Washington Update

New Higher Education Trends Published in Science & Engineering Indicators

By: Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm
Thursday, March 31, 2022

In February, National Science Foundation’s National Science Board released its Higher Education in Science and Engineering report as part of the overall Science & Engineering Indicators series. Analysis examines trends from 2000 to 2019, as well as changes from 2019 to 2020, on prescient topics such as master’s and doctoral degrees awarded and demographics of awardees.

Master’s degrees awarded have increased since 2000, with the largest growth seen in computer sciences and engineering. Biological and agricultural sciences master’s degrees awarded have risen from 10,187 in 2000 to 24,808 in 2019. Similarly, doctoral degrees have largely seen annual increases, with the rise in science and engineering doctoral degrees growing faster than the overall rise in total doctorate awards. The largest percentage increase since 2000 across fields occurred in engineering, computer sciences, and medical sciences. Biological sciences doctoral degrees awarded grew from 4,992 in 2000 to 7,863 in 2019. It is projected that this increase in master’s and doctoral degrees will continue through at least 2028.

When considering all higher education degrees, on average women earn half or more at every level. However, differences by sex persist in some fields. Engineering, earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences, mathematics and statistics, computer sciences, and physical sciences remain male dominated at all degree levels. Fields with historically high participation of women are psychology, biological sciences, and social sciences. In 2019, women in biological sciences made up 60.3 percent of master’s degree awardees and 51.9 percent of doctoral degree awardees. 

The racial and ethnic composition of higher education degree recipients is slowly shifting over time, but varies considerably by field. Hispanics or Latinos, Blacks and African Americans, and American Indians or Alaska Natives were underrepresented in graduate degree attainment in 2019 compared to their representation in the U.S. population. In contrast, Asians and Whites were overrepresented. 

  Percentage of U.S. Population Ages 20-34 Percentage of Master's Degrees Awarded in 2019 in All Science and Engineering Fields  Percentage of Master's Degrees Awarded in 2019 in Biological Sciences  Percentage of Doctoral Degrees Awarded in 2019 in All Science and Engineering Fields
Percentage of Doctoral Degrees Awarded in 2019 in Biological Sciences 
Hispanics and Latinos 21.3 12.2 10.9 8.4 8.9
Blacks or African Americans 14.2 11.3 9.0 8.1 4.1
American Indians or Alaska Natives 0.8 0.4 0.4 0.4 0.4
Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander 0.2 0.2 0.1 0.2 0.2
Asians 6.6 11.1 14.4 10.6 12.1
Whites  54.4 61.2 56.5 69.1 65.4

COVID-19 had large impact on international student mobility. As expected, international student enrollment declined in 2020 compared to 2019 by almost 23 percent, with the decrease in graduate student enrollment being about 20 percent. International students in science and engineering master’s programs declined from about 127,000 in 2019 to 91,000 in 2020, and doctoral science and engineering enrollment declined from 103,000 in 2019 to 97,000 in 2020.

Overall, science and engineering fields continue to grow across degree levels. However, many Americans from historically excluded backgrounds remain underrepresented. U.S. academic institutions are still attractive to foreign students, especially in science and engineering fields, but the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is evident in decreased international enrollment. Continued scientific excellence while promoting supportive, inclusive environments will be key to growing the highly trained scientific workforce.