There are about 340 universities and community colleges and several hundred other types of public and private postsecondary institutions in South Korea. About 80 per cent of high school graduates go to universities and colleges, one of the highest rates in the world. A poll by CLSA, a stockbroker, found that 100 percent of Korean parents want their children to go to university. [Source: Suh Nam-Pyo, The National, March 21, 2013; The Economist, December 17, 2011; Library of Congress, 2005]

According to the OECD in South Korea “over 70 percent of high school graduates go to four-year universities.” The figure is even higher if you count all forms of higher education. In the 2000s about four out of ten high school graduates in South Korea went on to college. School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education): total: 17 year; male: 17 years; female: 16 years (2013). School life expectancy (SLE) is the total number of years of schooling (primary to tertiary) that a child can expect to receive. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020, Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development (OECD)]

The most prestigious universities in South Korea are Seoul National, Yonsei, Koryo, and Ewha universities. Many observers regard students as the “national conscience” of South Korea, especially given their important role in democratic reform movements since 1960. The institutions of higher education included regular four-year colleges and universities, two-year junior vocational colleges, four-year teachers' colleges, and graduate schools. The main drawback was that college graduates wanted careers that would bring them positions of leadership in society, but there simply were not enough positions to accommodate all graduates each year and many graduates were forced to accept lesser positions. Ambitious women especially were frustrated by traditional barriers of sex discrimination as well as the lack of positions. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990; Library of Congress, May 2005]

In 2020, South Korea had 203 universities and 136 community colleges. Generally, a university has a four-year curriculum, and a community college has a two- or three-year curriculum for a technical training course. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “The country had a total of 121 colleges and universities in 1996, along with 335 graduate schools. In 2003, about 85 percent of the tertiary-age population were enrolled in some type of higher education program.” At that time it was “estimated that nearly all men attend some type of higher education program, while only about 64 percent of women enroll in a program.” Women are better represented today. “The adult literacy rate for 2002 was estimated at about 97.9 percent.” [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007, Statista]

Higher Education Statistics for South Korea

Enrollment rate in secondary and tertiary education in South Korea: 98.1 percent of 17 year-olds; 80.6 percent of 18 year-olds; 69.8 percent for 19 year-olds. Tertiary graduates by field: 14.8 percent in business; 20.3 percent in engineering; 15.8 percent in health; 7.4 percent in education. Tertiary graduation rate: Doctoral or equivalent level: 0.81 percent for men; 0.53 percent for women. (2018 OECD)

There were 3,154,245 students enrolled in higher educational institutions in 1999, compared to 2,343,894 in 1995, a 35 percent increase in just 4 years, 7,819 in 1945, 400 the number in 1999. The enrollment rate for higher education was 68.8 percent of 18 to 21 year olds in 1997. The total would be much higher were more spots available for higher education, especially at prestigious schools in Seoul. In 2000: Higher educational enrollment in 1996 was 2,541,659. The higher educational enrollment rate that year was 68 percent; There were 114,231 higher education teachers in 1996 [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Population of South Korea with tertiary education: 69.8 percent of 25-34 year-olds and 24.4 percent of 55-64 year-olds, compared to 50.4 percent of 25-34 year-olds and 43.4 percent of 55-64 year-olds in the United States and 61.5 percent of 25-34 year-olds and 44.5 percent of 55-64 year-olds in Japan. [Source: 2019, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)]

Percentage of people 25 to 64 that completed tertiary education: 45 percent (compared to 42 percent in Australia, 44 percent in the U.S. and 7 percent in South Africa). By age group 68 percent of 25-34 year-olds finished tertiary education in South Korea; 56 percent of 35-44 year-olds finished tertiary education; 33 percent of 45-54 year-olds did so; and 17 percent of 55-64 year-olds did. [Source: 2014 OECD data, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Percent of people that completed two years of university (or equivalent) or more: 69 percent (compared to 47 percent in the U.S. and 60 percent in Japan. [Source: 2014 OECD data, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Percent of people that completed four years of university (or equivalent) or more: 47 (compared to 39 percent in Australia and 14 percent in South Africa. [Source: 2014 OECD data, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Female university students by country (percent of gross, which mans the value can be over 100 percent): 85 percent (compared to 68 percent in Germany, 102 percent in the United States and 7 percent in Uzbelistan) [Source: World Bank worldbank.org]

