[WHY] Is the prestige of Seoul National University all it's hyped up to be?
“This guy here graduated from Seoul National University,” says Gi-hun, the main character in the smash hit Netflix series “Squid Game,” (2021) referring to his best friend Sang-woo. Sang-woo's attendance at Seoul National University (SNU) is mentioned constantly throughout the show, so much so that memes spread online.
Whenever Gi-hun introduces Sang-woo as an SNU graduate, people respond with reverence and awe, while Sang-woo himself seems embarrassed or doesn’t want to talk about it.
Foreign viewers might have been confused at the constant SNU babble, but to Koreans, Gi-hun ranting on about SNU and people being so impressed with Sang-woo are perfectly ordinary scenes. Most Koreans at one point in their lives would have had their parents or adults around them pestering them to study harder so they can get into SNU, lamenting that they hadn’t gotten accepted to SNU or comparing them to someone who had.
So why is SNU such a big deal and why are Koreans obsessed with this one particular university?
Fans new to Korean dramas may have heard about SNU for the first time through “Squid Game,” but the university has been popping up in various shows and movies since, well, since shows and movies started being made in Korea.
Most recently, in the popular legal drama “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” aired on channel ENA this year, the titular protagonist Woo Young-woo, a young lawyer fresh out of law school, is introduced as a SNU graduate. In the first episode of the series, Woo’s new boss, the head partner at the firm, reads off Woo’s resume and comments that she is a top candidate who graduated from SNU and SNU Law School.
A long list of other television shows and movies feature SNU graduates, too, including “Penthouse” (2020-2021), “The King” (2017) and “Misaeng” (2014), to name a few that were commercially successful. In most of these shows and movies, SNU students or graduates have one thing in common — they are depicted as exceptionally smart and apt at climbing the social ladder, although they may appear nerdy or lacking in social skills at times.
One television show even dealt with the craze surrounding SNU as its main plot point, JTBC’s 2018 drama “Sky Castle.” The show’s title refers to the acronym “SKY,” which groups together the top three universities in Korea — SNU, Korea University and Yonsei University. It told the story of helicopter moms who shepherd their children to private tutoring and extracurricular activities in order to get them admitted to SNU, especially SNU Medical School.
In the show, some of the mothers go to extreme lengths to achieve their goal, spending millions of won on tutors, plotting against the other kids and moms and even getting involved in illegal activities. This may sound over-the-top, but many viewers praised the show for reflecting reality, including the Minister of Education at the time. “Sky Castle” ultimately broke viewership records and received numerous accolades at end-of-year award shows.
So what’s with the craze?
One word: prestige.
SNU is by reputation, ranking and output the undisputed top university in Korea. Its graduates dominate almost all sectors of Korean society, from politics and business to academia and the arts, and there is an obvious expectation that attending the school will open up career paths and access to a coveted network of alumni.
“When I got accepted, the first thing I thought was that the work was over,” said a current SNU undergrad, who did not want to be named. “My parents and teachers always used to tell me that once I get in, it will be a free pass to life. Of course I found out that that’s not the case, but that’s what I was told.”
It would be easy to believe such coaxing, since evidence is abundant that SNU graduates fly high. In a 2020 report by Job Korea, an employment information platform, 10.8 percent of 3,753 corporate executives in Korea were SNU graduates, taking up the most executive positions from a single university. SNU undergrads took up 36.1 percent of those who passed the notoriously difficult public service exam last year, according to data compiled by the Law Journal.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, an SNU graduate himself, was criticized even before his term officially started for favoring fellow SNU alumni when appointing people to his transition team, where over half of those initially named were graduates of the university.
Yoon’s administration was not the first to show such preference. The proportion of SNU graduates in government has been consistently high in past administrations, at one point reaching 33.7 percent of all senior civil servants in 2016 during the Park Geun-hye administration, according to the Ministry of Personnel Management.
Studies have even showed that a SNU diploma gets you more money. A study by the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI) in 2012 measuring the “university prestige” effect on wages earned by graduates, found that the prestige effect for SNU results in wages was 12 percent higher on average than that of other universities in the country.
“It’s all wrapped into the same phenomenon of social recognition,” said Hwang Kyung-moon, professor of Korean Studies at Australian National University. “Educational certification determines social status in Korea.”
How hard is it to get into SNU?
It’s very difficult — just how difficult is reflected in the sheer size of the private education industry in Korea and the amount of time students spend in private academies, or hagwon.
Last year, total spending on private education in Korea was more than 23.4 trillion won ($16.6 billion), according to Statistics Korea and the Ministry of Education. There are arguments that the actual total spending could be even larger, because spending through cash is not tracked. In a survey by the KEDI in 2020, 94.3 percent of parents with children in elementary, middle or high school replied that they felt financially burdened by sending their kids to hagwon or tutoring.
