 2000 and 2009.[16]

S&E Bachelor's Degrees by Race/Ethnicity. The racial/ethnic composition of S&E bachelor's degree recipients has changed over time, reflecting population changes and increasing college attendance by members of minority groups.[17] Between 2000 and 2009, the proportion of S&E degrees awarded to white students among U.S. citizens and permanent residents declined from 71% to 66%, although the number of S&E bachelor's degrees earned by white students increased during that time (figure 2-15, appendix table 2-19). The proportion awarded to Hispanic students increased from 7% to 9% and to Asians/Pacific Islanders from 9% to 10%. The shares to black and American Indian/Alaska Native students have remained flat since 2000. The number of S&E bachelor's degrees earned by students of unknown race/ethnicity also increased.

Despite considerable progress over the past couple of decades for underrepresented minority groups earning bachelor's degrees in any field, the gap in educational attainment between young minorities and whites continues to be wide. The percentage of the population ages 25–29 with bachelor's or higher degrees was 19% for blacks, 12% for Hispanics, and 37% for whites in 2009. These figures changed from 13%, 10%, and 26%, respectively, in 1989 (NCES 2010a). Differences in completion of bachelor's degrees in S&E by race/ethnicity reflect differences in high school completion rates, college enrollment rates, and college persistence and attainment rates. In general, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indian/Alaska Natives are less likely than whites and Asians/Pacific Islanders to graduate from high school, to enroll in college, and to graduate from college. (For information on immediate post-high school college enrollment rates, see chapter 1, "Transition to Higher Education.") Among those who do enroll in or graduate from college, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives are about as likely as whites to choose S&E fields; and Asians/Pacific Islanders are more likely than members of other racial/ethnic groups to choose these fields. For Asians/Pacific Islanders, almost half of all bachelor's degrees received are in S&E, compared with about one-third of all bachelor's degrees earned by each of the other racial/ethnic groups. However, the proportion of Asians/Pacific Islanders earning degrees in the social sciences is similar to other racial/ethnic groups (appendix table 2-19).

The contrast in field distribution among whites, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives on the one hand and Asians/Pacific Islanders on the other is apparent within S&E fields as well. White, black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native S&E baccalaureate recipients share a similar distribution across broad S&E fields. In 2009, between 9% and 11% of all baccalaureate recipients in each of these racial/ethnic groups earned their degrees in the natural sciences,[18] 3%–4% in engineering, and 15%–18% in the social and behavioral sciences. Asian/Pacific Islander baccalaureate recipients earned 20% of their bachelor's degrees in natural sciences and 8% in engineering (appendix table 2-19).

For all racial/ethnic groups, the total number of bachelor's degrees, the number of S&E bachelor's degrees, and the number of bachelor's degrees in most S&E fields (with the exception of computer sciences) has generally increased since 2000 (appendix table 2-19). Across all racial/ethnic groups, the number of degrees in computer sciences increased considerably through 2003–04 and then sharply declined through 2008. Except for Asians/Pacific Islanders, whose numbers in computer sciences continued to fall in 2009, the decline in other racial/ethnic groups stabilized. In the case of Hispanics, the number of computer science degrees awarded increased.

Bachelor's Degrees by Citizenship. Since 2000, students on temporary visas in the United States have consistently earned a small share (3%–4%) of S&E degrees at the bachelor's level. These students earned a larger share of bachelor's degrees awarded in economics and in electrical and industrial engineering in 2009 (about 9%). The number of S&E bachelor's degrees awarded to students on temporary visas increased from about 15,200 in 2000 to about 18,800 in 2004, and then declined to 17,100 in 2009 (appendix table 2-19).

Persistence and Retention in Undergraduate Education (S&E Versus Non-S&E Fields)

Many students who start out in undergraduate programs drop out before completing a degree. This section examines differences between S&E and non-S&E students in persistence and completion of higher education.

