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No Growth in Science and Engineering Graduate Enrollments

STEM education seems to have hit a wall, at least at the graduate level. Graduate enrollments in science and engineering among American citizens and permanent residents actually declined for the first time in the last decade, according to new data released by the National Science Foundation. Meanwhile, enrollments for temporary visa holders increased in the same period.

Despite ongoing governmental and private sector efforts to promote careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), graduate enrollments stagnated in 2012 (the latest year for which there are statistics), gaining just 0.1 percent overall, according to a new NSF report, "Foreign Graduate Enrollment in Science and Engineering Continues to Rise While Overall Graduate Enrollment Remains Flat." Total enrollments hit 561,418 in 2012, negligibly up from 560,941 in 2011.

But ignoring enrollments by students on temporary visas, graduate enrollments declined by 1.7 percent — the first and only decline seen in the timeframe covered in the NSF report (2003-2012).

In that same timeframe, the federal government, individual states and private-sector organizations have pumped billions of dollars into efforts to promote STEM to encourage American students to pursue careers in science and engineering, to develop STEM literacy among the public and to improve STEM teaching practices, among many other efforts. For example, the federal Race to the Top program explicitly named STEM education as a competitive priority for the $4.85 billion in funds that were offered to states; the earlier America COMPETES Act also provided billions of dollars in funding geared toward STEM education and training efforts; and organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation have funneled millions of dollars into STEM-related programs and organizations.

Nevertheless, total American science and engineering graduate enrollments, both full- and part-time, dropped from 392,160 in 2011 to 385,343 in 2012.

Meanwhile, enrollments by temporary visa holders grew 4.3 percent in the same period, from 168,781 in 2011 to 176,075 in 2012.

It isn't clear from the data what caused the decline between 2011 and 2012, which followed nine years of growth in graduate enrollments among American citizens and permanent residents.

The hit was felt across almost all ethic groups, with only people identified as "Hispanic or Latino" or "more than one race" seeing increases, up 1.9 percent and 24.2 percent, respectively.

Female graduate enrollments dropped 0.1 percent, from 242,732 in 2011 to 242,548 in 2012 — the first decline for women in the timeframe of the report, albeit a negligible one.

Overall male enrollments increased 0.2 percent, from 318,209 in 2011 to 318,870 in 2012.

Also worth noting from the report:

  • Graduate enrollments by those identified as "American Indian or Alaska Native" dropped 8.5 percent in 2012, the fourth straight year of decline for that group.
  • Graduate enrollments by those identified as "Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander" fell 8.7 percent, the third straight year of decline.
  • Among individual disciplines covered in the report, architecture took the biggest hit, losing 24 percent in 2012 (the third straight year of decline);
  • Aerospace engineering (-10.9 percent) and social sciences (-3.1 percent) also took significant hits.
  • Meanwhile, mechanical engineering (+5.5 percent), metallurgical or materials engineering (+5.1 percent), chemical engineering (+4.5 percent) and mathematical sciences (+3.3 percent) experienced the strongest growth of all disciplines covered in the study.
  • Overall, disciplines categorized as "science" in the report fared worse than those characterized as "engineering." Sciences declined 0.3 percent in 2012, for a total of 413,033 graduate enrollments; engineering increased 1.3 percent, for 148,385 graduate enrollments.

The report also examined postdoctoral appointments and found that the total number of science and engineering postdocs employed at American academic institutions and affiliate organizations dropped 0.6 percent in 2012, the second year of decline since 2010. That drop was equal between American citizens/permanent residents and temporary visa holders. Male postdocs dropped 0.5 percent, while females dropped 0.9 percent in 2012 (the first decline for females since 2007).

Among S&E postdocs in 2012, 53.9 percent (23,627) were holders of temporary visas.

The complete report and source data files are available at

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 29-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEDavidNagel (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

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