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Korean Study Abroad Numbers Drop as Return on Investment Falters


By Jenna Gibson

For South Korean children, studying abroad and mastering English used to be the key to success, prompting waves of students to head overseas for their diplomas. Now, South Korea is the third largest source of international students studying in the United States, behind only China and India.

But this trend may be nearing its end. In 2014, 220,000 Koreans in their 20s studied abroad, down from 260,000 in 2011, according to Statistics Korea. The number of Koreans studying in the United States has fallen for the last three years in a row, dipping below 70,000 for the first time since 2007.

It all comes down to economics. With rising costs overseas and a stagnant economy at home, more Korean students are choosing to stay put. But while money is clearly a key factor in deciding where to go to school, there is more to studying abroad than increased salaries. The intangible and societal benefits of cross-cultural experiences can easily tip the scale in favor of leaving the peninsula.

Study Abroad Graphic Final

Why are Korean students staying home?

In a word, money. Tuition and living costs are increasingly expensive, particularly in the United States, where one third of South Korean students who study abroad choose to go. Part of the draw has always been so-called “English Fever,” a trend that started in the 1990s as a government push to increase Korean businesses’ global competitiveness by emphasizing English language education, according to a report in International Educator magazine.

Still today, English is part of required curricula from third grade to graduate school. In an effort to boost their child’s proficiency, many families began sending their children to study abroad in English speaking countries starting as soon as elementary school. Sending children abroad to study English became so common that a new term emerged to describe these split families – a “Goose Father” stays home in Korea to provide for his family abroad, only able to “migrate” and see his family once or twice a year.

But as more students began flocking abroad, the market for bilingual workers became saturated, and English started to lose its competitive edge. At the same time, more international universities are opening campuses in Korea. Thanks to the opening of the Songdo Global University campus, Stony Brook University, George Mason University, the University of Utah and more have set up shop in Incheon. The best part – these campuses offer international education at prices comparable to domestic universities.

In addition, the job market makes it hard to justify spending more to send students overseas. According to the Korea Herald, youth unemployment is at its highest since 2000. And for those aged 15-29 that have a job, 34.8 percent of them are in contract positions with limited job security.

With all these changes, studying abroad is no longer the silver bullet it used to be. Now, one student said, “Korean employers perceive returnees from abroad as being more expensive hires because of the costly tuition they shelled out for their U.S. education.”

Further, “in Korea, kinship is important. It’s a very relational society…You have to have a good network in your school to get a job. Those students who study in the States don’t,” according to Jaeha Choi, director of student recruitment and admissions at SUNY-Korea

No wonder parents and students are no longer seeing enough return on their investment from studying overseas.

Looking beyond costs

While it’s understandable to look at costs and benefits when considering study abroad, parents and students must also remember that not all benefits come with a dollar (or won) sign.

In fact, according to a long-term survey of Americans who studied abroad between 1960 and 2007, the non-economic benefits of living outside of their home country were clear. These students were more plugged in to world issues and cultural differences, and were more likely to express a desire to make a difference and work toward the common good. These students were also more likely to pursue graduate work than the national average. Participants overwhelmingly cited their study abroad experience as one of the most influential experience in their lives. Bottom line, the researchers found, “investing in study abroad has both major social and individual benefits, and, thus contributes to the development of not only human capital but social capital, and, thus contributes to the common good, above and beyond the personal private benefits.”

In the short-term, Korea and its citizens may save money by cutting back on English education. But in the long run, Korea risks losing its global competitiveness if it drops its English focus. The government in the 1990s wasn’t wrong to emphasize English as a gateway to the world economy – English is by far the world’s most used language in newspaper publishing, book publishing, international telecommunications, scientific publishing, international trade, mass entertainment, and diplomacy. And, let’s face it, there is no substitute for learning a language than living in a place where it is spoken. This is not to say that English Fever doesn’t have its faults, but cutting back on the chance for students to live and study abroad should not be seen as a blanket solution.

Obviously, costs come into play when students and families make the decision to study abroad. Keeping this in mind, American universities need to reduce tuition for international students (and for domestic students while they’re at it) to help boost return on investment for Korean families. But at the same time, families need to keep in mind that the benefits of study abroad are numerous and lasting, and can reach far beyond each individual student.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Michael Cote’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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