Skip all navigation and go to page content.

Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering


Characteristics of the U.S. Higher Education System

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, but other types of institutions are also important in the education of S&E graduates.

  • In 2011, doctorate-granting institutions with very high research activity awarded 74% of doctoral degrees, 42% of master’s degrees, and 38% of bachelor’s degrees in S&E fields.
  • Baccalaureate colleges are the source of relatively few S&E bachelor’s degrees but are a prominent source of future S&E doctorate recipients.
  • Master’s colleges and universities awarded close to 30% of all S&E bachelor’s degrees and 25% of all S&E master’s degrees in 2011.
  • Nearly one in five U.S. citizens or permanent residents who received a doctoral degree from 2007 to 2011 had earned some college credit from a community or 2-year college.

Higher education spending and revenue patterns and trends underwent substantial changes over the last two decades.

  • Net student tuition more than doubled at public universities, whereas state and local appropriations fell by more than 25%.
  • 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 full-time equivalent (FTE) student nearly doubled between 1987 and 2010, and research expenditures grew by 79% in the same period. In private very high research universities, revenues from federal appropriations, grants, and contracts per FTE student grew by 61%, and research expenditures increased by 89%.
  • Since 2007, expanding enrollment at community colleges, coupled with reductions in state and local appropriations, contributed to an 8% reduction in instructional spending per FTE student.

Over the past decade in the United States, tuition and fees for colleges and universities have grown faster than median household income.

  • Undergraduate debt varies by type of institution and state. However, among recent graduates with S&E bachelor’s degrees, the level of undergraduate debt does not vary by major.
  • Levels of debt of 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 or other health sciences.
  • At the time of doctoral degree conferral, nearly half of 2011 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 12.5 million to 18.3 million in the 15 years ending in 2011. The largest increases coincided with the two economic downturns, 2000–02 and 2008–10.

  • 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 and Asians.

The number of S&E bachelor’s degrees has risen steadily over the past 15 years, reaching a new peak of over half a million in 2011. The proportion of S&E bachelor’s degrees has remained stable at about 32% during this period.

  • All S&E fields experienced increases in the numbers of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2011, 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 half of all S&E bachelor’s degrees since the late 1990s. Men earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer sciences, and physics. More women than men earn degrees in the biological, agricultural, and social sciences and in psychology.
  • Between 2000 and 2011, the proportion of S&E bachelor’s degrees awarded to women remained flat. During this period, it declined in computer sciences, mathematics, physics, engineering, and economics.

The racial and ethnic composition of those earning S&E bachelor’s degrees is changing, reflecting both population changes and increases in college attendance by 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 S&E fields have increased since 2000.

The number of foreign undergraduate students in the United States increased substantially (18%) between fall 2011 and fall 2012.

  • Most of the increase in undergraduate foreign enrollment was in non-S&E fields. Within S&E fields, the largest increases were in engineering and the social sciences.
  • China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia were the top countries sending undergraduates to the United States.

Graduate Education, Enrollment, and Degrees

Graduate enrollment in S&E increased from about 493,000 to more than 608,000 between 2000 and 2011.

  • Graduate enrollment grew in most S&E fields, with particularly strong growth in engineering and in the biological and social sciences.
  • Women continued to enroll at disproportionately low rates in engineering (23%), computer sciences (25%), physical sciences (33%), and economics (38%).
  • In 2011, underrepresented minority students (blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives) made up 12% of students enrolled in graduate S&E programs, with Asians and Pacific Islanders representing 6% and whites 47%. Temporary residents accounted for most of the remainder of graduate S&E enrollment.

In 2011, the federal government was the primary source of financial support for 19% of full-time S&E graduate students. In recent years, this proportion has fluctuated between 18% and 20%.

  • In 2009, the federal government funded 61% of S&E graduate students on traineeships, 51% of those with research assistantships, and 24% 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, medical and other health sciences, psychology, and social sciences.

Between fall 2011 and fall 2012, the number of foreign graduate students increased by 3%, with all the increase occurring in non-S&E fields.

