Forestall declining enrollment in hard sciences

Data from the National Science Foundation indicates overall enrollment in U.S. graduate science and engineering programs fell 5 percent between 1993 and 2000. The observed decrease in U.S. citizen and permanent resident enrollment in U.S. natural science and engineering graduate programs during this time period was even more dramatic. Between 1993 and 2000, U.S. citizen and permanent resident enrollment in these programs fell by more than 14 percent. Enrollment in engineering, physical and mathematical science graduate programs – a subset of science and engineering fields – fell even more precipitously during this time period.

A focus on U.S. citizens enrollment is not meant as a criticism of international student enrollment in domestic graduate science and engineering programs; the approximately 100,000 international students enrolled in these programs are vital to the strength of this country’s graduate study system. However, the fall in U.S. enrollment is worrisome given that the nucleus of this country’s future stock of scientists and engineers will be U.S. citizens. William Zumeta and Joyce S. Raveling, University of Washington graduate school enrollment trend scholars, said, “this (trend of decreased U.S. citizen enrollment in science and engineering graduate programs) will surely work to (the United States’) detriment in an age when scientific and technological advances are basic to key values such as economic growth, environmental protection, public health and national security.”

Not only is overall U.S. citizen enrollment in science and engineering graduate programs falling, but those U.S. students most suited for science and engineering graduate studies are increasingly opting to study other subjects. Between 1993 and 2000, college graduates that scored exceptionally well on the GRE quantitative scale – the segment of the GRE most important to graduate science and engineering program administers – began to enroll in non-science and engineering programs at an increasing rate. Health professional and business schools increasingly attracted students most apt for graduate study in the natural sciences.

Zumeta and Raveling point to uncompetitive salaries, decreasing job availability, less graduate student financial support and long training times in many scientific fields as reasons for declining U.S. enrollment in science and engineering programs.

Fortunately, these negative factors have not seemed to affect U.S. citizen and overall enrollment in science and engineering graduate programs at the University over the last few years. U.S. citizen enrollment in EPM science graduate programs has increased 29 percent since 1998. Further, increasing international student enrollment in these same programs has resulted in an overall increase in enrollment of 31 percent over the last four years. More impressive, female and minority enrollment in these programs, often notoriously low, has also increased dramatically since 1998.

The University’s ability to attract bright and motivated students to science and engineering graduate programs will be tested over the next several years. New higher education policies instituted since Sept. 11 may dampen international student enrollment in many science and engineering graduate programs. The Minnesota budget crisis and declining federal dollars earmarked for non-biological science and research and development will probably make money even scarcer in many science and engineering departments at the University.

Considering how much science and technology contributes to our lives, it is imperative the University continues to draw gifted students – both U.S. citizens and international students – to science and engineering graduate programs. This task will become more difficult as the obstacles to pursuing graduate studies in the natural sciences and engineering continue to grow. However, given the track record of the administration, faculty and students involved with science and engineering programs at the University, it is likely the University will continue to offer strong and fully-enrolled graduate science and engineering programs.