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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering

Graduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees in the United States

Graduate education in S&E contributes to global competitiveness, producing the highly skilled workers of the future and the research needed for a knowledge-based economy. In 2009, the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service formed a joint commission to investigate how graduate education can meet the challenges of the 21st century (see sidebar "The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States").

This section includes indicators related to graduate enrollment, recent trends in the number of earned degrees in S&E fields, and participation by women, minorities, and foreign students in graduate education in U.S. academic institutions.

Graduate Enrollment in S&E

There were 611,600 S&E graduate students enrolled in the United States in fall 2009; 48% of them were women (appendix table 2-20). The proportions of women graduate students enrolled in S&E differed considerably by field, with the lowest proportions in engineering (22%), computer sciences (26%), and physical sciences (33%). Women constituted the majority of graduate students in psychology (76%), medical/other life sciences (76%), biological sciences (57%), and social sciences (54%), and were close to half of graduate students in agricultural sciences (49%) and earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences (46%). Among the social sciences, economics has an unusually low proportion of women (37%).

In 2009, underrepresented minority students (blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives) accounted for 12% of students enrolled in graduate S&E programs (appendix table 2-21). As a group, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives made up 6%–7% of graduate enrollment in many S&E fields (engineering; mathematics; physical sciences; earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; and computer sciences), 9%–10% of graduate enrollment in agricultural and biological sciences, 15% in medical/other life sciences, 17% in social sciences, and 19% in psychology. Whites accounted for about 48% of S&E graduate enrollment in 2009 and Asians/Pacific Islanders for 6%.

Enrollment in engineering has been rising steadily in the last 20 years;[19] the number of full-time engineering students reached a new peak of 114,600 in 2009 (figure 2-12; appendix table 2-22). According to more recent data from the Engineering Workforce Commission and the American Society for Engineering Education (Gibbons 2009), graduate engineering enrollment continued to rise in 2009.

In 2009, approximately 130,000 full-time students were enrolled for the first time in S&E graduate programs—23% in engineering, 49% in the natural sciences, and 27% in the social and behavioral sciences (appendix table 2-23).

Foreign Student Enrollment

In 2009, 168,900 foreign students were enrolled in S&E graduate programs (appendix table 2-21). The concentration of foreign enrollment was highest in computer sciences, engineering, physical sciences, mathematics, and economics.[20] Those were also the fields with the highest share of enrollment of first-time, full-time S&E foreign graduate students (appendix table 2-23).

According to data collected by the Institute of International Education (IIE 2010), the overall number of foreign graduate students in all fields increased 4% from academic year 2008–09 to 2009–10. The number of new foreign graduate students declined slightly. India, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Canada were the top countries/economies of origin for foreign graduate students.

More recent data from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services show a continuing increase in foreign graduate students from November 2009 to November 2010, with all of the increase occurring in S&E fields (table 2-7). About 60% of all foreign students in graduate programs at U.S. institutions were enrolled in S&E fields. In fall 2010, the number of foreign graduate students enrolled in S&E fields increased 2% over the previous year (appendix table 2-24). In absolute numbers, most of the growth was in computer sciences and engineering, but the increase in computer sciences was proportionately higher than in engineering. India and China accounted for nearly two-thirds of the foreign S&E graduates in the United States in November 2010. South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey also sent large numbers of S&E graduate students, although South Korea and Taiwan sent far larger numbers of graduate students in non-S&E fields (primarily business and humanities).

S&E Master's Degrees

In some fields, such as engineering and geology, a master's degree is often the terminal degree for students. In other fields, master's degrees are a step toward doctoral degrees. Professional master's degree programs, which stress interdisciplinary training, are a relatively new direction in graduate education (for details on professional science master's degrees, see NSB 2010, page 2–22).

Master's degrees awarded in S&E fields increased from 96,200 in 2000 to about 120,900 in 2005, remained fairly consistent through 2007, but increased 12% in the years 2008–09 (appendix table 2-25). Since 2000, increases occurred in all major science fields. Master's degrees awarded in engineering and computer sciences declined between 2004 and 2007, but have since increased (figure 2-16).

