[FOUNTAIN]Education as a race for credentials

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[FOUNTAIN]Education as a race for credentials

During the Tang Dynasty, the civil service examination evaluated candidates according to four qualities: physical appearance, speech, calligraphy and judgment. In today’s society, it has been satirically observed, Koreans are evaluated by physical appearance, speech and credentials ―i.e., academic background. One is treated differently depending on what college one attended; because of this, people will do anything to get into a top school. The competition to get into a better college is essentially a competition for credentials.
Michael Spence, co-winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, is famous for his “signaling” model of the competition for academic degrees. He presumed that education functions as a signal to others of an individual’s competency. In the labor market, employers cannot precisely gauge the ability of each applicant. Therefore, job searchers have to advertise their qualifications, and the most effective means is by educational background.
Mr. Spence claims that education does not necessarily improve an individual’s ability. Top schools do not nurture top talents; rather, top talents choose top schools in order to advertise their superiority to the market. In other words, a college diploma is not a credential that a graduate was educated at a certain college, but a signal that the graduate has the competency to have gotten into a certain school in the first place.
Though it is an imperfect system, it is much easier for employers to screen candidates based on their academic backgrounds than it would be to check the qualifications and competency of each and every applicant. Mr. Spence thinks that the demand for education is driven by the desire for better credentials. Education can also be seen as an investment individuals make to enhance their signals.
According to Mr. Spence’s model, the high demand for private education in Korea is not due to an exceptional passion for learning. Instead, it is more reasonable to consider the phenomenon as originating from the structural problems in the labor market. For these reasons, the government in June introduced a package to overcome the negative effects of school ties in the labor market. The citizens have been wondering what has become of the measure; instead, we now have news of the universities’ own rankings of high schools. The march of credentials continues.


by Nahm Yoon-ho

The writer is head of the family affairs team at the JoongAng Ilbo.
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