The Corner


The Country That Has Oversold Higher Education Even More Than the U.S.

College students attend a class at a cram school in Busan, South Korea, in 2013. At the school students study for an exam they hope will guarantee them a job for life with the Samsung Group. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Owing to federal subsidies to attend college, the United States has badly oversold college. That is to say, a great number of students enroll who aren’t interested in learning, but merely want the credential (often lots of campus fun, too). And that leads to severe disappointment after graduation, since there are not enough “good” jobs for all of them. Many students wind up doing work they could have done while still in high school.

But there’s one country that has managed to out-do the U.S. — South Korea. In today’s Martin Center article, Preston Cooper writes about the situation there.

“Korea’s glut of educated workers,” Cooper writes, “means that those with higher degrees earn just 24 percent more than high school graduates, compared to a 69 percent earnings boost in the United States. And in a stunning reversal of a near-universal norm, young Koreans with a university degree have a higher unemployment rate than their less-educated peers.”

While the government subsidies higher education, the main driver of the college mania in  South Korea seems to be cultural. Older Koreans are determined to make up for the decades of Japanese control prior to World War II when higher education was barely even allowed. That is what’s behind the college mania.

Cooper continues, “Preparation for university starts at early ages. Most parents send their children to hagwon, private tutoring centers that prepare students for high-stakes exams that determine their educational and economic futures. Between hagwon and traditional schooling, education can consume close to every waking hour of a Korean child’s time, as well as a hefty portion of the household budget.”

And just as in the U.S., many South Korean college graduates don’t have the skills that are in demand in the labor market. Vocational training as opposed to the pursuit of a four-year college degree is beginning to catch on.

Cooper concludes, “Korea is a nation where the standard belief has become that college is the only path to economic prosperity, which has shortchanged an economy desperately in need of practically skilled workers and bolstered the prestige of a small group of elite universities. Sound familiar?”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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