Having 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 extremely 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 in order 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, there are only 3 Universities that 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 in order 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 education from the age of 6. That means 12 years of private schooling will cost the average parent in Korea over $36,000. Now, this is the average, costs per month 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 greatly whether rich or poor. The amount of private education you get can have a significant impact on your academic performance. In addition, children that don’t get private education in addition to public education can be as much as 3 years behind once they finish high school. Therefore how wealthy a family is in Korea will greatly affect the likelihood of the child going on to higher education. This is why Koreans believe that 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 the most part of 2020 before switching back to in-person classes in 2021. Since then, early research has shown how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected families of students that solely rely 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 not familiar with online applications. However, if a family was able to 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 biggest gap which suggests 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 wider 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 along with social and emotional competencies that are combined with academic performance. Moreover, there should be incentives for teachers and organizations for serving the most disadvantaged students in Korea. Education must be a way out for those in a difficult situations.  It can be a way that anyone from any background can move up the ladder to greater prosperity both financially and spiritually. A child’s starting point in life should not determine their future.