In 1995, about 28 percent of Koreans ages 25 to 29 had college degrees. This figure can be roughly compared with percentages of college degree holders in other countries in the 25 to 34 age group: the United States, 26.5 percent; Japan, 22.9 percent; the United Kingdom, 15.2 percent; France, 12.4 percent; Germany, 12.9 percent; and Italy, 8.3 percent [Source: National Center for Education Statistics Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

South Korea’s Strategy for Higher Education Development

Michael Alison Chandler wrote in the Washington Post: “For decades, South Korea’s strategy for success has been to outsmart its more powerful neighbors. In a country with few natural resources, the next technological breakthrough is sometimes referred to in Korean as the next “meal.” To transform a poor country of mostly illiterate farmers into a high-tech powerhouse, they had to start at the beginning — with compulsory elementary education and a standardized curriculum. A consistent and strong foundation for every child paved the way for South Korea’s college enrollment to explode a few decades later. Between 1980 and 2008, the number of college students increased from 647,500 to 3.6 million. More than 80 percent of high-school graduates go on to higher education, one of the highest rates in the world. [Source: Michael Alison Chandler, Washington Post, July 17, 2012]

“The South Korean government also closely regulates higher education, and historically set enrollment quotas for different programs and types of schools that reflect the economy’s needs. Such regulation would be unwelcome in the United States, said Joseph Helble, dean of the engineering school at Dartmouth College. American universities pride themselves on their freedom and on nurturing independent thinking in their students. “But if you need to rapidly develop technology and train many people, a tightly controlled system works,” he said. To entice the best students into science and tech fields, the South Korean government also created a flagship university — Kaist, or the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

South Koreans who had gone abroad to study were lured back with handsome salaries to teach. And the best students in the country were recruited with the promise of free tuition and an exemption from mandatory military service, in return for a promise to work in a government lab for three years after graduation. The increasing quality of universities such as Kaist in other countries means the United States has to compete increasingly for international students, making it all the more important to build a better pipeline of talent domestically.

History of Higher Education in South Korea

During the Shilla Dynasty (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) was Confucianism influential and produced distinct system of thought that led to the establishment of Kukhak (National Learning) in A.D. 682. Around 750, this state institution was renamed the T'aehakkam (National Confucian University) and offered three different courses of study with the "Analects" and "Classic of Filial Piety" as required subjects in each course. A kind of state examination system was established in 788 for selecting government official.

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The Chinese-style civil service examination was first administered in Korea in A.D. 958 during the Koryo Dynasty [935 to 1392] and served for recruiting government bureaucrats who were much needed to solidify the new dynasty. The dynasty's national school was founded in 930 specifically to train future bureaucrats. A full-scale national school called the Kukchagam (National University) was established in 992. This system, although based on the Tang model again, was accessible only to aristocrats, who were further distinguished by their family's social rank. Programs training lesser bureaucrats enrolled the offspring of lower bureaucrats, while higher level trainees had a curriculum mainly involving Confucian classics. Technical fields were to be studied only by those of lower social position. The stipulation of such entrance qualifications offers still another insight into Koryo class consciousness. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The Kukchagam came to resemble a modern university at the time of King Injong (1122-46). It was comprised of a number of colleges, namely the so-called Six Colleges of the Capital: University College (Kukchahak), High College (T'aehak), Four Portals College (Samunhak), Law College (Yurhak), Writing College (Sohak), and Arithmetical College (Sanhak). Students' familial social status rather than their interest decided in which school they would be matriculated.

During the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), the royal court established a system of schools that taught Confucian subjects in the provinces. Higher education was provided by the Snggyungwan, the Confucian national university, in Seoul. Its enrollment was limited to 200 students who had passed the lower civil service examinations and were preparing for the highest examinations. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Establishment of Modern Universities in Korea

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: ““Modern postsecondary education in Korea was virtually nonexistent before 1910, and under Japanese colonial rule, Koreans who wanted to attend college either had to go abroad (most often to Japan) or had to attend one of only four institutions in Korea, three of them private and all of them small. Korea's first university was the Japanese-run Keijo (Seoul) Imperial University founded in the 1920s, which turned out to have more Japanese than Korean students. Today its modern version, Seoul National University (SNU), is South Korea's most prestigious institution of higher learning and is seen as being in a class by itself. The second tier of prestige schools includes the most important private universities: Yonsei, Koryo, and Ewha Universities. Ewha is the country's top university for women. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

