The most popular fields of study of Korean udents in the U.S. arbusinesand magement

Deepti Mani, Research Associate, WES, and Stefan Trines, Research Editor, WENR

This education profile describes recent trends in South Korean education and student mobility and provides an overview of the structure of the education system of South Korea. It replaces an earlier version by Hanna Park and Nick Clark.


By some measures, South Koreathe Republic of Koreais the most educated country in the world. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD),70 percentof 24- to 35-year-olds in the nation of51.5 millionpeople have completed some form of tertiary educationthe highest percentage worldwide and more than 20 percentage points above comparable attainment rates in the United States. Korea also has a top-quality school system when measured by student performance in standardized tests: The country consistently ranks among the best-performing countries in the OECDs Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

At the tertiary level, Koreas universities have less of a resounding global reputation; nevertheless the country was ranked22nd among 50 countriesin the 2018 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems by the Universitas 21 network of research universities. The Economist Intelligence Unit, meanwhile, recently ranked Korea12th out of 35 countriesin its Worldwide Educating for the Future Index, tied with the United States.

Koreas high educational attainment levels are but one sign of the countrys singular transformation and meteoric economic rise over the past 70 years. Along with the other Asian tiger economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, Korea represents one of the most remarkable economic success stories of the 20th century, envied by many developing countries up to today.

In the 1950s, after the devastating Korean War, Korea was still an impoverished agricultural society and one of the poorest countries in the world. Today, it is the worlds12th largest economyand the fourth largest in Asia. SeoulKoreas capital and main metropolis with nearly 10 million inhabitantsis said to have the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita after Tokyo, New York, andLos Angeles. Contemporary Korea is an advanced high-tech nation with one of the highest Internet penetration rateson the globe.

A laser focus on education was an important pillar of this extraordinary economic rise. In the 1980s, Koreas government began to strategically invest in human capital development, research, and technological innovation. Korean households simultaneously devoted much of their resources to education, thereby fueling a drastic expansion in education participation. Between the early 1980s and the mid-2000s, the countrys tertiary gross enrollment ratio increasedfivefold, while the number of students in higher education jumped from 539,000 in 1980 to 3.3 million in 2015, perUNESCO data.

In fact, its hard to find another country in the world that places greater emphasis on education than South Korea. Educational attainment in contemporary Korea is of paramount social importance and strongly correlated with social mobility, income levels, and positions of power. Graduates of Koreas top three universities dominate the country and occupy the majority of high-rankinggovernment postsand management positions in Koreas powerful business conglomerates (chaebols).

Competition over admission into top universities is consequently extremely fierce, underscoring Koreas reputation for having one of the most merciless education systems in the worldusually described as stressful, authoritarian, brutally competitive, andmeritocratic. Consider that the countrys students devote more time to studying than children in any otherOECD country, while parents spend large parts of their income on private tutoring in what has been dubbed an educational arms race. The country is said to have the largest private tutoring industryin the world.

By some accounts, many Korean children spend16 hoursor more a day at school and in after-class prep schools, calledhagwons. A 2014 survey by Koreas National Youth Policy Institute found that nearly53 percentof high school students didnt get enough sleep because they studied at night; 90 percent of respondents said that they had less than two hours of spare time on weekdays.

Observers, thus, have described Korean society as having an almost cult-like devotion tolearning, with students being test-aholics steered by tutor-aholic parents. Studying long hours athagwonshas become so ubiquitous and excessive that Korean authorities in the 2000s deemed it necessary to impose curfews, usually at 10 p.m., and patrol prep schools in areas like Seouls Gangnam district, where many of these schools areconcentratedonly to drive nighttime cram classes underground behindclosed doors.

This extreme competitiveness has created a number of social problems: Suicide, for instance, is the leading cause of death amongteens in Korea, which has the highestsuicide rateoverall in the entire OECD. Student surveys have shown that poor grades and fears of failure are major reasons forsuicidal thoughts, while Korea simultaneously has a growingteenage drinkingproblem.

Social pressures to succeed in the labor market, meanwhile, have given rise to a phenomenon called employment cosmeticsone of thedriving factorsbehind Koreas boom incosmetic surgery, since job applicants are commonly required to submit an ID photo, and many employers factor physical attractiveness into theirhiring decisions. In another sign of competition at any cost, private household debt in Korea issoaring, driven in part by surging expenditures on education and private tutoring.

