Higher Education in South KoreaDue to its rigorous entrance processes and societal emphasis on university prestige, South Korea spends a large portion of its annual GDP on higher education and the costs associated with college admissions preparation. Acceptance into one of the nation’s high-ranking “SKY” institutions can help differentiate applicants in an already competitive job market, as 70% of South Koreans have a college education. Here are five facts about the higher education system in South Korea:

5 Facts about Higher Education in South Korea

  1. Education and Industrialization: Rapid growth in literacy and education rates coincided with South Korea’s emergence as a newly industrialized nation. Just after WWII, South Korea’s literacy rate was a meager 22%, with few Koreans attending college. Now, its literacy rate sits at 97.9% and over 70% of high school graduates in South Korea go on to attend university. Once a beneficiary of American aid, South Korea now eclipses the U.S. in spending per capita on research and development, much of which is done at the university level.
  2. SKY Universities: Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University are widely viewed as the most prestigious institutions in Korea and three of the top-ranked universities in all of Asia. In fact, employment at elite firms and entrance into social circles is often contingent upon holding a degree from a SKY university.
  3. College Scholastic Ability Test: The eight-hour College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) is an assessment that determines which universities Korean students can attend. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), CSAT scores make up 70% of admissions criteria at Korean universities. Comparatively, high school grades carry significantly less weight, comprising only 10% of a student’s profile. Overall, higher CSAT scores are highly correlated with better job prospects and higher income potential.
  4. Spending on College Prep Classes: Since CSAT scores are viewed as the most important factor in South Korean college admissions decisions, Korean families often invest large sums of money in private tutoring. For example, the OECD estimates that middle-income parents of high school students in South Korea spend as much as 30% of their income on tutoring, with families spending an average of 3.6 million KRW ($2,600) on tutoring per year.
  5. An Increase in International Students: Since the early 2000s, the number of international students studying in South Korea has steadily risen. According to the Center for Strategy & International Studies, the global student population in South Korea has risen from 17,000 in 2004 to 160,000 in 2019. The South Korean government has also enacted reforms that expanded government tuition assistance to international students and created bilingual courses taught in English.

Admission to Korean universities is a rigorous process that often involves significant amounts of time and money. The expenses involved in preparing for the CSAT — the single most important factor in application decisions — often put low-income families at a disadvantage in the admissions process. However, international aid and education reforms have allowed several Korean universities to climb global university rankings. Moreover, an influx of international applicants is a strong indicator of increased university quality and prestige.

– Salvatore Brancato
Photo: WikkiCommons