A whopping 75.5 percent of all students in Korea are put through private education, spending time in hagwon and tutoring in addition to regular schooling. On average, Korean students spent around 6.7 hours a week studying in private institutions, academies or tutoring last year, according to Statista, a global market and consumer data company.
The pinnacle of private education and the competition to get into SNU is embodied by a certain neighborhood in Gangnam District in Seoul — Daechi-dong. One of the most expensive places to live in Korea, the neighborhood is famous as the mecca of private education, home to over a thousand hagwon, according to the Korea Education Statistics Service operated by KEDI.
Desperate parents are known to relocate their families entirely so that they can be closer to Daechi-dong, while even more kids flock from all over the city, and even from different parts of the country, to attend hagwon in the neighborhood.
“My family moved to Daechi-dong when I was in middle school,” said the SNU undergrad student. “It was only because of the hagwon that we moved there — after my younger brother finished high school we moved out again. I think most people at SNU have gone to hagwon in Daechi-dong at one point.”
Despite all these resources and effort spent to get into SNU, only an infinitesimal number of students get accepted each year — around 0.05 to 0.3 percent of the total number of students in the country, according to Jongno Academy, one of the oldest hagwon in Korea.
Places like Jongno Academy cater to those who take the risk of investing another year or two into studying to get into SNU after they get rejected the first time around. Applying for a second time is called jaesu, and the third time is called samsu. This is parallel to students in Japan taking second and third shots at getting accepted to the University of Tokyo, or Chinese students to Peking University.
Basically, getting a spot at SNU is a very, very long shot.
Is graduating from SNU really a free pass?
It may have been in the past, but not so much anymore.
“There are urban legends among SNU students about how in the 80s and 90s, you could walk into your department’s student office, grab an application form for the top companies in the country and just sign your name and get accepted,” said the SNU undergrad. “It’s not like that at all these days. I guess more people go to university now and the economy’s bad in general, but I’ve heard people complaining that our diploma isn’t worth what it used to be.”
In a survey conducted by the university and published last month, over 40 percent of current SNU students, alumni and faculty responded that they expected the prestige and reputation of the school to decline in the next ten years.
Because even an SNU diploma won’t guarantee the same successful career or high salary that it used to, more students are opting to drop out of the university than ever before. Last year, 330 students dropped out of SNU, according to data compiled by the university and made public by the office of Rep. Moon Jeong-bog of the Democratic Party. It marked the largest number of students to drop out in 23 years since the university started collecting related data.
New restrictions barring applicants from revealing which university they graduated from in application processes to a number of government organizations, put in place as criticism about elitism surfaced in recent years, have also muddled up prospects for graduates from universities like SNU.
But experts point out that the prestige of SNU isn’t likely to plummet too drastically, despite how students and alumni may feel.
“Unless companies also take part in disregarding the name on diplomas when they hire people, not much will change,” said Hwang. “And it’s hard to make meaningful reforms to the system now because the people who have the power to make such decisions are those who benefit from the system — they are SNU graduates.”
“There is no evidence to prove that the premium enjoyed by SNU graduates in the labor market has declined,” said Choi Seong-soo, professor of sociology at Yonsei University. “If indirectly inferred based on the fact that income inequality among college graduates has hardly changed between the 1990s to the present, it’s unlikely that the premium of SNU or other prestigious universities has changed either.”
Perks and burden
Free pass or not, SNU students and graduates enjoy a lot of perks, and along with them, a burden, too, apparently.
“It’s a two sided coin,” said the SNU undergrad student who requested anonymity. “I feel I get treated specially and sometimes that’s a plus, but then again everyone around me expects me to do well in everything and it can be suffocating.”
An academic article by Jeon Eun-hee, an educational researcher who also lectures at SNU, examined how SNU students formed cliques within the university and their own academic identities. Students from the university were found to enjoy a “halo effect” of SNU, and “favorable overvaluation” from the fact that they attended the school. But there were also negative aspects of “sociocultural prejudice with the label of SNU.”
Another study by Kim Myeung-chan that specifically looks into SNU students who experienced failure in the form of academic probation, revealed that such students blamed themselves for “not living up to the name of an SNU student” and failing to get “careers that fit the status of an SNU student.”
While this all sounds quite grandiose, it’s a reflection of just how loaded the name of SNU is in Korea.
“Usually, I intentionally curb around the question of which university I go to because I don’t want to label myself,” said the SNU undergrad student. “It’s all just too complicated.”
No wonder Sang-woo in “Squid Game” never mentioned it himself.
BY LIM JEONG-WON [firstname.lastname@example.org]