S&E students persist and complete undergraduate programs at a higher rate than non-S&E students. Six years after enrollment in a 4-year college or university in the 2003–04 academic year, 63% of S&E students had completed a bachelor's degree by spring 2009, compared to 55% of non-S&E students. About 12% of both S&E and non-S&E students were still enrolled and about 24% had not completed any degree and were no longer enrolled. Within S&E fields, persistence and completion is higher in agricultural, biological, and social sciences than in mathematics, and physical and computer sciences (table 2-8).

The number of undergraduates who switch out of S&E fields is lower than entry into S&E fields as a whole. Because many students begin college in the large pool of non-S&E and undeclared majors, even the relatively small proportion who later switch to S&E constitutes a large number. Among postsecondary students who began at 4-year colleges or universities in 2003–04, 25% reported an S&E major, 47% reported a non-S&E major, and 28% were missing data on major or had not declared a major. In cases where data on major were available, 35% reported an S&E major. Six years later, among those who had attained a bachelor's degree, 34% were S&E majors. Although about 28% of agricultural/biological sciences majors, 31% of mathematics/physical/computer sciences majors, 22% of engineering majors, and 32% of social sciences majors eventually switched to non-S&E majors before earning a bachelor's degree, 35% of those with initially missing or undeclared majors and 15% of those with initial non-S&E majors switched into S&E fields before earning their bachelor's degrees (table 2-9).

Within S&E fields, undergraduate attrition out of agricultural/biological sciences, mathematics/physical/computer sciences, and engineering is greater than transfers into those fields, but transfers into social/behavioral sciences are greater than attrition. One in ten engineering majors switched into a mathematics/physical/computer sciences major.

Among postsecondary students who began at 4-year colleges or universities in 2003–04 for whom data are available and who reported a major, 7% reported an agricultural/biological sciences major or a mathematics/physical/computer sciences major respectively, 10% reported an engineering major, 11% reported a social/behavioral sciences major, and 65% reported a non-S&E major. Six years later, among those who had attained a bachelor's degree, 7% were agricultural/biological sciences majors, 6% were mathematics/physical/computer sciences majors, 6% were engineering majors, 16% were social/behavioral sciences majors, and 64% were non-S&E majors.


[8] Household income is a measure of ability to pay and age-specific unemployment rates is a measure of opportunity costs.
[9] Based on previous projections, NCES estimated that the mean absolute percentage error for enrollment in degree-granting institutions projected 9 years out was 10.1 (NCES 2011c).
[10] These data are from sample surveys and are subject to sampling error. Information on estimated standard errors can be found in appendix E of the annual report The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010, published by The Cooperative Institutional Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute, University of California–Los Angeles (, accessed 15 February 2011). Data reported here are significant at the .05 level.
[11] The number of S&E degrees awarded to a particular freshmen cohort is lower than the number of students reporting such intentions and reflects losses of students from S&E, gains of students from non-S&E fields after their freshman year, and general attrition from bachelor's degree programs.
[12] The data in this section come from the Institute for International Education (IIE) and the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). IIE conducts an annual survey of institutions during the fall of a specific year and the spring and summer of the following year. An international student in this survey is anyone studying at an institution of higher education in the United States on a temporary visa that allows academic coursework, primarily F and J visas. SEVIS collects administrative data, including all foreign national students enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States. SEVIS collects data for the fall and the spring of each year. Data on exchange visitors are not included in this chapter.
[13] These data include foreign students pursuing both bachelor's and associate's degrees. Comparable data for U.S. citizen/permanent resident students do not exist. However, the proportion of S&E associate's and bachelor's degree awards for U.S. citizens and permanent residents is considerably lower.
[14] About 14% of S&E bachelor's degree recipients who earned their degree between 1 July 1 2002 and 30 June 2005 had previously earned an associate's degree (National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System [SESTAT] 2006, special tabulation).
[15] Data for racial/ethnic groups are for U.S. citizens and permanent residents only.
[16] For longer trends in degrees, see NSB 2010. For more detail on enrollment and degrees by sex and by race/ethnicity, see Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2011 (NSF/NCSES 2011).
[17] Data for racial/ethnic groups are for U.S. citizens and permanent residents only.
[18] The natural sciences include agricultural; biological; computer; earth, atmospheric, and ocean; and physical sciences and mathematics.