[Outlook]Investing in our future

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[Outlook]Investing in our future

College tuition fees are surfacing as an important issue. They are regarded more seriously in Korea than in other countries because a much higher percentage of people continue their education after high school. According to recent statistics, nearly 84 percent of students go to college, the highest figure in the world.

That means tuition fees affect almost all people of all classes, unlike in other countries where the issue concerns a relatively limited number of people. The tuition fee issue doesn’t only concern families. In this country, it has the potential to surface as a wide-reaching social and political issue.

While going to college or university has become commonplace, social instruments to help students with tuition fees haven’t been properly developed, a glaring omission that is causing social conflict.

Although many agree that investment in human resources leads to economic growth, we have so far operated by the notion that paying tuition is entirely up to an individual. Therefore, despite the economic and social importance of investing in higher education, tuition fees have been regarded as an issue that only concerns universities.

The first step to resolving this problem is to establish a public institution that helps students with tuition. Academic background, economic capacity and information are three major factors that give people access to university education.

Of those three, the gap in economic capacity and information can be narrowed down if a society makes the effort. In this context, it is worth noting that the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has decided to establish a national scholarship foundation.

The government’s scholarship program only offers a small amount of support, and it is managed by several different agencies. This year alone, the government’s project to help university students with tuition consisted of 25 different programs. There are 16 that offer to cover the whole cost of tuition, eight for student loans and one under which students can work in order to receive financial help.

The 25 schemes are managed by seven different ministries. As a result, even those people in charge of scholarships at universities have difficulty grasping the entire picture of the government’s scholarship programs. Most students and parents don’t have enough information about the scholarships that can help them.

Nearly 2 trillion won ($1.63 billion) of the state budget is poured into the scholarship programs annually. But there is not even a system to evaluate how the budget is being used, and to what effect.

In order to resolve these problems, a single agency must be established that will be responsible for managing the government’s scholarship programs. It is expected that the national scholarship foundation will take care of this job.

Korea has come up with this idea belatedly compared to other advanced countries, such as the United States, Japan and Britain, which already have agencies that handle scholarships and tuition fee subsidies.

It is urgent, therefore, that the national scholarship foundation integrates all government programs related to scholarships and student loans and offer tailored services for individual students.

The foundation should offer detailed information on the different costs for entering different universities, ways to raise the money for tuition, student loans, repayment of loans and opportunities to work at schools or in other places. In this way, students will no longer not be able to get a higher education just because they lack information.

A national scholarship fund must be established as well, and the volume of the fund should be increased to provide help to a greater number of students. The methods with which we increase the amount of money in the fund should vary, from government investments, government bonds and foundation bonds to donations from the private sector.

The interest rate for student loans should be lowered as well. By doing so, the national scholarship foundation will ease the economic burden of both students and parents.

The national scholarship program is not merely a social welfare charity program. It can be defined as a government investment project, supporting students who have the potential and enthusiasm for further education but lack the financial capacity to put themselves through university.

The establishment of the national scholarship foundation will make it possible for people to go to university and become successful members of society after they graduate, not because of the amount of money their parents have or their family background, but based on their competence alone. This will help our society become truly just and productive.

*The writer is a professor of public administration at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ha Yeon-seop
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