Master's Degrees by Sex

The number of S&E master's degrees earned by both men and women rose between 2000 and 2009, but the number for women grew slightly faster (figure 2-17). In 2000, women earned 43% of all S&E master's degrees; by 2009, they earned 45% (appendix table 2-25). Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, women earned about half of all S&E bachelor's degrees (NSF/NCSES 2011).

Women's share of S&E master's degrees varies by field. As with bachelor's degrees, in 2009, women earned a majority of master's degrees in psychology, biological sciences, social sciences, and agricultural sciences and a smaller share of master's degrees in engineering. Women's share of master's degrees in engineering in 2009, however, was slightly higher than their share in 2000 (appendix table 2-25). The number of master's degrees awarded to women in most major S&E fields increased fairly consistently throughout the last decade. In earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences, and in the physical sciences, the numbers increased through 2006 but have since declined. In computer sciences, the numbers increased through 2004, declined sharply through 2007, but increased 14% in the years 2008–09.

Master's Degrees by Race/Ethnicity

The number of S&E master's degrees awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents increased for all racial/ethnic groups between 2000 and 2009 (figure 2-18; appendix table 2-26).[21]

The proportion of master's degrees in S&E fields earned by U.S. citizens and permanent residents from underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities increased slightly over the 10 years studied. Blacks accounted for 10% of master's degree recipients in 2009, up from 8% in 2000, Hispanics from 5% in 2000 to 7% in 2009, and American Indians/Alaska Natives from 0.5% to 0.6%. The proportion of Asian/Pacific Islander recipients remained flat in this period.

The percentage of S&E master's degrees earned by white students fell from 52% in 2000 to 45% in 2009, as the percentage of degrees earned by blacks, Hispanics, and temporary residents increased. The proportion of S&E master's degrees with other/unknown race increased from 5% to 9% between 2000 and 2009 (appendix table 2-26).

Master's Degrees by Citizenship

Foreign students make up a much higher proportion of S&E master's degree recipients than of bachelor's or associate's degree recipients. In 2009, foreign students earned 27% of S&E master's degrees. Their degrees were heavily concentrated in computer sciences, economics, and engineering, where they earned 46%, 45%, and 43%, respectively, of all master's degrees awarded in 2009 (appendix table 2-26). Within engineering, students on temporary visas earned more than half of the master's degrees in electrical and chemical engineering.

The number of S&E master's degrees awarded to students on temporary visas reached its highest point in the decade in 2009 (36,000), after a sharp decline between 2004 and 2007. Most of the drop during this time period was accounted for by decreases of temporary residents in the computer sciences and engineering fields, both of which rebounded by about one-third in the following 2 years.

S&E Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral education in the United States prepares a new generation of faculty and researchers in academia, as well as a highly skilled workforce for other sectors of the economy. It also generates new knowledge important for the society as a whole and for U.S. competitiveness in a global knowledge-based economy. Over the years, numerous attempts have been made to measure the quality of doctoral education in the United States (Berelson 1960; Cartter 1966; NRC 1982; NRC 1995; Roose and Andersen 1970). For information on the latest assessment, see sidebar "The National Research Council Ratings: Measuring Scholarly Quality of Doctoral Programs."

The number of S&E doctorates conferred annually by U.S. universities increased rapidly between 2003 and 2007, but growth slowed in 2008, and the number declined slightly to 41,100 in 2009 (appendix table 2-27).[22] The growth through 2008 occurred among both U.S. citizens/permanent residents and temporary residents, although, in 2009, the number of temporary residents earning an S&E doctoral degree declined by about 4% (appendix table 2-28). The largest increases during the 2000–09 period were in engineering, biological/agricultural sciences, and medical/other life sciences (figure 2-19).

Time to Doctoral Degree Completion

The time required to earn a doctoral degree and the success rates of those entering doctoral programs are concerns for those pursuing a degree, the universities awarding the degree, and the agencies and organizations funding graduate study. Longer times to degree mean lost earnings and a higher risk of attrition. Time to degree (as measured by time from graduate school entry to doctorate receipt) increased through the mid-1990s but has since decreased in all S&E fields from 7.7 to 7.0 years (appendix table 2-29). The physical sciences, mathematics, biological sciences, and engineering had the shortest time to degree, while the social sciences and medical/other life sciences had the longest.

