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Chapter 2. Higher Education in Science and Engineering


Chapter Overview

Higher education performs a number of societal functions, including developing human capital; building the knowledge base through research and knowledge development; and disseminating, using, and maintaining knowledge (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] 2008). S&E higher education provides the advanced skills needed for a competitive workforce and, particularly in the case of graduate-level S&E education, the research capability necessary for innovation. This chapter focuses on the development of human capital through higher education.

Indicators presented in this chapter are discussed in the context of national and global developments, including changing demographics, increasing foreign student mobility, and global competition in higher education. The composition of the U.S. college-age population is becoming more diverse as the Asian and Hispanic shares of the population increase. During the latest economic downturn, public institutions of higher education faced unique pressures due to a combination of increasing enrollments and tight state budgets. Private institutions likewise experienced financial challenges stemming from declining incomes and the effects of stock market fluctuations on endowment growth. Technology has enabled very rapid growth in the delivery of online courses; the consequences of these changes remain to be seen.

Although the United States has historically been a world leader in providing broad access to higher education and in attracting foreign students, many other countries are providing expanded educational access to their own populations and attracting growing numbers of foreign students. Nevertheless, increases in foreign students contributed to most of the growth in overall S&E graduate enrollment in the United States in recent years. Following a decline in the number of foreign students coming to the United States after 11 September 2001, foreign student enrollment in S&E has recovered.

Chapter Organization

This chapter begins with an overview of the characteristics of U.S. higher education institutions providing instruction in S&E, followed by a discussion of characteristics of undergraduate and graduate education.[1] Trends are discussed by field and demographic group, with attention to the flow of foreign students into the United States by country. Various international higher education indicators are then presented, including comparative S&E degree production in several world regions and indicators that measure the growing dependence of industrialized countries on foreign S&E students.

The data in this chapter come from a variety of federal and nonfederal sources, primarily surveys conducted by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education. Data also come from international organizations, such as the OECD and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute of Statistics, as well as individual countries. Most of the data in the chapter are from censuses of the population—for example, all students receiving degrees from U.S. academic institutions—and are not subject to sampling variability.

[1] Data on postdoctoral scientists and engineers are included in chapters 3 and 5. Data on stay rates of doctorate recipients are included in chapter 3.