[Viewpoint] Leveling the university playing field

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[Viewpoint] Leveling the university playing field

Graduates of foreign language high schools made up about half of the students accepted into the humanities and science programs at Yonsei and Korea universities in the 2010 academic year.

They also accounted for a quarter of those accepted into similar programs at Seoul National University.

In Seoul, graduates of high schools in the upper-class enclave of Gangnam were admitted to the three universities over students from schools in Seong-dong, eastern Seoul at a ratio of nine to one.

According to the Korea Labor Institute, 21.1 percent of the children in families with incomes in the top 25 percent nationwide were admitted to the country’s top 21 universities, compared with just 2.7 percent of students in families that rank in the bottom 25 percent in income.

This trend is evident in the professional world as well.

Of all newly appointed judges in 2009, 37 percent graduated from special-purpose high schools or schools in Gangnam - up from 9.4 percent in 1999. It’s the same story among other professions including doctors, teachers and journalists.

In light of this situation, the important question is what role will universities play in terms of building our society in the future?

This growing problem can best be compared to arteriosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries. When the condition becomes severe, medicines are prescribed to improve the flow of blood.

It appears that our society has also reached the point where it needs a special prescription.

The fundamental treatment involves improving the structure of society in general, but it is also necessary to improve the university admissions system.

The most serious problem is the early admissions system. The system was introduced in 2002 to select students based on their talents before they take the College Scholastic Ability Test. It was seen as a way to diversify the criteria of the admission process away from simply relying on grades. And yet, the early admissions system has accelerated the trend in which a certain group dominates top schools and popular majors.

In 2007, 51 percent of all university freshmen in Korea were selected through the early admissions system, and 61 percent will be selected through this method in 2011. Therefore, this “special” system has now become the general type of admissions system, even though it was initially intended to be used as an exception.

Students tend to apply for early admission because it helps boost their chances of getting into a top college.

The situation could ease a bit starting in 2012, when each student will be limited to five early admissions applications. But this is not a comprehensive solution, and it will not eradicate the situation where a certain group dominates the top universities.

While Korean society has moved toward expanding the early decision admissions system in recent years, Harvard University in the United States decided in 2007 to stop recruiting students through this method. The prestigious university made the decision to help simplify and improve the fairness of the admissions process and even out inequalities.

The United States has two types of early admissions systems. The “early decision” format requires students who have been accepted to officially register with and commit to the school. The “early action” system allows those who have been accepted to still apply to other colleges through the regular admissions process.

The early decision system does not provide students with scholarships, which makes it nearly impossible for those from lower-income families to apply. For that reason, Yale and Stanford have replaced their early decision systems with early action formats. Harvard had recruited students through the early action system but scrapped it because the school believes it was discriminatory toward ethnic minorities and students from low-income families.

When university admissions systems become complicated, high school college counseling services play an even greater role.

In Korea, some parents have taken the initiative to help guide their children through the process. But expensive counseling institutes have emerged as a key player as well, further widening the gap between regions and income classes. In order to solve this problem, the number of students selected through the early decision process must be reduced, and the college admissions system must be simplified.

Some might worry that the college admissions system will revert to “forming a single queue,” but the recently introduced admissions officer system can be an effective alternative. Under this program, college admissions officers analyze applicants based on a variety of factors including their backgrounds and talent rather than simply their grades and test scores.

Moreover, top universities should look to work together to ease the inequalities in society. The government should also take the initiative to push universities in that direction. Only then will we see an improvement in the arteriosclerosis of our society.

*The writer is the president of the Gwangju National University of Education.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Nam-gi
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