The annual college entrance fever has started with last week’s Scholastic Ability Test or “Suneung” across the country. Some 700,000 high-school seniors who took the test will be in an agonizing race to get into the “best” colleges their SAT scores allow.
The usual scenes of Korea’s educational passion were repeated on the exam day. Public and private offices started work one hour late to help ease morning traffic congestion. Police patrol cars and fire engines were used to transport late examinees to their testing places. Churches and temples held day-long prayer sessions for the examinees.
After the exam, the real estate market is heating up. The key money for “jeonse” renting is going up in areas where popular hagwon institutes are located, as parents look for new shelters for their children’s convenience after school. In some areas, key money has risen by tens of millions of won.
These peculiarly Korean phenomena reflect the average Koreans’ obsession with college education. The rate of high-school graduates’ advancing to tertiary education has gone up to 82 percent last year both in male and female students and the competitions to enter more prestigious institutions grow ever tougher. Parents who have spent so much time, money and energy in building up their children’s “competitiveness” since their primary school years are now making one last effort to push them into the colleges of choice.
The government has changed the entrance system in the direction of easing written tests. Individual universities are encouraged to use admission officers so that students exhibiting better potential for future development are to be admitted. The introduction of the staggered entrance system increased opportunities for application hence more chances of admission. While the new systems need time for both universities and students and parents to get used to it, the hagwon businesses have promptly developed programs to “conquer” the new system.
They offer classes on “how to impress your admission officers” in addition to teaching how to write good essays. And then there are the difficulties of admission officers assessing applicants based on high school records. Applicants’ academic achievements are deliberately inflated by teachers who just want to have as many students from their school as possible enter reputed universities.
Korean education certainly has structural problems, no matter what foreign admirers have to say. The first is the unbearable cost of extra teaching and the second is the high level of social tension from competition between young students. We have got to change this and save our children from rushing to nightly hagwon classes even on holidays, giving up many valuable aspects of their youth. Everybody knows what to do but they don’t start it by themselves.