U.S. Students Flock to Graduate Science Programs

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

And now for some good news.

The data are strangely absent from most discussions about the inadequacies of science education in the United States. But a new report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) finds that the number of Americans pursuing advanced degrees in science and engineering has risen sharply over the past decade and stands at an all-time high.

U.S. politicians are constantly complaining that the nation's system of higher education isn't producing the high-tech workforce needed to keep the country's economy competitive. And one big reason, they say, is a lack of student interest in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. But the numbers, at least for graduate education, tell a different story.

An NSF analysis released today shows that graduate enrollment in science and engineering programs at U.S. institutions increased 35% from 2000 to 2010, to a record 556,532. What experts regard as an even more sensitive barometer of student interest has shot up even faster, with first-time, full-time graduate enrollment in STEM programs registering a 50% increase over the decade.

A closer analysis of the numbers, which come from NSF's annual Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, offers still more encouraging demographic news. Although foreign students make up 30% of the total enrollment in U.S. graduate science and engineering programs, and while they constitute a majority in several fields, their slice of the overall pie has not grown in the past decade. Rather, the pools of U.S. citizens and those with temporary visas each grew by 35%.

Individuals and organizations trying to attract more women and minorities into careers in science and engineering also have cause for celebration. The number of female graduate students in STEM fields grew by 40% over the decade, outpacing the 30% growth rate for men. Likewise, the growth of Hispanic and African-American STEM graduate students rose by 65% and 50%, respectively, outpacing the 35% growth for the overall population.

The author of the report, NSF's Kelly Kang, points out that the increasing interest in STEM degrees among U.S. students is not a new phenomenon. She says her analysis simply provides additional evidence of a decade-long trend.

That is certainly true. On the other hand, it can take a long time for politicians to abandon arguments based on outdated numbers and to embrace new data that make the opposite case. The latest information from NSF has the potential to change minds and, in turn, influence the debate about preparing the next generation of U.S. scientists and engineers.

Posted in Education