Keijo (Seoul) Imperial University began as state university modeled on Tokyo Imperial University but the number of Koreans allowed to study there never exceeded 40 percent of its enrollment; 60 percent of its students were Japanese expatriates. Christian missionaries established modern schools that taught Western curricula and introduced Western culture to Korea. Among them was the first school for women, Ehwa Woman's University, established by American Methodist missionaries as a primary school in Seoul in 1886. Private universities, including those established by missionaries such as Sungsil College in Pyongyang and Chosun Christian College in Seoul, provided other opportunities for Koreans desiring higher education. Ewha Women's University was founded by Methodists; Soongjun University by Presbyterians; Sogang University by Jesuits. Yonsei University was originally interdenominational. Many early national leaders were educated at these universities. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990; Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: ““In 1905, Posong College, which is today's Korea University, was founded by Yi Yong-ik. The first two departments — Law and Commerce — were intended to introduce Western legal, commercial, and technical knowledge to the Korean people struggling to maintain their country's independence.By 1908, two years before the country succumbed to Japanese colonial domination, Korea's 5,000 vocational schools enrolled about 200,000 students (Kim-Renaud 1991). Of these schools, 796 were established by Christian missionaries; schools for girls outnumbered those for boys (HEK). Modern-style education thus began for women at the same time as for men in Korea. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The medical school of today's Yonsei (a portmanteau name originating from Yonhûi-Severance) University goes back to 1885, when King Kojong opened the first modern hospital, the Kwanghoewon, under the direction of Dr. Horace N. Allen of the Korean Mission Presbyterian Church in the United States. In March 1886, the Kwanghoewon accepted 16 students to be trained as Korea's first modern medical doctors. In 1904 the medical center was renamed the Severence Union Medical College and Hospital. In 1915, the Chosun Christian College was founded through the efforts of Dr. H. G. Underwood, a pioneering Protestant missionary and the College's first president. Two years later, renamed Yonhûi College, it became Korea's first modern college.

“After the aborted 1919 independence movement, however, the Japanese established new schools to prove their "cultural administration," which was adopted under the pressure of world opinion, to make deceptive gestures in the direction of liberalizing their rule in Korea (Han 479). The most significant was Kyongsong Imperial University, which is today's Seoul National University, founded 1924. Even there, however, more than two thirds of the students (68-70 percent in 1935) were Japanese (Ono).

The number of institutions of higher education increased from 19 in 1945 to 950 in the 1990s. In the late 1980s, the university a South Korean high school graduate attended was perhaps the single most important factor in determining his or her life chances. Thus, entrance into a prestigious institution was the focus of intense energy, dedication, and self-sacrifice. The number of students in higher education rose from 100,000 in 1960 to 1.3 million in 1987, and the proportion of college-age students in higher-education institutions was second only to the United States at that time. About 26 percent of men and 13 percent of women age twenty-five had over received higher education as of 1995. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *; Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Higher Education Attainment in South Korea

Traditionally higher education in South Korea has been viewed a means to improve one's socioeconomic status, as is true in many places, only in Korea the idea is embraced wit greater fervor. The annual college entrance examinations are extremely competitive. Many unsuccessful applicants repeat the examinations in order to enter elite universities. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The transition rate from high school to higher education has also been increasing. Until the late 1980s, however, the government, while trying to make universal education available to precollege students, strongly controlled the expansion of higher education for fear of creating an oversupply of college graduates for available jobs. Following the government's relaxation of such control beginning in the 1990s, the transition rate from high school to higher education reached 79 percent in 1996. As of 2000, upon birth, a child has a 77 percent probability of receiving a higher education. Though the rate of high school graduates advancing to college has been increasing for both men and women, 92 percent of male high school graduates ages 18 to 21 went on to colleges in 1998, whereas the share for women was just 55.5 percent. Some scholars point out that concentration of male and female students in specific areas of study leads to gender discrimination and employment inequality (Shim). [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Almost all high school graduates would be attending an institution of higher education were the quota increased and financing available. The overwhelming majority of Korean parents want nothing less than a college degree for their children. For example, in 1993, about 86.5 percent of the Korean parents expected their sons to get a college or university degree and 79.4 percent, their daughters (KEDI 1994, 33). Many who cannot pass their preferred institution's examination study abroad.

