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When Everyone 

Goes to College: 

a Lesson From 

South Korea


An article on the implications of universal higher education

From the Chronicle of Higher Education

By Karin Fischer

When Daehoon Jho hears American officials, from President Obama on down, say that the education system in the United States ought to be more like South Korea’s, it’s a bit of a head scratcher.

Mr. Obama and American leaders often hold up South Korea’s near-universal college-attainment rate as something for the United States to emulate. But Koreans like Mr. Jho, a professor of education at Sungshin Women’s University, in Seoul, aren’t so sure. They say that increased enrollment has devalued the college degree, and, as recent graduates struggle to find work, Mr. Jho and others worry about the social costs of so many under- or unemployed young people.

Rather than equalizing opportunity, sending nearly everyone to college has led to a system that is both stratified and bloated, many Koreans say, with too many institutions of uneven quality. In fact, the government is actually trying to shutter universities and bring college-going down.

"As a Korean parent, I have a different perspective," says Mr. Jho, a father of three who is now a Fulbright scholar at the University of Oregon. "I really prefer education in the U.S." So, too, does his 10-year-old son, who has already asked if he can stay on at his American elementary school after Mr. Jho wraps up his visiting appointment this summer.

To Americans, though, South Korea’s rapid expansion in college attendance offers hope that such a transformation is possible.

After World War II, when the country gained independence from Japan, barely 7,800 Koreans went to college. More than 85 percent of residents had no formal schooling at all.

But by 1957, South Korea had achieved universal elementary-school enrollment, defined by the World Bank as the attendance of 90 percent or more of the school-age population. It reached universal high-school enrollment in 1999. A year later, it hit the same mark for higher education.

The growth in college-going was not part of some centralized government plan, says Jung Cheol Shin, a professor at Seoul National University who studies educational trends in East Asia. But faced with large numbers of high-school graduates, the Korean government lifted university-admissions quotas, first in the 1980s and then again in the ’90s. It also approved the opening of private colleges, which today enroll about 80 percent of Korean students.

For Korean families, greater access to higher education dovetailed with deep cultural beliefs in the value of learning, says James F. Larson, vice president for academic affairs at the State University of New York’s campus in the Korean city of Incheon. "Korea," says Mr. Larson, who has worked in the country for much of the past three decades, is "more Confucian than China."

Many observers, though, worry that quantity has come at the expense of quality.

Seongho Lee, a professor of education at Chung-Ang University, criticizes what he calls "college education inflation." Not all students are suited for college, he says, and across institutions, their experience can be inconsistent. "It’s not higher education anymore," he says. "It’s just an extension of high school." And subpar institutions leave graduates ill prepared for the job market.

2013 study by McKinsey Global Institute, the economic-research arm of the international consulting firm, found that lifetime earnings for graduates of Korean private colleges were less than for workers with just a high-school diploma. In recent years, the unemployment rate for new graduates has topped 30 percent.

“The oversupply in college education is a very serious social problem.”

"The oversupply in college education is a very serious social problem," says Mr. Lee, even though Korea, with one of the world’s lowest fertility rates, has a declining college-age population. The country, he worries, is at risk of creating an "army of the unemployed."

Because a degree itself isn’t valuable currency, competition has heated up for admission to the handful of elite universities, most of which in Korea are public. Mr. Jho, the Fulbright scholar, says the scramble for limited places can begin in elementary school. Parents who have the money to give their children an edge spend as much as a sixth of their income on hagwon, or private cram schools. Those who cannot afford extra tutoring are at a disadvantage. "It’s a stratified system," says Mr. Jho. "It’s a system that is privileged for the middle and upper class."

The Korean government has sought to rein in the hagwon, mandating that they close by 10 p.m. It has also undertaken a tough review of its universities, both public and private, with the idea of closing poor-performing institutions and ending academic programs with weak job prospects. And political leaders have suggested what might seem unthinkable in the United States — that maybe some of its citizens would be better off if they didn’t go to college.

Nor is South Korea alone in reconsidering whether a large proportion of its population ought to earn degrees. In Singapore the government has been encouraging people to earn credentials that meet work-force demands, rather than pursue full degrees, says Lily Kong, provost of Singapore Management University.

"The message," says Ms. Kong, "is that it’s really about learning for life, not rushing into getting a degree."

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter@karinfischer, and her email address is