Access to better schools, teachers, and private education is a huge advantage for those who can afford it. Education inequality exists all around the world, however, it is highly problematic in South Korea. The education system in Korea has been criticized for putting too much weight on standardized test scores. Parents in Korea are forced to spend an absorbent amount of money to educate their children to stay with the competition. Education inequality in Korea has gotten worse over time, and this unhealthy trend will likely continue.

The importance of SKY Universities in Korea

Education Inequality in Korea

What exactly are Korean parents spending their money on? There is a reason why South Korea has the most private learning institutions per capita. However, in Korea, only 3 Universities matter the most. SKY stands for the first letters of the most respected Universities in Korea. S stands for Seoul National University, K stands for Korea University, and Y stands for Yonsei University.

Only 1 out of 100 students in Korea will go to one of these three schools. If you graduate from one of these universities, you will not have a problem finding a job. In addition, you will hold a privileged status that will be with you forever. Most government officials, company CEOs, and Korean celebrities have graduated from SKY University.

The Cost of Education in Korea

Prices for higher education in Korea are affordable. When you compare the tuition fees of Universities in Korea to the United States or the UK, South Korea is very cheap. A bachelor’s degree will cost around $20,000, and a master’s degree will cost around $25,000. Moreover, there are many easy ways to get scholarships to go to school. However, what many don’t tell you is the cost of educating children to get into these universities, especially SKY Universities.

The average family in Korea spends 350,000 won ($310) per month on private education (Hagwons). That means an average family in Korea spends over $3,000 a year per student. Many children in Korea start to get private instruction from the age of 6. That means 12 years of private schooling will cost the average parent in Korea over $36,000. This is the average; monthly costs can be substantially higher. A survey by the Education Ministry and the national statistics office showed that middle-high income families spent five times more on private education compared to low-income families in Korea. It is estimated that the private education industry in Korea is a $20 billion industry.

Education Inequality in Korea Blamed on Private Education

The quality of schooling in Korea can differ significantly, whether rich or poor. The amount of private education you get can significantly impact your academic performance. In addition, children that don’t get private education in addition to public education can be as much as three years behind once they finish high school. Therefore how wealthy a family is in Korea will significantly affect the likelihood of the child going to higher education. This is why Koreans believe private education is at the root of education inequality in Korea

Education Inequality in Korea worse after COVID-19

Education Inequality in Korea
Source: tbs.seoul.kr

South Korea turned to remote teaching for most of 2020/2021 before switching back to in-person classes in 2021. Since then, early research has shown how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected families of students solely relying on public education. During the early months of COVID, all families had to switch to online learning. Remote learning is not ideal for children as they can get easily distracted. Add this to the fact that there are often technical issues as many teachers in Korea are unfamiliar with online applications. However, if a family could afford online private education or have private tutors, the student’s level of development did not slow down too much.

While South Korea has a strong digital culture, there is still a digital divide between the wealthy and the poor. Some families in Korea do not have access to laptops for their children. Moreover, the quality of education online varies greatly depending on how much you are willing to pay. The Ministry of Education in Korea tried to solve this problem by hiring part-time instructors to help 29,000 underprivileged students at elementary schools in Korea. However, this is just not enough. Test scores in Korea saw their most significant gap, suggesting that education inequality in Korea is now at an all-time high.

How can we fix education inequality in Korea?

This question is simple. Focus less on standardized tests like Suneung and have a broader definition of merit to recognize a more comprehensive range of skills. There is simply too much reliance on exams in Korea. Education in Korea needs to be more holistic and include building aptitude, creativity, and values. Korea needs to embrace various talents and skills. Not just whether or not you graduated from SKY University. A great way to do this is to limit the number of SKY University graduates companies like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai can hire.

The Korean education system needs to focus on developing skills and social and emotional competencies combined with academic performance. Moreover, teachers and organizations should be incentivized to serve the most disadvantaged students in Korea. Education must be a way out for those in difficult situations.  It can be a way that anyone from any background can move up the ladder to greater financial and spiritual prosperity. A child’s starting point in life should not determine their future.