Acceptance of overseas entrance exams is a new recruitment frontier

Use of the CSAT is likely to increase US enrolment of South Koreans but could bode ill for some of the latter’s domestic institutions, says Kyuseok Kim

July 15, 2023
Asian students
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The tide might be turning against standardised admission testing in the US, as increasing numbers of universities move away from its use amid concerns that they mitigate against diversity. But other countries are holding firm to standardised testing – and as the competition to recruit high-quality international students intensifies post-pandemic, some US universities are starting to accept such overseas-run tests in their admissions processes.

Take South Korea’s CSAT. Established in 1994, this standardised exam for college admission is relied on by universities across the country to evaluate applicants’ academic prowess and subject mastery.

So sitting the CSAT is a very high-stakes event in a culture characterised by credentialism and education fever. The higher-education landscape in South Korea is characterised by a rigid institutional hierarchy in terms of both prestige and rankings. At the same time, admissions policies and guidelines constantly evolve, heavily influenced by a Ministry of Education intent on ensuring social justice. But a high CSAT score remains the gateway to the pursuit of prestigious degrees, which, in turn, confer potent social capital.

For this reason South Korean students and their families invest heavily in the quest for outstanding CSAT scores. This nationwide preoccupation has spawned an intensely competitive educational culture, with young people frequently devoting their high-school years to exam preparation. Accordingly, the private education sector, often called “shadow education”, has flourished, providing a plethora of tutoring and consulting services, cram schools and supplemental programmes designed to enhance students’ CSAT performance.

A rising number of Anglophone universities, especially in the US, are now acknowledging the merits of the CSAT as a dependable gauge of academic prowess. Moreover, by incorporating CSAT scores into their admissions requirements, institutions such as the University of Oregon, Iowa State University and the four flagship institutions of the State University of New York system (Stony Brook, Buffalo, Albany, Binghamton) can directly access the competitive South Korean student market, circumventing conventional pathways such as foundation courses or international school credentials.

Even SUNY Korea, the State University of New York’s offshore campus in South Korea, has implemented an admissions track that mandates CSAT scores alongside its conventional US-style holistic admissions process to bolster enrolment.

The use of the CSAT in international admissions was pioneered by one of South Korea’s largest education service firms, renowned for its online college application platform. The success of this approach has spurred other educational institutions and service providers to consider similar tactics.

More than 120,000 South Korean students were recorded as pursuing their higher education overseas in 2022. More than 40,000 of these were in the US, making South Korea the third largest source country of overseas students in the US. Accepting the CSAT could see those figures rise even higher as it lowers financial and procedural barriers to admission, enabling a wider South Korean demographic to contemplate pursuing quality higher education abroad.

While common US-based tests such as the SAT, ACT and GRE have long been recognised by institutions across the globe, the fact that the US is starting to reciprocate might represent a new frontier in international student recruitment. It could trigger further shifts in the global higher education landscape. For example, what will happen if any destination countries start accepting the GaoKao, the similarly ultra-competitive Chinese national college entrance test?

Moreover, the international recognition of a wider range of standardised tests could prompt countries to re-evaluate their own standardised testing systems, potentially catalysing a more extensive transformation and improvement in educational practices worldwide.

However, the loser in all this could be domestic South Korean institutions, many of which are already struggling in an era of steep decline in school-leaver numbers. Dozens are already said to be insolvent. If more South Korean students choose to study abroad, it could trigger a wave of domestic closures.

Navigating a progressively more interconnected world in the quest for academic excellence may boost individuals’ prospects, but it might not be so good for South Korea itself.

Kyuseok Kim (Mick) is a PhD student at Korea University, specialising in higher education administration. He has an MBA from Sungkyunkwan University and has more than 13 years of experience in international higher education, having held positions at both a research university and a US branch campus in South Korea.

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Reader's comments (1)

This was a very informative article! It will be interesting to watch the evolution of the US and other worldwide admission processes expand to recognize/accept other national standardized test.