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Education...for Sale?How the wealth gap is confiscating opportunities in public, private, and higher education
Choi Jean  |
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승인 2015.03.30  18:34:19
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 THE WEALTH gap has once again seeped into the education sector. According to the Ministry of Education’s recent announcement, households earning more than \6 million per month increased their private education expenses, while those earning less decreased their expenses. However, this phenomenon is not limited to private education alone. Households with incomes in the top 20% spent nearly eight times every month on education-related spending compared to those in the lowest 20%. As statistics suggest, the polarization of education based on money seems to have gotten bigger than ever. Must “good education” really be bought?

Public education and its hidden discrimination
   Public education can be called the core of the education system in any nation. Originally defined as “government or district-built school for the purpose of producing fine citizens” by Doosan Encyclopedia, public education now includes private schools and organizations as well. In Korea, six years of elementary school and three years of middle school are mandated by the government as part of the “Education Act” of 1949. Public education in those nine years is free and guaranteed to any citizen of Korea. As of today, the nation boasts an entrance rate of 100% for elementary school and 99.9% for middle school, which are both free and guaranteed to all citizens of Korea.
   The public education in Korea, despite its near-perfect entrance rate, is not exactly seen as the epitome for public education worldwide. The main notions Korean people have about education in public schools is that it provides “basic knowledge,” the dignity that the public education once had is gone. Instead, private education, even with its expensive price, is often sought after to reach higher knowledge levels. As a result, students are now taking more private education classes than ever before, only going to school to learn the “basics.” The efficiency of the Korean public education system is also highly debated, as according to OECD, Korea invests much in education development, but does not yield significant amounts from the investments made. To combat these notions, the Korean government and the Ministry of Education has put much effort into the “Public Education Normalization Act” announced on September 2014, but has been criticized for invigorating private education instead and exacerbating the fundamental problems within the public education.
   One of the main problems in the public education system is the polarization of the education quality in different areas. In Korea, some school districts are known to have high-quality studying environment, able teachers, and great education in general. These districts usually coincide with the neighborhoods that are high in price and are prevalent in private education options. Gangnam-gu, Bundang-gu, and Mok-dong are some example areas where private education, public education, and apartment prices simultaneously are regarded highest among the nation. In contrast with these areas, schools in areas where economic status is comparably low tend to do less well in entrance exams and other evaluations. Within the students admitted to Seoul National University (SNU) this year, 60% were from high schools in the three "Gangnam provinces” - Gangnam-gu, Songpa-gu, and Seocho-gu. Many schools in Seoul, such as Sukmyung girl’s high school or Kyunggi high school produced more than 10 students admitted to SNU, while many school in rural areas and far away from major cities did not produce any. Because these schools tend to perform lower on nation-wide evaluations, they often receive less funding from the nation, making it even more difficult for them to provide decent education. This is highly unfair both in regional and economical aspects.
Another problem plaguing the public education system is the discrimination within individual schools regarding students from lower-income households. Many of the schools offer diverse academic programs, many of which parents enroll their children in. However, many students from economically struggling households have busy parents who have less time to sufficiently take care of their children’s academic achievements and classes they should enroll in. Because of this, despite the number of academic, music, or art programs offered in schools, it is harder for students from struggling households to make use of them. Discrimination can occur from teachers’ behavior as well. Although the teachers may not intentionally discriminate the students by their economic backgrounds, the lack of parents’ attention frequent in these cases can cause a lack of teachers’ attention. An anonymous elementary school teacher stated “I never discriminate a child by his economic background. However, it is true that students with parents that call often and come better prepared for class are more noticeable.” Due to this phenomenon, students that lack their parents’ attention often are left alone in school as well, likely leading to deviation from their studies and into harmful paths.
The public education system itself also presents a problem in that it is extremely closed and exclusive. The current education system has been in place since the 1980s and seems to plan no major change. Whereas the education curriculum changes every few years as proposed by the government, the education system itself does not attempt to adapt to these changes or to more trendy and recent education styles. Especially regarding English education, what students now need, including communication skills in real-life situations, is not taught fully in the public school system. Due to this lack of flexibility in the school education system, many students turn to private education which is more flexible both in time and curriculum. For example, English private education stands as number one in the private education market, putting strain on students from lower-income backgrounds. If the public education system keeps declining to adopt new systems and programs to match what the students actually need in society, it is inevitable that public education will continue to deteriorate, and the dependence on private education will increase, continuously putting pressure on lower income children that cannot afford to do so in consequent.
To solve these problems, change is needed not only in the public education system itself but in the efforts of the government and individual schools. An important effort is needed from the government: giving support to schools in rural areas. Although giving incentives to school with better scores is good, normalization of the level of education in all schools is more urgent. The government should also send out experienced lecturers, both private and public, to give special lectures in rural schools. Making these teachers stay somewhere for long would be near impossible, but these lectures could help students see and experience beyond what they have. Without getting rid of this existent polarization between public education in different regions, students are never going to receive equal education.