“The ever-increasing frenzy for education and the extent of Korean educational attainment are most evident in the number of doctoral degree holders. In 1966, the ratio of doctoral degree holders numbered 35 per 1,000,000. It increased to 200 per 1,000,000 in 1980, to 945 in 1995, and to 1,144 in 1997 (KEDI). The number has continued to explode; as of 2001, Korea had a total of 90,983 doctoral degree holders — 70,360 from Korean institutions and 20,623 from abroad — meaning almost 1 in 500 Koreans held a doctorate.

University Admissions and Entrance Exams in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The college entrance examination is fiercely competitive, and Korea is probably the only country in which numbers of applicants to specific schools are announced daily by public media during the application period, as candidates are frantically calculating the probability of their matriculation at choice institutions. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The college entrance system has become a public issue, especially since the disappearance of entrance examinations for secondary schools. College admission policies have been changed more than 10 times since 1945. Initially (1945-1953), college admission was based uniquely on applicants' national test scores; later, high school grades were also considered. These criteria have put tremendous pressure on students and their parents, as whole families go through "examination hell." Students concentrate all their energy on test preparation, and families sacrifice much time and money to support their college preparatory students, trying to improve the study environment, provide private tutoring, and help in other ways.

“Since the early 1990s, higher educational institutions have generally used "total" or "comprehensive entrance examination scores," which include the results of aptitude tests and students' high school profiles. Until then, college admission was largely based on individual schools' achievement tests. In 1988, MOE embarked on reforming the college entrance examination system to reflect changes in the educational and social environments. In 1993, MOE started to administer the CSAT once a year nationally in an effort to provide reliable and objective data in selecting students for colleges and universities, hoping to improve the quality of high school education as a result (KICE). Since 1998, electives have been added, including mathematics, sciences, and foreign languages besides English. In general, the CSAT score is one of the most important pieces of data for college level admission, counting 40 percent of the total scores in the decision process.

“To promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions and to reform examination oriented high school education, a new entrance examination system went into effect in 1994. Public institutions obligatorily weighted high school grades at 40 percent but were allowed leeway concerning the CSAT and their own entrance examinations. As of 2002, the Korean Military Academy most heavily weighs CSAT scores (70 percent) in admissions, along with high school activity record (20 percent) and interview (10 percent).

“A special policy applies to foreigners and Korean nationals returning from a sojourn of longer than two years abroad. Each college or university may admit 2 to 10 percent of total incoming students from this pool; in 2000, 5,249 students at 127 colleges and universities benefited. Each institution sets its own criteria, but in general these students are exempt from certain subjects or allowed a lower passing score for such courses. Usually, subjects tested include Korean, mathematics, foreign languages, and expository writing (essay), with interviews part of the selection process. Information on this policy's implementation by institutions is collected and published by MOE and distributed to embassies, consulates, and overseas Korean schools (MOE).

Women and Universities in South Korea

Ehwa University is South Korea’s most prestigious women’s university and the largest all-women university n the world. It was founded initially as a primary school under the name of Ewha Haktang in 1886 by Mary Scranton, a Methodist missionary, with the purpose of providing girls with the same educational opportunities as boys. In 1910, it was expanded into a college and achieved full university accreditation in 1946.. Now it’s a university with 15 colleges, 37 institutes and 21,000 students. Ehwa means “pear blossom.” The first female prime minister of South Korea was an Ehwa graduate as were the wives of Presidents Kim Dae Jung and Chun Doo Hwon. In the early 2000s, Ehwa began admitting married women for the first time after it was forced to in discrimination suit brought by a human rights group.

As of 2001, Ewha Women's University had an enrollment of 17,000 and had 14 colleges, 13 graduate schools, and special graduate courses. At that time it offered 56 majors. The graduate school offered master's degree courses in 55 areas and doctoral degree courses in 42. In the early 2000s, more than 900 candidates graduate with master's degrees and 80 with doctorates. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

For Korean men the idea is to attend a good university to get a good job. In the 2000s, some women still felt that the reason to a good school was to find a good husband. At that time, most junior college students were women majoring in things like food and nutrition or home management.