Social pressures are further amplified by Koreas relatively high youth unemployment rate, which stood at11.2 percentin 2016a record number not seen since the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Despite all the time, finances, and emotional resources invested in their education, Korean youth find itincreasingly difficultto secure desired quality,socially prestigiousjobs. The countrys obsession with higher education continues to sustain a college education inflation, flooding the Korean labor market with a supply of university graduates that hold degrees of deflated value whose earnings prospects are decreasing.

While a university degree used to be a solid foundation for social success in Korea, observers have noted that many current graduates lack the skills needed for employability in a modern information society, and that the education system is too narrowly focused on university education, while underemphasizingvocational training. Koreas Confucian-influenced system has also beencriticizedfor relying too much on rote memorization and university entrance prep at the expense of creativity and independent thought.

Notably, and perhaps counterintuitively, the growing unemployment rates among recent university graduates and the increasingly ferocious competition in Koreas education system exist despite Korea being one of the fastest-aging societies in the world. The countrys fertility rates are inrapid decline, and its college-age population is shrinking.

By 2060, more than40 percentof the Korean population is expected to be over 65, and the countrys population is projected to shrink by 13 percent to 42.3 millionin 2050. This cataclysmic demographic shift is already causing the closure of schools and universities, as well as reductions in universityadmissions quotas. If this aging trend cant be reversed, it could lead to severe labor shortages and jeopardizeKoreas prosperity, if not ruin the country. Korean youths will likely find it much easier to find employment, but they will shoulder the heavy burden of supporting the countrys rapidly growing elderly population.

At present, there is already adamantpolitical pushbackin Korea against the current state of affairs, notably the rampant favoritism and nepotism in the hiring practices of Koreas all-powerfulchaebolsand corruption in the Korean government, laid bare in the criminal embezzlement scandal that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Following the scandal, leftist President Moon Jae-in won a landslide election victory in May 2017 running on an anti-corruption platform that included promises to reform the education system and reduce youth unemployment.

Moons bold educationreform proposalsseek to eventually integrate all state universities into one large university system. The goal is to reduce competition between institutions and equalize the chances of graduates in Koreas cutthroat labor market, which is heavily skewed toward graduates of Seouls top universities.

The government also plans to reduce university admissions fees, and decongest school curricula and make them more flexible by introducing more elective subjects. Elite private high schools (autonomous schools) and international schools that teach foreign curricula are slated to be turned into tuition-free schools that teach standard national curricula in order to rein in elite schools.

To ensure the longevity of the reforms irrespective of changes in government, they are intended to be implemented by a new independent state education committee, rather than the politically controlled Ministry of Education (MOE). That said, as of this writing no concrete steps have yet been taken to form this new committee.

But the Moon administration is certainly pushing ahead with reforms. Current policy initiatives focus on decreasing competition in university admissions, thereby making access to education and employment more socially equitable, and reducing the influence of prestigious universities, notably the countrys top three institutions: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, collectively referred to as SKY universities. Since admissions tests at top universities are so demanding that they can only be passed with the help of extensive private tutoring, the government in 2017ordered several universitiesto ease their admission testsa move intended to curb private tutoring and improve the chances of students from low-income households, who are unable to afford expensive prep schools.

Other recent reforms include the adoption of blind hiring procedures in thepublic sectora practice the government wants to extend to the private sector as well. Under the new guidelines, applicants no longer have to reveal the name of their university or GPAs on their application, nor provide personal information about age, weight, or family background, or submit a head shot.

The goal of the reforms is to make hiring decisions based mostly on specific job-related skills. Some private employers have started to hire candidates based on audition-type presentations or skills examinations, rather than academic and personal background, but there is neverthelessstrong resistanceto blind hiring from companies and privileged graduates of top universities. President Moons education reform agenda is no doubt ambitious and groundbreaking, but it remains to be seen if the government can prevail in realizing all its objectives, given the vested interests of elitist old-boy networks in chaebols and top universities.

Despite a recent slump in overseas enrollments by Korean students, Korea is one of the top sending countries of international students worldwide after China, India and Germany. The number of Koreans enrolled in degree programs abroad peaked at 128,994 in 2011, after doubling from 64,943 in 1997, according to data provided by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS). Since then, the number of degree-seeking Korean international students has decreased by 15.8 percent to an estimated 108,608 students in 2017.

Trends in Korean outbound mobility are driven by a number of influences, including economic factors, increased participation rates and demand-supply gaps in higher education, demographic trends, and the rising demand for English language education.

In the decades leading up to the 2011 peak, the number of Korean youths completing upper-secondary school surged, drastically increasing the pool of potential international students, while simultaneously exacerbating supply shortages that made access to quality university education increasingly difficult and competitive. Robust economic growth and rising prosperity simultaneously allowed more people to afford an overseas education.

