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US: A closer look at doctoral degrees and undergraduate persistence

Two reports providing insight into various aspects of degree completion issues in the United States were released in late November and early December. At the graduate level, The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) 2009 Survey of Earned Doctorates, which tracks and analyses data related to research doctoral degrees earned, found that 49 562 such degrees were earned from US academic institutions in 2009. This represents the largest annual total ever recorded, up 1.6% from 2008 and mostly attributable to the 1.9% increase in science and engineering doctorates awarded in 2009. Doctorates in the science and engineering fields accounted for 67.5% of all research doctoral degrees earned in the US in 2009, and the growth in the total number of these degrees awarded is wholly attributable to the 4.8% increase in degree completion by women in these fields.

Over the past decade, the number of doctoral degrees awarded by US institutions in science and engineering (S&E) fields has increased by 29.1%. However, the 2009 growth rate of 1.9% is “dramatically slower than in the period 2004-2007, when the numbers of S&E doctorates were increasing at more than 6.5%”. Meanwhile, the number of foreign students (described by the NSF as “temporary visa holders”) who received research doctorates from US institutions declined 3.5% between 2008 and 2009. Downturns were evident in both S&E (3.3%) and non-S&E (4.6%) fields. This reverses several years of robust growth trends in the numbers of temporary visa holders earning such degrees; from 2004 to 2006, annual growth rates of more than 10% were in evidence.

Meanwhile, at the undergraduate level, a continuation of a longitudinal study from the National Centre for Education Statistics of the US Department of Education is providing a more current, but relatively unchanged, picture of US college completion rates. Persistence and Attainment of 2003-04 Beginning Postsecondary Students: After 6 Years indicates that, by 2009, 31% of students who entered higher education in 2003/04 had attained a bachelor’s degree from some institution (if not the one in which the student had originally enrolled). Data from a previous cohort entering higher education in 1995/96 showed that just under 29% of students had attained a bachelor’s degree after six but had better chances than the 2003/04 group of attaining associate’s degrees, certificates, and persisting in some kind of enrolment at four-year institutions during the 6-year period.

National Science Foundation US Department of Education