Between 1995 and 2009, time to degree for doctorate recipients decreased in each of the Carnegie types of academic institutions awarding doctoral degrees (see sidebar "Carnegie Classification of Academic Institutions"). Time to degree was shortest at research universities with very high research activity (6.9 years in 2009, down from 7.7 years in 1995). Doctorate recipients at medical schools also finished quickly (6.8 years in 2009). Time to degree was longer at universities less-strongly oriented toward research (table 2-10).

Doctoral Degrees by Sex

Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, the proportion of S&E doctoral degrees earned by women grew consistently between 2000 and 2007 (from 45% to 55%), but decreased slightly in 2008 and 2009 (appendix table 2-27). During this decade, women made gains in most major fields, but considerable differences continued in certain fields. In 2009, women earned half or more of doctorates in non-S&E fields, in social/behavioral sciences, and in medical/other life sciences. However, they earned considerably fewer than half of the doctorates awarded in physical sciences (33%), mathematics/computer sciences (26%), and engineering (25%) (appendix table 2-27). Although the percentages of degrees earned by women in physical sciences and engineering are low, they are higher than those earned in 2000 (26% and 19% respectively).

The number of S&E doctoral degrees earned by women grew faster than that of men. The number of U.S. citizen and permanent resident women earning doctorates in S&E increased from 8,700 in 2000 to 15,000 in 2009, while the number earned by men increased from 10,700 to 12,800 in the same time interval (appendix table 2-27). The increase in the number of S&E doctorates earned by women occurred in most major S&E fields. For example, the number of engineering doctorates earned by U.S. citizen and permanent resident women increased from approximately 500 in 2000 to 900 in 2009, biological sciences doctorates from 1,700 to 2,800, physical sciences doctorates from 600 to 800, and medical and other life sciences doctorates from 1,300 to 5,300. A decrease in the number of doctorates earned by men in the early years of the decade occurred in non-S&E fields and in most S&E fields (except for medical/other life sciences). Since 2005, the number of doctorates earned by U.S. citizen and permanent resident men has increased in all major S&E fields except for agricultural sciences and psychology.

Doctoral Degrees by Race/Ethnicity

The number and proportion of doctoral degrees in S&E fields earned by underrepresented minorities increased between 2000 and 2009. In 2009, blacks earned 1,451, Hispanics earned 1,335, and American Indians/Alaska Natives earned 154—accounting for 7% of all S&E doctoral degrees earned that year, up from 6% in 2000 (appendix table 2-28).[23] Their share of the S&E doctorates earned by U.S. citizens and permanent residents rose from 9% to 11% in the same period. Gains by all groups contributed to this rise, although the number of S&E degrees earned by blacks and Hispanics rose considerably more than the number earned by American Indians/Alaska Natives (figure 2-20). Asian/Pacific Islander U.S. citizens and permanent residents earned 6% of all S&E doctorates in 2009, similar to 2000.

The number of S&E doctorates earned by white U.S. citizens and permanent residents increased between 2000 and 2009. The number of S&E doctoral degrees earned by white U.S. citizen and permanent resident men declined through 2003, then gradually increased (figure 2-21). The number of degrees earned by white U.S. citizen and permanent resident women increased through 2007, but declined somewhat in 2008 and 2009. As the number of S&E doctorates awarded to minorities and temporary residents increased, the proportion of S&E doctoral degrees earned by white U.S. citizens and permanent residents decreased from 54% in 2000 to 49% in 2009 (appendix table 2-28).

Foreign S&E Doctorate Recipients

Temporary residents earned approximately 13,400 S&E doctorates in 2009, up from 8,500 in 2000. Foreign students on temporary visas earned a larger proportion of doctoral degrees than master's, bachelor's, or associate's degrees (appendix tables 2-17, 2-19, 2-26, and 2-28). The temporary residents' share of S&E doctorates rose from 30% in 2000 to 33% in 2009. In some fields, foreign students earned sizeable shares of doctoral degrees. In 2009, foreign students on temporary visas earned half or more of doctoral degrees awarded in engineering, physics, computer sciences, and economics. They earned considerably lower proportions of doctoral degrees in other S&E fields, for example, 29% in biological sciences, 8% in medical/other life sciences, and 7% in psychology (appendix table 2-28).