The rapid expansion of the higher education system also led to the creation of growing numbers of private institutions of lesser quality with only a minority of the very best students admitted to the top institutions. This trend incentivized greater numbers of students to pursue education abroad, especially since Korean society came to value English-language education. These developments created a fertile environment for Korean outbound student mobility.

Koreas demographic decline has since shrunk thecollege-age populationand reduced the number of Korean students, affecting not only domestic enrollments, but also the total number of students heading overseas: The countrys outbound student mobility ratio1has dropped from 3.8 percent in 2011 to3.3 percentin 2016. That said, the current downturn is not only due to demographic change.

One of the reasons for this contraction is that it has become increasingly difficult for Koreans to afford an expensive overseas education. Koreas economic expansion has lost steam in recent years, making double-digit growth rates a thing of the pastGDP growth dropped from 6.5 percent in 2010 to 3 percent in 2017 (World Bank).

Koreas economic slowdown has been accompanied by rising household debt, which hit arecord highin 2017, fueled by soaringhousing costs, high interest rates, and growing expenditures on education, including private tutoring. The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) noted in a 2013 study that more than 50 percent of middle class households were cashflow-constrained and that Korea now has the lowest private savings ratein the OECD.

In addition, unemployment among university graduates is not only high, it exceeds unemployment rates among graduates of vocational high schools, leaving many families doubting if an expensive university degree is still worth it,according to MGI.

With respect to overseas education, such considerations are likely influenced by the fact that some Korean employers are reluctant to hiregraduatesof foreign schools. In fact, a foreign degree can bea liabilityin Koreas hierarchical work environment. Graduates of overseas schools lack the social connections domestic students are able to developwhich are so critical to finding employmentin Korea. As theNew YorkTimesput it, the edge that a foreign degree gives a South Korean graduate has worn off in the wake of ever-increasing numbers of Koreans earning foreign degrees. Many Korean families now worry that overseas study is no longer the guarantee of economic security that it once was.

Moreover, since Korean universities increasingly offer English-taught programs, there is less incentive to study abroad to improve English skills. Dwindling student numbers, meanwhile, have narrowed the demand and supply gap in higher education to the extent that the Korean government is now forced to close down growing numbers of universities. This is bound to affect cost-benefit calculations, especially since the Korean government is simultaneously undertaking heightened efforts to improve the quality of its higher education institutions (HEIs), while ramping upscholarship funding.

The Korean government recently alsosubsidizedthe establishment of foreign branch campuses on a newly created global university campus in the Incheon Free Economic Zone close to Seoul. Having foreign branch campuses in Korea means that Koreans can now earn a foreign degree without leaving the country. The State University of New York at Stony Brook, George Mason University, the University of Utah, and Belgiums Ghent University now operate branch campuses in Incheon. In addition, Germanys University of Nrnberg is running a branch campus in Busan, while the STC-Netherlands Maritime University operates a campus in Gwangyang City, and the Scottish University of Aberdeen is expected to soon open acampus at Hadong.

The U.S. is by far the most popular study destination among Korean students. Fully 57 percent of Koreans enrolled in degree programs abroad studied in the U.S. in 2017, followed by Japan (12 percent), Australia (6 percent), the United Kingdom (5 percent), and Canada (4.5 percent), as perUIS data. France, Malaysia, New Zealand, China, and Italy are other top destination countries for Koreans.

In the U.S., Korea remains the third-largest sending country of international students after China and India, despite a significant drop in enrollments in recent years. According to theOpen Doorsdataof the Institute of International Education (IIE), Korean enrollments declined by almost 22 percent since the 2008/09 academic year and stood at 58,663 in 2016/17. Year-over-year enrollment growth from Korea has persistently declined since 2011/12, whereas year-over-year growth for China and India increased by approximately 12 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

Further declines are likely. According toSEVIS student visa dataprovided by the Department of Homeland Security, the number of Koreans holding active F and M student visas decreased from 71,206 to 67,326 between March 2017 and March 2018.

The most popular fields of study of Korean students in the U.S. are business and management, engineering, social sciences, and fine and applied arts, according toOpen Doors. Most Korean students study at the undergraduate level. Between 2015/16 and 2016/17, undergraduate enrollments declined by 8 percent while graduate enrollments only dropped by about 1 percent. However, 51 percent of students were still enrolled at the undergraduate level, compared with 28 percent at the graduate level and 21 percent in Optional Practical Training and non-degree programs.