Individual schools also need to work on caring for students from struggling backgrounds. The school should especially help out when the parents of the students are unable to take deep interest in their school life. The work of individual teachers should also be added, as it is their responsibility to take care of students as their own in school. If parents lack the means to show sufficient interest, the teachers should help these students to their best. It is only fair for these students, simply born in unfortunate circumstances, to receive help in their school and the education system.
Another important change that the system needs is to be more open and flexible regarding changes. The system needs to change with the times and the curriculum. The school system also needs to overcome the private education sector in both quality and efficiency. According to a survey by, respondents replied that the most important benefits of private education is its selectiveness and sophisticated materials. In order to once again be the dominant provider of education, the school should also engage in providing diverse selections of classes and be more flexible in taking in the students’ ideas. No public system should be closed; especially not the education system.
                                       Private education and its lure
Private education is defined as “education determined by one’s own decision” in the Korean Cultural Encyclopedia and it differs from public education in that it is less restricted in time, space, and curriculum. Currently, the monthly average amount spent on private education per student has increased within the past two years, while the percentage of students participating in after-school activities provided by the public school system has decreased for the first time since its establishment in 2006. This popularity is not limited to teenage students. Private education is also earning the favor of college students, with the average monthly spending reaching \309,000 a month.
One of the main problems with private education in Korea is that students usually take classes not out of need of academic help, but just for the sake of enrolling. Both students and parents, anxious about not matching the academic standard of others, blatantly enroll in private academies to feel relieved. Choi Tae-eun, a middle school student residing in Gangnam stated “So many people in my class attend private academies that I just feel obligated to do so as well.” The Ministry of Education also acknowledged this, stating “private education companies’ anxiety marketing” as one of the reasons for private education spending. Because so many students engage in private education, the public education system is often regarded as “second-tier” or “basic” education. Private education which started out as help for public education is now more highly regarded than public education. Many students believe that private education is more important than public education, and are disrespectful in school classes, compared to private classes. Park Mi-kyung, a public high school teacher in Busan, stated “Students often neglect schoolwork. Many of them think that focusing only on private academies will help them do better in tests.”
Even besides the popularity factor, private education as of today is detrimental in that its expensive prices are affecting household spending increases. Private education prices have risen over the years, with the Ministry of Education citing it as one of the reasons why people spend more on private education. This cost increase mainly comes from private education companies’ frequent advertisements trying to lure students and parents with “celebrity teachers” or guarantees of certain grades. The cost of these advertisements, however, has a very adverse effect on the prices that parents have to pay to these institutions. Because of these high prices, students from lower-income households cannot even attempt to attend these academies, even if they are in need of help. With some institutions charging up to \1 million a month for math or English, it is simply too extravagant for some students to simply get the education they need. Regarding education expenses, Professor Sung Tae-yoon (Prof., Dept. of Economics) stated for Yonhap News, “If students with higher-income parents receive significant amounts of extra education while students with lower-income parents receive only public school education, it is very likely that economic statuses will become fixated between generations.”
In order to solve these problems, the private education fad should be subdued. The current system where everyone engages in private education, and in many different subjects they are not even interested in, is simply a waste from an economic point of view. Currently, Seoul and a few other districts are enforcing a law that forbids private academies from teaching after 10 p.m. Although this law has been enforced for five years, it is questionable whether it is effective. Many students still state that the law is not being properly enforced, as many institutions still teach after this time. Instead of holding onto this ineffective law, a stronger, effective pressure is needed. A law restricting the amount of money a student can spend on private education could help subdue the fad as well as level the playing field for all students. Although this may not be effective as the 1980 ban on private education, it is the constitutional and less aggressive way for the government to promote equality.
In addition, equality for students from lower-income families should be guaranteed. In Korea, private education is concentrated in certain areas of Korea. Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu is a major area that has private academies all over town, and simultaneously boasts one of the most expensive apartment prices in the nation. The problem with this is that students that do not reside in regions like Daechi-dong have a difficult time receiving private education that they really need. Because of this concentrated aspect of private education, funds should be geared towards students who really need and want private education but are not able to afford it. If they have a particular need or interest in a field, they should not be deterred from receiving this help. Supporting them through academy fees or transportation fees would greatly help providing them with more equal opportunities as some of their more fortunate friends.
The after-school programs provided by the government should also be invested further. For the lack of quality in public education is one of the main driving forces behind the private education fad, a resurgence in public education, including the after-school programs are needed. Although the after-school programs are often very cheap and offer many courses, many parents and students believe that either the class or the teachers are low in quality. In order to encourage students and parents to enroll and make use of these programs, it is crucial for the government to support students with higher quality teachers, special programs, and diverse curriculum that can satisfy both students and their parents. A system that allows students to take these after-school classes in different schools would also be helpful in promoting the programs. Through this, the parents and students will see the benefits that these programs provide. These programs can also be highly encouraged to students from struggling households, to help them receive the support they need, thereby providing equal opportunities.
