One in four students rejects leading Korean universities’ offers

Pragmatic approach to careers and medical school frenzy behind trend of turning down offers at prestigious ‘SKY’ institutions, academics say

March 6, 2023
Career path
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A quarter of students accepted by South Korea’s most elite institutions this year have rejected offers of admission, indicating that pragmatism may outweigh prestige in students’ choice of university.

The so-called SKY universities – which include Korea University, Seoul National University (SNU) and Yonsei University – are among the top-ranked and most heavily subscribed in the country. But recently, increasing numbers of students have turned down the opportunity to attend them.

This year, 25.7 per cent of students offered a spot at SKY universities decided not to enrol.

At Yonsei, 596 students, or 35.6 per cent of the incoming class, received offers after being waitlisted, Korea’s JoongAng Daily newspaper reported.

At Korea University, 468 waitlisted students, or 28.5 per cent of first years, were offered admission, up 96 students from 2022. Seoul National made offers to 134 people on its waitlist – 10 per cent of the incoming class and up 16 students, according to the report.

Academics believe the trend has much to do with a stagnating economy, which has made stable career paths more appealing, motivating students to choose offers of admission into medical schools and engineering degrees at non-SKY universities over spots in humanities and even engineering courses at SKY.

John Lie, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, said that for many students, the calculus is about finding a job.

“At the top there are people who have a global outlook [where] the ultimate trophy is Harvard, not SNU, [but] there are many more who stress career prospects,” he said.

As a result, an offer from a top engineering programme like the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) – a prestigious though non-SKY university, known for its industry links – seems “a lot more attractive” to students than one from Korea University or Yonsei, he said.

Sangwoo Lee, a research fellow at the UCL Institute of Education, agreed that a faltering economy has made it more difficult for all recent graduates to find stable and permanent jobs, something that’s true “even for SKY university” alumni.

He noted that recent changes to the university entrance exam could also be playing a role in the phenomenon. Last year, Korea’s College Scholastic Abilities Test (CSAT) exam was reconfigured, requiring all students to take a more difficult mathematics section – and giving the upper hand in admissions to those strong in maths and sciences.

“It has become possible for students who studied natural science in high school to apply to humanities or liberal arts at universities with fewer restrictions,” Dr Lee said.

“However, humanities or liberal arts at SKY universities tend not to be the first choice of those who studied natural science as most students also apply to a medical school. In other words, the school of humanities or liberal arts at SKY universities is like an ‘insurance’ mechanism for the best performing students.”

While Dr Lee conceded that today’s incoming students have shown a “soaring preference for medical schools”, he doubted that the trend could in the long term undermine the prestige of Korea’s top institutions.

“They are still the dream schools for almost all students in South Korea, regardless of their academic achievements,” he said.

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