By most accounts, Korean students are interested in studying in the U.S. because of the standing and reputation of U.S. institutions in world university rankings. They also want to learn English, acquire experience abroad, and improve their employment prospectsin Korea. However, as mentioned before, the return on investment in a foreign degree has diminished, and Korean students are increasingly strapped for funds.Rising tuition costsin the U.S. therefore dont work in favor of increased student inflows from Korea.

The picture in other destination countries is mixed. Per UIS, the number of Korean students enrolled in degree programs in Japan has plunged by more than 50 percent since 2011 and decreased from 25,961 students to only 12,951 students in 2016, although Korea is still thefourth-largestsending country in Japan overall. Australia, likewise, saw Korean enrollments in degree programs drop by 23 percent between 2011 and 2016 despite a record-breaking surge in international enrollments in general. According to the latest Australiangovernment data, this downward trend is currently continuing.

China, on the other hand, is quickly becoming a popular destination. According to IIEs Project Atlas, the number of Korean students in China increased by more than 11 percent since 2013 and currently stands at70,540. Since China is Koreas most important trading partner, fluency in Mandarin is a considerable asset in Koreas job market. As NAFSAsInternational Educatornotes, geographic proximity, cultural similarities, and lower tuition costs than in Western countries are other draws forKorean students. Korea is currently the largest sending country of international students to China, as per Project Atlas. (Note that Project Atlas data, like other data cited below, are not directly comparable to UIS data, since they are based a different method for counting international students).2

Despite the growing attractiveness of China, English remains the most coveted foreign language for Koreans, and Korea is one of the largest markets for English language training (ELT) worldwide. Instead of enrolling in academic degree programs in countries like the U.S., growing numbers of Koreans now seek to improve their English skills in more affordable ELT schools in places likeMaltaor the Philippines.

As we noted inanother article, the Philippines in particular has become a popular budget ELT destination for Koreans that is easily reachable via short direct flights and affords students the opportunity to combine ELT with beachside vacations. The Philippines ambassador to the U.S.stated in 2015that there are more and more Koreans studying English in the Philippines. In 2004, there were about 5,700. The following year, it tripled to about 17,000, in 2012 it was about 24,000. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Korean ELT enrollments have dropped by17 percentsince 2015.

The number of Korean students in Canada has declined significantly over the past decade. In 2000, Korea used to be the largest sending country of international students, but it has since been taken over by China and was in 2010 pushed to third place amid surging enrollments from India. According tostatisticsfrom Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), there were 23,050 Korean students in Canada in 201725 percent less than in 2007 when enrollments peaked at 36,800. However, since 2015 Korean enrollments are back on a growth trajectory and have most recently increased by 9 percent between 2016 and 2017.

The reasons for this reversal are unclear, but the shift in trends coincided with Canada expanding its admission quotas for skilled immigrantsa factor that may have played at least some role in attracting more Koreans to the country. Korea is the10th largestcountry of origin of recent immigrants in Canada;6.5 percentof Korean international students in Canada transitioned to permanent residency in 2015 (the fourth largest group after Chinese, Filipinos, and Indians). The growing unpopularity of the U.S. in the Trump era, and opportunities to participate inresearch collaborationsandscholarship programs, may also have played a role. ELT, on the other hand, doesnt appear to be a factorKorean ELT enrollments have remainedflatbetween 2014 and2017, despite increasedrecruitment effortsby Canadian ELT providers.

Korea currently pursues an internationalization strategy that seeks to increase the number of international students in the country to 200,000by 2023. Attracting more international students is considered necessary to compensate for declines in domestic enrollments and to strengthen the international competitiveness of Koreas education system. Various measures have been adopted to achieve these objectives. They range from scholarship programs and marketing campaigns, to the easing of student visa requirements and restrictions on post-study work, as well as allowing Korean universities to set up departments and programs specifically forinternational students.

These efforts are bearing fruit. Korea today has four times as many international students than in 2006, and it is becoming an increasingly important international education hub in Asia. Koreas ambitions wereset backwhen the number of international students declined between 2012 and 2014, but inbound mobility has since increased strongly. In 2018, the number of international students enrolled in degree and non-degree programs reached a record high of142,205, after growing by 70 percentover 2014. According to the latest availablegovernment statistics, 37 percent of international students were enrolled in undergraduate programs in 2016, compared with 23 percent in graduate programs and 39.5 percent in non-degree programs.