Female university students by country (percent of gross, which mans the value can be over 100 percent): 85 percent (compared to 68 percent in Germany, 102 percent in the United States and 7 percent in Uzbelistan) [Source: World Bank worldbank.org]

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Despite Ewha's remarkable record, Korean women in general do not get the same education as men. Not only do they receive fewer years of education on average than men do, they pursue what have traditionally been considered women's fields. As of 1998, female students were a majority in such traditional fields. For example, 73.1 percent of all students at teachers' colleges were women. Female students accounted for 64.8 percent in educational departments, 57.3 percent in arts and athletics departments, 56.1 percent in humanities departments, and 44.2 percent in departments of medicine and pharmacology. In social and natural sciences departments, the share of female students were 32.9 percent and 22.1 percent, respectively. Gender inequality at higher educational institutions was particularly acute in the sciences and engineering. In the natural sciences, the share of women earning M.A. and Ph.D. degrees is very low. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“In engineering, female students accounted for only 5 percent of all recipients of B.A.s, 4 percent of M.A.s, and 2 percent of Ph.D.s. This trend of gender separation makes it all but impossible for women to explore various career paths without regard for gender restrictions while substantially increasing the likelihood of women being employed in traditional women's areas. In an age when science and engineering are key, the paucity of women in those areas is viewed as a grave problem for women's advancement in society. Underlying causes include separate curricula for men and women, textbooks that reinforce traditional gender role divisions, and teachers' attitudes discriminating between male and female students (2000).

“The situation for women is rapidly changing, however. As of 2001, more than 35 percent of high level information technology positions were held by women and more than 100 of Ewha's Information major graduates held chief executive positions at companies specializing in new technologies (Cohen).

Higher Education Reforms in South Korea

Kyna Rubin wrote in International Educator:Korean families with the means to send their children abroad for higher education are still motivated to do that. Why? Korea’s universities are not among the world’s top tier of academic institutions and don’t produce Nobel Prize winners, says Korea International School chairman Sunshik Min. “Korea is a latecomer to advanced studies in science and technology,” he says. Government spending for Korean universities accounts for less than 23 percent of total university revenue, according to World Education News and Reviews (WENR), compared with an average of 78 percent in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. [Source: Kyna Rubin, International Educator, March-April, 2014]

Recent proposed education reforms seem promising on paper. The Korean government is providing more scholarships, and in 2013 it restricted annual tuition increases to 4.7 percent, compared with 5 percent a year earlier, according to ICEF Monitor. Some Korean universities plan to offer online courses. Seoul National University, for example, will stream free lectures on YouTube. ICEF reports that vocational schools, a more popular option for Koreans in light of the weak market for college graduates, will undergo curriculum changes that include increased hands-on training. A third of vocational high school graduates secured jobs in 2012, reducing the number who went on to college.

Of the 12 educational reforms under discussion in 2013, two relate to higher education., says María Galindo, commercial officer at the U.S. Embassy Seoul. The first reform would reintegrate core subjects that had been divided into separate (liberal arts and science and engineering) tracks on the college entrance exam. The second — more a rule change than a reform, says commercial specialist Young Hee Koo — would grant Korean colleges greater budget autonomy. Neither proposed change, however, will affect the number of Koreans studying abroad, says Koo. All of the reforms “are a work in progress,” says Galindo, requiring National Assembly approval; many remain in standing committees. [Source: Kyna Rubin, International Educator (IE), March-April 2014. Rubin is. a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

“Change, in any event, does not come easily to the Korean education system. The MOE adopted some of the measures U.S. colleges use to review applications, says Min. “But it stopped pushing the changes, as parents and students complained the system was more complicated than the old one using just grades and standardized test scores.” In a nation where K–12 textbooks, curriculum, and hiring decisions are government controlled, by the time college rolls around, Korean students desire more choice, according to Min. (Even private schools have little autonomy on these matters, says Min, because of the state subsidies they receive, and few private schools are willing to rock the government boat that supports them.)

“For families with the means — and those with few means but strong will — sending children to an environment where they will learn how to speak English rather than merely excel in English testing affects decisionmaking. As well, Korean students are attracted to the diverse education and social milieu a country like the United States has to offer, says Hwang.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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