The overwhelming and almost obsessive popularity of medical schools among elite Korean students has been a concern among education policymakers over its side effects, such as a growing number of repeat test takers.
Another troubling sign is emerging: 1 in 5 applicants who made it to much-coveted medical schools hailed from wealthy districts in southern Seoul -- and their share is steadily on the rise.
Among those who were admitted to medical schools, 20.8 percent of applicants came from the three expensive districts -- Gangnam, Seocho and Songpa -- in 2019, and the ratio rose to 22.7 percent in 2022, according to the office of Democratic Party of Korea Rep. Kang Deuk-gu and civic group World Without Worries About Private Education.
The proportion of students from the metropolitan area also increased from 44.2 percent to 46.3 percent during the same period.
The new data suggests that children born to high-income parents living in the country’s most expensive area codes are likely to have a far better chance of entering medical school, a golden ticket to enviable lifetime job security and high income.
The phenomenon is regrettable in two ways. First, parents’ incomes are increasingly correlated to their children’s academic success, especially concerning limited places at medical schools in a way that solidifies the inheritance of wealth. In recent years, universities have eased admissions standards around Suneung, or the annual college scholastic ability test, in a bid to enhance fairness. However, this apparently has not stopped wealthy parents from supporting their children by pouring money into private education.
Second, the abnormal popularity of medical schools is expected to soar in the coming years, unless the government takes comprehensive education reforms including a hike in the enrollment quota for medical schools.
The quota has been fixed at 3,058 since 2006, amid fierce conflicts among doctors, medical students, experts and policymakers over raising the figure.
The toxic mix of a big discrepancy in regional representation and the fixed quota for medical students is feared to undermine the very foundation of the broader education policy focused on fair opportunity and the medical service industry, where doctors in unpopular fields are in short supply.
The obsession with medical schools is forcing more students to take college entrance exams again and again until they get admitted to medical schools. According to data from Rep. Kang, 3 out of 4 students admitted into medical schools across the country in the past four years had taken entrance exams multiple times before they succeeded. This is a waste of human resources, not to mention the lost opportunities for the brightest and smartest students.
For the 2023 academic year, 1,343 applicants (29 percent) turned down offers from the top three universities including Seoul National University. The reason is that they applied for several colleges and eventually opted to enter medical schools or related colleges. Since many students with high test scores only pursue spots at medical schools, other academic departments are suffering. Even semiconductor departments at many universities, which promise solid job security in a crucial industry, are passed over by many top students.
The number of students who intentionally dropped out of the prestigious top five science-related universities such as the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology is estimated at 1,150 over the past five years. About 80 percent of those who quit appear to have retaken entrance examinations for medical schools.
A striking side effect is that private education centers in wealthy neighborhoods are setting up special “medical school prep” programs targeting elementary school students. The underlying logic is that young students should start as early as possible and take advanced lessons -- even those designed for high school students -- since the competition for medical schools is intensifying.
Experts say the government should increase the medical student quota to resolve the deepening education problem and the shortage of doctors. But past attempts failed in the face of fierce protests from doctors and medical students. The government is required to push for an increase in the quota and devise other measures that resolve the regional representation issue and motivate students to apply for non-medical fields in dire need of new talent.