Educated Into A Corner

Here is an excellent comment to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The commenter, mark_r_harris,  is a teacher in South Korea who explains what happens when, as the Obama administration would like, every student in a country graduates from college.

On 60 Minutes a few weekends ago, it was mentioned that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would like 80% of American youth to attend and graduate from college. It is a nice thought in many ways. As a teacher and professor, intellectually I am all for it (if the university experience is a serious one, which these days, I don’t know).

But students’ expectations in attending college are not just intellectual; they are careerist (probably far more so). As it happens, I am now living and teaching in a country, South Korea, that meets the Gates’ standards. Right now, about 75-80% of Korean high school students enter a university. The 20% of Korean youth who do not attend university are mainly poor rural youth. Given the Koreans’ diligence, it is not surprising that the vast majority of university attendees also graduate, many with majors in scientific and engineering disciplines (“soft” degrees like marketing are not as popular here). This is a dedicated country.

But you know what? They can’t find jobs. It was reported in the Korean media a few weeks ago that according to the latest government figures, only half of recent Korean university graduates have found full-time work. Even the country’s best university, Seoul National, only has a 70% placement rate.

Now, Korea is experiencing an economic downturn, but not as bad as America’s. This employment issue has more to do with levels of training and subsequent levels of expectation. When a Korean student emerges from 20 years of intense study with a university degree, he or she reasonably expects a “good” job — which is to say, a well-paying professional or managerial job with good forward prospects. But here’s the problem. There does not exist, nor will there ever exist, a society in which 80% of the available jobs are professional, managerial, comfortable, and well-paid. No way. Korea has a number of other jobs, but some are low-paid service work, and many others — in factories, farming, fishing — are scorned as 3-D jobs (difficult, dirty, and dangerous). Educated Koreans don’t want them. So the country is importing labor in droves — from China, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, even Uzbekistan. In the countryside, rural Korean men are having such a difficult time finding prospective wives to share their agricultural lifestyle that fully 40% of rural marriages are to poor women from those other Asian countries, who are brought in by match-makers and marriage brokers.

Since young Koreans almost invariably live at home until marriage, whether they are working or not, it is routine for the young unemployed to do so. Their parents, who have a lot invested in their children’s successful outcomes, discourage them from taking low-level, part-time, or contract work, even just to get a start in life. As is usually the case, the only way they can see of improving their lot is not by lowering their expectations, but by improving their qualifications: by scoring well on English tests, getting additional certificates, and so on. But everyone else is doing this, too, so the competitive field remains the same. What will happen to these youths? The more years they don’t work, the less chance there is that they ever will. They become tainted, and possibly a permanently disenfranchised minority.

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