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[Opinion] College Degrees Losing Their Value

Posted June. 07, 2007 03:05,   


Published in the daily newspaper Maeil Shinbo in 1917, “Mujeong” (heartlessness) by Lee Kwang-soo was Korea’s first modern full-length novel. The main character of the novel is Hyeong-sik, a man who had studied in Tokyo, Japan. Once a beggar, he went to school thanks to support from Mr. Park, an enlightened intellectual in Pyongyang, and even studied in Tokyo, Japan before he returned to Korea and became an English teacher in Gyeongseong School in Seoul. Having a hard time choosing between Seon-hyeong—a beautiful modern girl and daughter of church leader Mr. Kim—and Yeong-chae, the daughter of his former patron Mr. Park, he eventually chose the former. A man of great fortune, Mr. Kim makes an “investment” in Hyeong-sik who had nothing but his bachelor’s degree.

Since dynasties collapsed and hierarchical social systems were eradicated, college degrees, in any country across the world, have been the only path to obtaining better social status. Nowadays, however, it seems that college degrees are not enough even to be part of the middle class, let alone high society. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), U.S. suggested college degrees are now becoming useless for these purposes, citing the average wage increase of college graduates has fallen short of the productivity of U.S. society and that the average income of the current generation is 12 percent lower than that of their fathers’ 30 years ago.

The power and authority of college degrees have also declined in China. As the number of college students is on the rise, colleges there produce 4.13 million new graduates every year, but 60 percent of them end up jobless. Unlike in Korea, those from law and medical schools show the lowest employment rate in China. More recently, even graduates from such prestigious colleges as Tsinghua University choose to end their lives, and this has become a serious social issue. The economy is growing rapidly, but it mainly consists of manufacturing industries that require simple, physical labor, leaving highly-educated people with nowhere to work for. Some analyze that having been brought up as “little emperors,” the younger generation is avoiding difficult jobs.

Last year in Korea, the employment rate of college graduates stood at only 67 percent. This is largely because of various regulations imposed on businesses by the current administration and the resulting economic slowdown, but it is also partly attributable to an excessive supply of college graduates. Back in 1976, the number of graduates from four-year universities (including technical colleges) was only around 58,300, but after 30 years, the number soared to 500,000 in 2006. At a time when about 80 percent of high school students go to college, your college degree can no longer guarantee you a good job. An “inflation” of academic background, coupled with sluggish economic growth, might lead to a very tight job market, and eventually, to a collapse of the middle class, the very foundation of democracy. This reveals the gloomy side of the ongoing “discount” in the value of college degrees.

Chung Sung-hee, Editorial Writer, shchung@donga.com