With more college graduates than jobs, the government wrestles with what to do with themSouth Korea is beginning to wrestle with the unappetizing fact that too many of its young are in college. Despite the very real success of its economy, the country can’t manufacture enough jobs for its graduates – of which it produces a lot.
Singapore, Taiwan and other Asian countries to some extent face the same glut. However, South Korea seems in a class by itself. Some 86 percent of all high school graduates go on to college, and most expect to graduate with a degree. About 3.3 million students are enrolled in 347 universities – by one calculation one of every 14 South Koreans is a university student. A full 80 percent of parents fully expect their children to graduate with a degree. According to a study by the Samsung Economic Research Institute, the number of students in college is actually lowering gross domestic product by a full percentage point.
The country is regularly faced with the odd phenomenon of newspaper stories about many of its brightest graduates who are forced to enroll in vocational schools in order to get a job after graduation – including a recent story in the Korea Herald about a young woman with a degree in French who enrolled in a course to become a Starbucks barista. Other tales have philosophy graduates learning to become bakers. Fewer than half of those who graduated in 2010 had found full time jobs by the end of 2011.
That has pushed the South Korean government to promote vocational skills as an alternative to college, with President Lee Myung-bak turning up to open the Sudo Electric Technical High School in 20. Sudo is one of 21 so-called Meister Schools modeled on German vocational schools, that are being funded by the government and which guarantee graduates jobs.
However, critics say lots more must be done and that in fact the entire education system must be redesigned. The 21 Meister schools are hardly enough, and the practical training aspects of their curricula mean funding must be increased considerably over that of academic high schools. Certification systems for the students must also be introduced.
According to the SERI study published last week, “it is estimated that 42 percent of the nation’s college graduates are over-educated.” Had those 42 percent bypassed college and started working immediately after highs school, according to the study, South Korea’s gross domestic product would have been as much as a full percentage point higher.
In addition, according to the study, maximum opportunity costs -- tuition plus forgone income -- from attending college total an estimated W19 trillion per year (US$16.28 billion). That is W14.77 trillion for four-year university graduates and W4.24 trillion for two-year graduates. The average university graduate spends W119.6 million (US$102,000) on his or her education and W53.6 million for two-year college graduates.
A college degree defines success, however, marginalizing high school graduates despite the fact that during the era of Korea's double-digit growth era, skilled technicians and craftsmen with high school degrees were credited with building the nation's infrastructure and lifted manufacturing up to global standards.
“But today, even those better suited for technical skilled jobs right after high school feel compelled to pursue a university degree,” according to the report. “Over the past 10 years, corporate executives with only a high school degree have plunged to 2.6 percent from 7.2 percent.”
It is relatively easy to see why the young opt for college despite the crowded campuses. If half the graduates are on the street, the odds are about the same for those with a high school diploma, and after being hired they are often headed for low-skill jobs. In 2011, according to SERI, the employment rate of young people with a high school degree only was 59.1 percent and those who were working were employed in low value-added...