The overwhelming majority of international students in Korea come from other Asian countriesin 2018,48 percentof students came from China, followed by Vietnam (19 percent), Mongolia (5 percent), and Japan (3 percent). Other sending countries include the U.S., Uzbekistan, Taiwan, France, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Between2016and 2017, the number of Chinese students spiked by more than 13 percent, while enrollments from Vietnam skyrocketed by 96 percent. More than 57 percent of international students study in theSeoul metropolitan area.

Despite these increases in international student inflows, Korea still struggles to fully open up to the outside world and internationalize its education system. Surveys have shown that students from China and other Asian countries oftenfeel discriminatedagainst and face high hurdles when seeking employment after graduation. Foreign Western faculty, meanwhile, reportedly feel unintegrated; many of them leave aftershort tenures. As Korean researchers have noted, there is not enough intercultural exchange between domestic and international students in Koreas sometimes exclusivist culture. Theycriticizethat the growing diversity on Korean campuses is just for show that Korean universities primarily attract foreign students as a means to clear ends. The universities want them to come to enhance university prestige or create education hubs and [improve] international higher education rankings.

Koreas education system underwent a tremendous expansion since the end of the Korean War. In 1945, Korea had an estimated adult literacy rate of only 22 percent. Less than2 percentof the population was enrolled in higher education. Today, the country has achieved universal adult literacy, estimated to range between98 and 100 percent, and the tertiary gross enrollment ratio stands at a lofty 93 percent (2015).

Influenced by the U.S. occupation of South Korea, the country adopted a school system patterned after the U.S. system: It comprises six years of elementary education and six years of secondary education, divided into three years of middle school and three years of high school.

In the 1950s, elementary education was made compulsory for all children, which led to the universalization of elementary education by the 1960s. Beginning in 1985, the length of compulsory education was then extended by another three years, and all children in Korea are now mandated to stay in school until the end of grade nine (age 15). In reality, however, this minimum requirement is of little practical relevance in present-day Korea. As of 2014,98 percentof Koreans went on to upper-secondary and completed high school at minimum. The advancement rate from lower-secondary middle school to upper-secondary high school stood at99 percentas early as 1996.

Since the 1960s, enrollment rates in the school system spiked drastically in tandem with rapid industrialization and the achievement of universal elementary education. According to data provided by theKorean MOE, the number of high schools in Korea alone increased from 640 in 1960 to 2,218 in 2007, while the number of students enrolled in these schools jumped from 273,434 in 1960 to 2.3 million in 1990. This sudden expansion overburdened the system and resulted in overcrowded classrooms andteacher shortagesproblems that caused the Korean government to begin levying a dedicatededucation taxin 1982 in order to generate revenues for accommodating growing demand.

The aging of the population has since eased pressures somewhat and led to significantly lower numbers of children enrolling in the school systemleading to other problems, discussed below. According toUNESCO data, the number of elementary students dropped from 4 million in 2005 to 2.7 million in 2015, while the number of upper-secondary students recently decreased from close to 2 million in 2009 to 1.8 million in 2015.

This demographic shift has caused the closure of thousands of schools throughout Korea, almost90 percentof them located in rural regions, which are increasingly being bled out by a rapid out-migration to the cities. As theNew York Timesnoted in 2015, since 1982 nearly 3,600 schools have closed across South Korea, most of them in rural towns, for lack of children. Today, many villages look like ghost towns, with once-bustling schools standing in weedy ruins . However, despite this demographic shift, Korea in 2015 still had some of the largest lower-secondaryclass sizesin the OECD, as well as an above-average teacher-to-student ratio in upper-secondary educationcircumstances that are likely due to rapidly growing enrollments in urban areas.

Traditionally, Korean schools have been segregated by sexcoeducational schools did not begin to emerge until the 1980s. Only 5 percent of Koreas schools were coeducationalas of 1996. The number of coeducational schools has since increased significantly, but the majority of Koreas schools are still single-sex. Even at coeducational schools, individual classes may still be taught separately for girls and boys. In Seoul,about one-thirdof high schools are coeducational with pupils in the city being randomly assigned to single-sex and coeducational schools.

Korea has 17 administrative divisions: nine provinces, six metropolitan citieswhich have equal status to the provincesand Seoul, which is designated as a special city. In addition there is the special autonomous city of Sejong, which was recently created to become Koreas new administrative capital in an attempt to reduce the influence of Seoul, Koreas towering economic and administrative center. Another goal is to stimulate economic development in other parts ofthe country. Sejong City now houses the majority of government ministries and agencies, including the administrative headquarters of the MOE, which controls most aspects of education.

According to the MOEswebsite, it plans and coordinates educational policies, formulates policies that govern

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