Countries/Economies of Origin

The top 10 foreign countries/economies of origin of foreign S&E doctorate recipients together accounted for 67% of all foreign recipients of U.S. S&E doctoral degrees from 1989 to 2009 (table 2-11). Six out of those top 10 locations are in Asia. The Asian countries/economies sending the most doctoral degree students to the United States have been, in descending order, China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Asia. From 1989 to 2009, students from four Asian countries/economies (China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan) earned more than half of U.S. S&E doctoral degrees awarded to foreign students (122,200 of 223,200)—almost 4 times more than students from Europe (30,000). Most of these degrees were awarded in engineering, biological sciences, and physical sciences (table 2-12).

Students from China earned the largest number of U.S. S&E doctorates awarded to foreign students during the 1989–2009 period (57,700), followed by those from India (24,800), South Korea (21,800), and Taiwan (17,800) (table 2-11). The number of S&E doctorates earned by students from China dropped in the late 1990s, increased through 2007, but declined nearly 13% in the following 2 years (figure 2-22). Over the 20-year period, however, the number of S&E doctorates earned by Chinese nationals increased nearly 6 times.[24] The number of S&E doctorates earned by students from India also declined in the late 1990s, but has increased almost every year since 2002; over the last two decades it more than tripled. The number of S&E doctoral degrees earned by South Korean students also dipped in the late 1990s and then rose, but the number did not rise as dramatically as those for China and India. In 1989, students from Taiwan earned more U.S. S&E doctoral degrees than students from China, India, or South Korea. However, as universities in Taiwan increased their capacity for advanced S&E education in the 1990s, the number of students from Taiwan earning S&E doctorates from U.S. universities declined.

Europe. European students earned far fewer U.S. S&E doctorates than Asian students between 1989 and 2009, and they tended to focus less on engineering than did their Asian counterparts (tables 2-12 and 2-13). Western European countries whose students earned the largest number of U.S. S&E doctorates from 1989 to 2009 were Germany, the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, and France, in that order. Individual country trends and patterns vary (figure 2-23).

The number of Central and Eastern European students earning S&E doctorates at U.S. universities increased from 74 in 1989 to more than 800 in 2009, approaching the number of those from Western Europe (figure 2-24). A higher proportion (87%) of Central and Eastern European doctorate recipients than of Western European or Scandinavian doctorate recipients (73% and 76% respectively) earned their doctorates in S&E fields, particularly in mathematics and physical sciences (table 2-13).

North America. Despite the proximity of Canada and Mexico to the United States, the shares of U.S. S&E doctoral degrees awarded to residents of these countries were small compared with those awarded to students from Asia and Europe. The number of U.S. S&E degrees earned by students from Canada doubled between 1989 and 2009, from about 240 to nearly 500. The number of doctoral degree recipients from Mexico increased through 2003, but has generally remained stable since then. In 2009, 193 S&E doctorate recipients from Mexico earned their degree in the United States (figure 2-25). A higher proportion of Mexican students (84%) than Canadian students (66%) earned U.S. doctorates in S&E fields (table 2-13). In particular, higher percentages of Mexican students than of Canadian students received U.S. doctoral degrees in engineering and agricultural sciences.


[19] The reason for the differences in the number of engineering students in appendix table 2-21 and appendix table 2-22 is because the Engineering Workforce Commission includes in its engineering counts computer science students enrolled in engineering schools. Data on graduate enrollment from the Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering counts such students as computer science students.
[20] See Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2011 (NSF/NCSES 2011) for more detail on enrollment of foreign students by sex.
[21] Data for racial/ethnic groups are for U.S. citizens and permanent residents only.
[22] At the doctorate level, the data on degrees awarded in the United States includes health fields because they are research-oriented and not professional fields (as health fields are at the bachelor's and master's level). However, health fields at the doctorate level are not included in international comparisons because international sources cannot separate the MD degrees from the health fields, and the MDs are professional and not research degrees.
[23] For the corresponding proportions in the 1990s see NSB 2008.
[24] The number of S&E doctoral degrees earned by students in Chinese universities continued to increase throughout this period, from 1,894 in 1993 to 28,439 in 2008.