Higher education and the vicious cycle
   Higher education refers to undergraduate and graduate education. In Korea, 80% of the high school students continue to receive higher education. The price of higher education has always been an issue in this nation, with higher education being reserved for the upper class all throughout 1960s and 70s. In the 1990s, students often protested against the significant amounts of yearly tuition increases. In 1995, for example, Yonsei University’s tuition rose 14.7% compared to the previous year’s tuition. Throughout 2000s, the tuition has continuously risen, with the average yearly increase reaching 4% according to the Ministry of Education. This is quite large considering the yearly average inflation rate is around 3%. For many struggling students, scholarships exist in three forms: school, government, and outside scholarships. Although more than 50% of all college students receive scholarships every year, many do not receive sufficient amounts. Especially for students paying tuition on their own without the help from their parents, college life is not all that enjoyable, even with scholarships.
   One of the most important problems with Korea’s higher education system is the lack of continuous financial support. Most scholarships regardless of a giver have “grade limits.” This means that they do not offer scholarship to students below a certain grade point average. For many students that are forced to work and study at the same time, the current scholarships put even more pressure on them. Many students who do not receive scholarships due to the grade limit are often forced to take a leave of absence or even drop out of school. According to a research by the Ministry of Statistics, 173,000 college students took a leave of absence for the purpose of earning tuition money last year alone. Numerous scholarship organizations fail to appropriately evaluate students’ economic situations thus, disabling some students desperately in need of a full scholarship to get any. In the government scholarship program, the students are evaluated based on their parents’ health insurance bill up until last year, which reflected income levels. Starting from this year, however, students are evaluated based on their entire property and wealth. Because of this, many students in families that own a house but struggling in debt – “house-poor” - are put into higher categories of wealth and are not rewarded scholarships. An anonymous senior student at Yonsei stated “I cannot comprehend how I went from the 3rd tier to the 7th in just one semester when I do not think the quality of my life increased at all.”
   The lack of understanding from the schools is also a problem, with many students struggling to handle both school and work. Often times, students from lower-income families need to work for tuition and their livelihood. Due to their jobs, such students often have less time than others to spend on their studies. This shows from the research by the National Assembly, that students with better economic statuses got better grades in college. Some students who are not adept at juggling work and studies often have to retake classes, making graduation even harder. Taking a leave of absence can also slow the graduation period, making a bigger financial burden on the students.
   The lower grades that these financially struggling students have often affect their future, especially when they try to get jobs. Almost all companies consider grades in school as part of their evaluation and many lower-income students with lower grades get a significant disadvantage in this process. Since these students also lacked time, they lacked experience, internships and other specifications that companies regard highly. An anonymous senior Yonsei student stated, “I do not have any experience except for blue-collar labor, and I don’t even have a drivers’ license. I also have bad grades, so I do not know what to do after graduation.”
   Many students also suffer from student loans and interests. As of 2014, the accumulate loans for students is \10 trillion, and 1/3 of the students were not able to pay back their loans even after graduation. Due to the interest rate which increases the loans, many students are burdened by this amount even before they get employed. This creates a vicious cycle in which lower-income students find difficulty in getting employed and are burdened by student loans even after getting the job. This increases the probability for them to inherit the financial burdens of their parents, simply due to the current education system we have.
   To improve this situation, students’ financial situations need to be evaluated properly and extensively, and justly treated. Instead of just opting to focus on income or wealth, students should be evaluated on all aspects, especially regarding special circumstances. Scholarships should also consider who is paying and the students’ living conditions. Based on these evaluations, schools should also try reaching out to these students and help them. Although some rules like attendance cannot be overruled, there is a definite need to consider inevitable situations. These students are unwillingly under special circumstances; hence, exceptional treatment would make it only fair and just.
   The student loaning system should also be changed. The current system makes the situation worse for the students, due to the burden they carry on for long period of time even after graduation. According to *Hankyorhe*, the student loans also cause national financial burden. Instead of the current system, many schools in the United States are opting to get rid of the loaning system and provide more funds in scholarship forms. This could be a possibility for Korean college scholarships as well. Lowering interest rates in promise for early return could also be a solution to lower the burden on these young students.
   To prevent inheritance of economic status, consideration in the employment process is necessary. In the case of Samsung, the company provides “lower-income student special employment” which gives opportunities for students of lower-income backgrounds. Other companies could provide similar programs to give equal opportunities for these students. If effort and circumstances are well-evaluated, it is fully just that these students receive special advantages. It is not easy to stop economic status inheritance, unless it is done at a young age. Helping them at a stage of employment may be the last chance for these students to stand and show their full capabilities.
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   Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Education is indeed the most important opportunity for students to advance into society; and the most probable chance for the nation to produce successful scholars and leaders. Depriving this prospect from students, Korea can be said to have problems in all three fields of education: public, private and higher education. In a democratic society with egalitarianism as its fundamental value, it is given that students have equal opportunities in education. For the sake of students and the nation as a whole, we must all endeavor to our very best.
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