South Korea outpaces the U.S. in engineering degrees

The Washington Post

July 17, 2012

By Michael Alison Chandler

DAEJON, South Korea—Any eighth grader who wonders if anyone actually uses algebra should ask Hyungtae Lee, an electrical engineer who writes algorithms to build computers with the power of human sight.

It’s a skill he learned first here in South Korea, where undergraduate students are five times more likely to major in engineering than their counterparts in the United States...

...South Korea far outpaces the United States in the percentage of young adults with college degrees—63 versus 41 percent—and its K-12 students routinely outperform U.S. children on international assessments. While South Korean leaders have begun to fret that their young people—raised among skyscrapers and affluence—are pursuing higher-paying jobs outside technical fields, the workforce remains highly tech-savvy: One in four South Korean college students majors in engineering, compared to one in 20 in the U.S.

The reason for the glut of engineers can be summed up easily: South Korea’s education system was designed to produce them.

As Lee explained, “My path has been set since elementary school.”...

...The South Korean government also closely regulates higher education, and historically set enrollment quotas for different programs and types of schools that reflect the economy’s needs. Such regulation would be unwelcome in the United States, said Joseph Helble, dean of the engineering school at Dartmouth. American universities pride themselves on their freedom and on nurturing independent thinking in their students.

“But if you need to rapidly develop technology and train many people, a tightly controlled system works,” he said.

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