Higher education enrollments have taken a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact is exacerbating unsettling and long-standing trends affecting efforts to diversify the engineering profession.
By Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., SWE Associate Director of Research
Progress to increase gender representation in engineering programs, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, has been slow (Figures 1 and 2). Prior to the pandemic, women were approximately 24% of students enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs, and 28% at the graduate level. But even before the pandemic shuttered college campuses and laboratories, enrollment in engineering programs had basically flattened after a fairly significant increase in enrollments between 2010 and 2015.
Figure 1: Total Fall Enrollment in Undergraduate Engineering Programs and Percent Female, 2010 to 2019
Figure 2: Total Fall Enrollment in Graduate Engineering Programs and Percent Female, 2014 to 2019
Many of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States, as well as globally, require math and science skills. With STEM jobs in engineering and computer science fields expected to increase significantly, producing a diverse and growing STEM workforce is critical to remaining competitive in the future. Despite this projected growth, the trend in engineering enrollments reflects a broader trend in decreasing college enrollments. Figure 3 shows the decline in college enrollments at degree-granting institutions of higher education in the U.S., including two-year and four-year colleges and universities. Early estimates for spring 2021 are showing even lower enrollment counts, with undergraduate enrollment falling 4.9% from the prior year — and community colleges, which represent a more diverse pool of students, accounting for 65% of this loss.
Another trend of note is the gender imbalance among students, as more women than men are pursuing college degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. There is increasing attention to the need to encourage more men to enroll and stay in college through graduation, even as certain programs such as engineering and computer science continue to struggle to increase women’s participation. Again, the pandemic is impacting this imbalance as well, as men’s college enrollment for spring 2021 saw a decline of more than 5% versus women’s 2% decline from the prior year.
Despite what we see happening at the undergraduate level, graduate enrollment is on the rise, and women’s participation in engineering graduate programs was experiencing a slow upward trend prior to the pandemic (Figure 4).
While undergraduate enrollment has been decreasing, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering was slowly increasing before the pandemic hit. This may indicate that efforts to retain students in engineering programs are working, but the enrollment trend highlights one of the issues impacting our efforts to increase STEM graduates — a shrinking enrollment means a smaller pool of students to recruit into STEM programs. It is too early to know the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded, but these are trends we must keep our eyes on.
Figure 3: Total Fall Undergraduate Enrollment and Percent Female, 2010 to 2020
Figure 4: Total Fall Graduate Enrollment and Percent Female, 2010 to 2020
 Sedmak, T. (June 10, 2021). Spring 2021 College Enrollment Declines 603,000 to 16.9 Million Students. National Student Clearinghouse.