  • Nearly 6 out of 10 foreign graduate students in the United States in fall 2012 were enrolled in S&E fields, compared with about 3 in 10 foreign undergraduates.
  • The number of foreign graduate students enrolled in S&E fields between 2011 and 2012 was stable, with declines in the numbers of foreign students in computer sciences, biological sciences, and engineering offset by increases in mathematics, social sciences, and psychology.
  • In fall 2012, about 60% of the foreign S&E graduate students in the United States came from China and India.

Master’s degrees awarded in S&E fields increased from about 100,000 in 2000 to about 151,000 in 2011. In this period, the growth of S&E degrees at the master’s level (57%) was higher than growth at the bachelor’s (39%) and doctoral levels (38%).

  • Increases occurred in most major S&E fields, with the largest in engineering, psychology, and political sciences and public administration.
  • 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 2011. During this period, the proportion earned by blacks and Hispanics increased, that of Asians and Pacific Islanders and American Indians and Alaska Natives remained flat, and that of whites decreased.

In 2011, U.S. academic institutions awarded about 38,000 S&E doctorates.

  • The number of S&E doctorates conferred annually by U.S. universities increased steeply from 2002 to 2007, then flattened and declined slightly in 2010, but increased again in 2011.
  • Among fields that award large numbers of doctorates, the biggest increases in degrees awarded between 2000 and 2011 were in engineering (58%) and in the biological sciences (52%).

Students on temporary visas continue to earn high proportions of U.S. S&E doctorates, and these students dominated degrees in some fields. They also earned large shares of the master’s degrees in S&E fields.

  • In 2011, foreign students earned 56% of all engineering doctorates, 51% of all computer sciences doctorates, 44% of physics doctorates, and 60% of the economics doctorates. Their overall share of S&E degrees was about one-third.
  • After steep growth from 2002 to 2008, the number of temporary residents earning S&E doctoral degrees declined through 2010, but it increased again in 2011.
  • In 2011, temporary visa students earned 26% of S&E master’s degrees, receiving 45% of those in computer sciences, 44% of those in economics, 42% of those in engineering, and 35% of those in physics.

International S&E Higher Education

In 2010, more than 5.5 million first university degrees were awarded in S&E worldwide. Students in China earned about 24%, those in the European Union (EU) earned about 17%, and those in the United States earned about 10% of these degrees.

  • The number of S&E first university degrees awarded in China, Taiwan, Turkey, Germany, and Poland approximately doubled between 2000 and 2010. During this period, S&E first university degrees awarded in the United States and several other countries (e.g., Australia, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Korea) increased between 23% and 56%, whereas those awarded in France, Japan, and Spain declined by 14%, 9%, and 4%, respectively.
  • S&E degrees continue to account for about one-third of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States. In Japan, 6 out of 10 first degrees were awarded in S&E fields in 2010; in China, half.
  • In the United States, about 5% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2010 were in engineering. This compares with about 18% throughout Asia and 31% in China specifically.

In 2010, the United States awarded the largest number of S&E doctoral degrees of any individual country, followed by China, Russia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

  • 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.
  • In 2007, China overtook the United States as the world leader in the number of doctoral degrees awarded in the natural sciences and engineering; in 2010, this number in China was stable.
  • Women earned 41% of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in the United States in 2010, about the same as women’s percentages in Australia, Canada, the EU, and Mexico and a higher proportion than in Malaysia, South Korea, and Taiwan.

International student mobility expanded over the past two decades, as countries are increasingly competing for foreign students.

  • The United States remains the destination for the largest number of internationally mobile students worldwide (undergraduate and graduate), although its share decreased from 25% in 2000 to 19% in 2010. Among OECD countries, the U.S. share in natural sciences and engineering fields has declined during this period, but an increase in international students coming to the United States to study social and behavioral sciences has kept the overall S&E share stable.
  • Some countries expanded recruitment of foreign students as their own populations of college-age students decreased.
  • In addition to the United States, other countries that are among the top destinations for foreign students include the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and France.