What Can The United States Learn From South Korea’s Dominance In Higher Education?

South Korean students cheering for seniors taking the College Scholastic Ability Test CREDIT: AP/AHN YOUNG-JOON
South Korean students cheering for seniors taking the College Scholastic Ability Test CREDIT: AP/AHN YOUNG-JOON

Last October, the Times released its 2013–2014 World University Rankings, and the U.S. is home to 46 of the top 100 universities, significantly more than any other country. Despite this, the country has fallen in higher education degree attainment internationally from first in 1990 to 12th in 2011, with only 43 percent of all 25–34 year olds holding at least an associate’s degree. Conversely, in 2011, 64 percent of South Koreans aged 25–34 had attained a college degree, more than any other OECD country. Interestingly, Korea has one of the lowest percentages of 55–64 year olds with this degree or higher (only 13 percent, tied for 29th out of 34 countries), meaning there was a big shift sometime in the last generation. This shift was primarily due to cultural ideologies and government policies that have left the United States far in the country’s wake.

Korean students are pushed from kindergarten to win a spot at a prestigious university, which often results in a good job with a large wage premium. To attain this, families are willing to invest in their child’s education, and they spend large proportions of their personal income (often 25 percent) on private tutoring and “cram schools,” which many times are used to supplement high school curriculum and help students perform well on the college entrance exam. This exam is so important to the nation as a whole that on the day of the test, the stock market opens late, airplanes are banned from landing or taking off, and rush hour is rescheduled, all to make sure students arrive to the test on time and are not distracted. One Korean mother describes this cultural commitment to education by saying, “Korea has few natural resources, we don’t even have much land, the only resource we have is people.”

The government formally acknowledged a commitment to education through reforms put in place throughout the second half of the 20th century. Policies instituted in 1969 and 1974 abolished middle school and high school entrance exams, which increased access to school in the lower levels. The 1974 High School Equalization Policy also pursued uniform facilities and instruction through strong regulations and financial assistance across secondary schools to promote equality, primarily by assigning students to schools and taking control over curriculum.

In 1980, the Chun Du Hwan administration introduced the July 30 Education Reform to make higher education more fair and accessible. A popular part of this reform dramatically increased higher education enrollment by eliminating individual entrance exams and stressing the importance of high school achievement in deciding college eligibility. This expanded the number of high school graduates accepted into colleges and universities from 403,000 students in 1980 to over 1.4 million in 1989. Another part of these reforms was to introduce one standardized college entrance exam that, despite its reputation for creating an “examination hell,” is considered a fair and objective measure of achievement. The mid- to late-1990s was also full of higher education reform meant to increase quality and efficiency.

Throughout all of this, the country increasingly invested in education, increasing the Ministry of Education’s budget to six times what it was in 1990. In 2010, Korea spent 2.6 percent of its GDP on tertiary education, well above the OECD average of 1.6 percent.

The picture looks a bit different in the United States. Before WWII, only about 15 percent of Americans attended college. Afterward, the G.I. Bill greatly extended the reach of higher education by promising to pay college costs for returning WWII veterans. The following few decades were marked by exponentially increasing educational opportunities as the veterans and their children, the baby boomers, went to college. This time also brought focus to providing equal access to minorities and students of all abilities and a stronger norm for high school graduates to attend college. Since then, college degree attainment has become increasingly important, giving graduates a $1.3 million lifetime leg up in wages over those with a high school diploma and a better chance of being employed.

Yet culturally, the U.S. does not have the same one-track mind about the value of education. In 2001, American students spent one quarter of the time their Korea counterparts did on homework. American parents do not stress education as strongly as do many Asian parents; one 2012 study found that 60 percent of Asian Americans think American parents put too little pressure on their children to succeed in school. Additionally, the public does not have full faith in the higher education system, with only one quarter of American adults thinking college graduates have the skills needed to get a job.

The American education system is highly decentralized, so political influences vary widely from school to school, at every level. Funding primarily comes from local and state governments, so the quality of primary and secondary schooling varies dramatically. Within a state, per student expenditure can differ by thousands of dollars from district to district. Budget paperwork, definitions, and reports vary from state to state, making them incomparable. Federal programs in the past few decades, including No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core, have attempted to influence education systems, but the federal government does not have the authority to make many school-level changes.

Meanwhile, some states spend large amounts on non-academic endeavors. For example, more than 100 Texas districts spend over $500 per student each year on athletics, and some districts spend more than $1,000 on it. High funding also does not always mean high achievement; one analysis from the Center for American Progress shows that only one third of the schools that make the top third in spending also rank in the top third in achievement.

American students cite many reasons for dropping out of college, including not being prepared and struggling with the cost, and there are too many college “drop out factories,” which have a graduation rate of 26 percent or lower. Federal financial help has also greatly diminished. In 1972, the Pell Grant program, the largest federal grant program, started providing low-income students with grants that covered almost 70 percent of the cost to go to college. But in the 2010–2011 school year, the Pell Grant only paid for 34 percent.

Although the two countries are very different, the U.S. could look to South Korea’s funding and reforms as a guide to help the U.S. regain its global status in college degree attainment. Given that it brings higher wages and job opportunities, a college degree is more important than ever and should better command our attentions in the way it has in countries such as South Korea.