Admission is up for the privilegedKorea’s relentless emphasis on schooling stems, in large part, from the belief that education is one of the strongest weapons to better oneself, and transcend poverty and modest family backgrounds.
But that notion appears to be shattering, as graduates from exclusive private high schools increasingly dominate the handful of spots available at Seoul National University (SNU), the nation’s top-ranked college.
In fact, the data provided by Etoos, a private education group, suggests that the path to SNU is most successfully traveled by way of elite private high schools, which charge high tuition rates.
All of the top 10 high schools credited with sending the most students to SNU are either foreign language, science-specialized institutions or private, autonomous high schools.
Daewon Foreign Language High School in Seoul ranked No. 1 with 95 students accepted, followed by Yongin Foreign Language High School, with 92 graduates enrolled.
Other schools on the list include Seoul Science High School, Gyeonggi Science High School and Hana Academy Seoul, a private self-governing school.
Autonomous high schools like Hana are financially independent and the government generally gives them more freedom to select certain students, create specialized curriculums and charge tuition.
Former President Lee Myung-bak initiated the plan to set up a number of those schools - an initiative that was intended to diversify the school system. However, critics argue that they are mostly “upscale institutions” reserved for top-scoring students from wealthy backgrounds.
From a broader perspective, graduates from those special private schools accounted for 53.4 percent of this year’s freshman class, or 1,795 students - a 6 percent increase from the previous year. The figure shows the sway those schools have, especially considering that 71.5 percent of the nation’s high school students go to public schools.
The prep schools with more than 30 graduates admitted to SNU were all high-flying, special-purpose and autonomous schools.
Admission counselors have pointed out that SNU’s admissions system is designed in such a way that favors those from the specialty schools. The university currently chooses more than half of its students based on the early admission system, which focuses on extracurricular activities, personal essays and interviews.
Last year, the university announced that it would also consider applicants with skills in art or sports to attract well-rounded talent.
“Many foreign-language schools and autonomous institutions have a well-established curriculum and resources that promote students’ art and sports activities,” said a teacher at a Seoul public school. “But we don’t have the resources or foundation to encourage students to engage in those activities.”
An admission expert with Etoos said that students from specialty schools are also more likely to have an advantage over their public school counterparts when it comes to personal essays and interview process.
“Expensive private schools have accumulated data and knowledge regarding successful admission,” said Oh Jong-woon. “They can prepare their students through a well-organized, reliable system and curriculum.”
Experts have expressed concerns for the growing gap between public school students and specialty prep school attendees.
The discrepancy coincides with the growing number of speciality school students enrolled from Seoul’s wealthiest neighborhoods. In a report last year by Representative Yoo Ki-hong, of the main opposition Democratic Party, seven out of 10 SNU freshmen from Seoul were reported to have came from Seoul’s three most affluent districts: Gangnam, Seocho and Songpa.
Notably, that figure jumped to 70.1 percent last year, from 57.7 percent in 2012 and 54.3 percent in 2011.
BY PARK EUN-JEE, KIM SEONG-TAK [firstname.lastname@example.org]