South Korean students are ditching US schools for Made-in-China degrees

October 3, 2013
October 3, 2013

In yet another blow to the US export machine, China may be trumping America in its offerings of college education for foreigners.

According to new data from South Korea’s ministry of education, South Korean students who have long been attracted to universities in the US are opting Chinese universities instead. The reason? China is undercutting US educators on price and offers the opportunity to learn Mandarin, now a coveted job skill.

The country has long been a major exporter of students, second only to China and India. Like China and India, the top destination for Koreans has been the US and other English-speaking countries. (An overseas degree is considered an advantage in South Korea’s extremely competitive job market.) But over the past few years, the number of Korean students studying in China has been rising faster than the rate of those going to the US. According to the government data, the number of Korean students studying in China more than tripled between 2001 and 2012, to 62,855, compared to 73,351 Korean students in the US, which was only a 50% increase over the same period.

South Koreans aren’t the only foreigners shying away from US universities. According to the OECD, over the past 30 years, the number of students studying in universities outside their home countries has risen fivefold, (pdf, p. 306) to 4.3 million in 2011. In that time span, the number of international students who chose to study in the US has dipped. The proportion of international students who went to the US for school fell to 17% in 2011, from 23% in 2000, according to the OECD (p. 307).

In the case of South Korea, the shift is partly about cost. (In some cases, Korean students who aren’t able to get win a spot in good universities at home opt for China’s top schools, where competition for international admission is lower.) As more middle-class South Korean households struggle to manage rising debts and high education costs, more are looking to cheaper degrees from China for some relief. The nation spends the highest proportion of its GDP on private education in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, according to OECD data. In China, university tuition costs on average $3,500 per year for undergraduate study, compared with $30,000 to $40,000 in US tuition for overseas students. Flights to China and living costs there are also much cheaper than in the US.

Of course, unless South Korea’s government finds a way to curtail household debt, soon its students may not be able to afford venturing abroad at all, not even on the cheap.

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