South Korea's Secret to Increasing College Graduation Rates

Oct 19, 2011

The latest college completion data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) spells troubling news for the U.S. Between 2006 and 2009, degree attainment rates among 25-34 year old Americans fell to 16th place out of 36 developed nations; only 39% of U.S. citizens that age earned one. South Korea, meanwhile, sits at the top of the charts, boasting 63% attainment. What is that country doing, and should we emulate it?

By Eric Garneau


Propulsive Achievement

Several decades ago, the United States led the world in producing young adults with college degrees. The intervening years haven't necessarily shown a decline amongst U.S. citizens - it's just that other countries around the world are bounding ahead far faster. The prime example of such a nation is South Korea. According to a 2008 U.S.A. Today piece, in the post-Korean War 1960s the country could reasonably be compared to many undeveloped nations in sub-Saharan Africa. But the next four decades saw its economy spring to life, becoming one of the tentpoles of East Asia financially. That was accomplished primarily by its cultivating an increasingly educated workforce.

One can easily see, then, why education's so prized in South Korean culture. In fact, it seems that if you want to know why South Korea tends to do so well in worldwide education rankings, it's because of that very culture, one which values learning above almost anything else. That can be a boon, but it can also be a detriment.

Startling Statistics

Just how strong is South Korea's commitment to education? A September 2011 piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that families there spend, on average, 45% of their annual income on educating their children. By contrast, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems put the U.S. average at 16.9% in 2009. And money's not the only significant investment: according to The Chronicle, it's not uncommon for South Korean elementary and high school students to spend 16 hours a day at school or in extracurricular education-based activities. Of course, parents are also expected to help in all those after-school study sessions.

Results Both Good and Bad

In many ways, as OECD's data attests, that commitment pays off. According to U.S.A. Today, as of 2008 93% of South Korean students graduated high school on time, and almost all of them went off to college. That puts them on a track to enter lucrative careers efficiently, which continues to feed the country's impressive economic success. That's an operation that one can imagine many would like to see put in place in the U.S.; even President Obama himself tends to stress college as a means of skill-building for jobs over gaining general knowledge.

But South Korea's voracious education system also has its drawbacks, not the least of which being that many students seem to be unhappy, sometimes miserable, with little time for leisure activities or personal development outside of classroom learning. The Chronicle sadly notes that South Korea also leads OECD's rankings in student suicides, certainly a problematic statistic. Beyond that, though, The Chronicle mentions university students who simply go to class to be seen (they proceed to sleep through it), who spend an inordinate amount of time drinking under the guise of 'management training' and who repeat the same behaviors once they graduate and attain a career. That's likely symptomatic of South Korea's emphasis on rote learning and memorization over liberal arts-style free inquiry, which prizes test scores over student engagement.

In the end, the debate over whether to make American education more like South Korea's seems to echo one of the major homegrown debates on the topic - should we emphasize career training over all else, possibly even at the expense of students' mental health? Are there quantifiable benefits to not doing so? In 2008, Harvard economics professor Richard Freeman gave likely the most reasonable answer to U.S.A. Today: 'some mix between the Korean and American ways would be ideal.' What that mix would exactly entail is up for debate, but surely both countries have something to offer to the ongoing dialog about quality higher education.

Read about another popular Asian education trend, the Tiger mother.

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