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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering


S&E higher education in the United States is attracting growing numbers of students. The number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded in all fields and in S&E fields continues to rise, having reached new peaks in 2011. Most of the growth in undergraduate S&E education occurred in science fields, in particular in the social and behavioral sciences and in the biological sciences. In engineering, bachelor’s degrees have increased consistently for the last 10 years but have not yet reached the record high levels attained in the 1980s. After a steep decline between 2004 and 2007, computer sciences degree awards began to rebound. The number of master’s and doctoral degrees awarded grew in all major S&E fields. In the last decade, growth in doctoral degrees awarded occurred mostly in the natural sciences and engineering fields.

Over the last two decades, higher education spending and revenue patterns and trends have undergone substantial changes, which intensified during the recent economic downturn. Public institutions faced competing demands in a tight budget environment, caught between declining state appropriations and the need to maintain educational quality and access. Community colleges, which serve diverse groups of students and play a key role in increasing access to higher education, were particularly affected, as the number of students seeking an affordable college education increased.

Foreign student enrollment in S&E has recovered since the decline post-9/11. In recent years, foreign student enrollment has increased considerably at the undergraduate and graduate levels, both in S&E and non-S&E fields.

Globalization of higher education continues to expand. Universities in several other countries have expanded their enrollment of foreign S&E students. The United States continues to attract the largest number and fraction of internationally mobile students worldwide, although its share of foreign students in all fields has decreased in recent years. The share of international students in the natural sciences and engineering fields declined as well, 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.

Higher education is undergoing rapid transformation. The growth of distance and online education through MOOCs and similar innovations expands access to knowledge and has the potential to decrease the cost of some degrees, at the same time as pressures have been increasing to reduce rising costs. However, it is too early to assess whether MOOCs will be widely adopted by different types of institutions, whether increased access will be accompanied by increased learning, and what consequences online and distance innovations will bring to the higher education landscape.