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Graduate school enrollments in science and engineering in the United States have been relatively stable since 1993, at 22-26% of the total enrollment. More women and under represented minorities participate than has been the case in the past, but a relative decline in the enrollment of US whites and males in the late 1990s has been reversed only since 2001.58 Indeed, for the past 15 years, growth in the number of doctorates awarded is attributable primarily to the increased number of international students. Attrition is generally lower in the doctoral programs than among undergraduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but doctoral programs in the sciences nonetheless report dropout rates from 24 to 67%, depending on the discipline.59 If the primary objective is to maintain excellence, a major challenge is to determine how to continue to attract the best international students and still encourage the best domestic students to enter the programs—and to remain in them.

Student interest in research careers is dampened by several factors. First, there are important prerequisites for science and engineering study. Students who choose not to or are unable to finish algebra 1 before 9th-grade—which is needed for them to proceed in high school to geometry, algebra 2, trigonometry, and precalculus—effectively shut themselves out of careers in the sciences. In contrast, the decision to pursue a career in law or business typically can wait until the junior or senior year of college, when students begin to commit to postgraduate entrance examinations.

Science and engineering education has a unique hierarchical nature that requires academic preparation for advanced study to begin in middle school. Only recently have US schools begun to require algebra in the 8th-grade curriculum. The good news is that more schools are now offering integrated science curricula and more districts are working to coordinate curricula for grades 7–12.60

For those students who do wish to pursue science and engineering, there are further challenges. Introductory science courses can function as “gatekeepers” that intentionally foster competition and encourage the best stu-


National Science Foundation. Graduate Enrollment Increases in Science and Engineering Fields, Especially in Engineering and Computer Sciences. NSF 03-315. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2003.


Council of Graduate Schools. “Ph.D. Completion and Attrition: Policy, Numbers, Leadership, and Next Steps.” 2004. The Council of Graduate Schools’ PhD Completion Project’s goal is to improve completion and attrition rates of doctoral candidates. This 3-year project had provided funding to 21 major universities to create intervention strategies and pilot projects and to evaluate the impact of these projects on doctoral completion rates and attrition patterns.


National Research Council. Learning and Understanding: Improving Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in US High Schools. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002.

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