[WHY] Studying overseas: From boon to bane?

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[WHY] Studying overseas: From boon to bane?

Prospective students and parents receive admissions advice regarding U.S. colleges at the 53rd International Education and Career Fair at Coex, Gangnam District, southern Seoul on March 5. [NEWS1]

Prospective students and parents receive admissions advice regarding U.S. colleges at the 53rd International Education and Career Fair at Coex, Gangnam District, southern Seoul on March 5. [NEWS1]

For Koreans, the practice of yuhak, meaning “studying overseas,” is one that conjures an impression of professional ambition, cultural exoticism and privilege, but the idea of attending school abroad appears to have lost its luster in recent years.
Stories of former and current overseas students caught smuggling illicit drugs into Korea after being exposed to so-called “foreign drug culture,” such as the mass arrests in January of corporate scions who created their own marijuana supply chain after first using it during their studies abroad, have coincided with the diminishing appeal of yuhak — one that is reflected in declining numbers of Korean students abroad.
In the past decade, the number of Koreans enrolled in higher education overseas has fallen steeply from a peak of 329,579 in 2010 to 171,343 in 2020, according to data released by the Foreign Ministry. Aside from a few exceptions, there are fewer Korean nationals studying abroad in every major educational destination.
The United States, which attracted over 105,000 Korean students in 2010, had fewer than 44,000 Korean students in 2020. Neighboring China and Japan, which once boasted over 57,000 and 20,000 Korean students, respectively, saw numbers plummet to approximately 34,000 and 13,000 in the same time frame. Korean students in other Asia-Pacific countries and Europe likewise declined from over 83,000 and 36,000 to around 38,000 and 23,000, respectively.
High death tolls and severe lockdowns that took place abroad during the Covid-19 pandemic that began in early 2020 undoubtedly played a role in curbing demand to study overseas. But the decline in student numbers was apparent even in 2018, the last year that the Foreign Ministry released data on overseas student numbers before the pandemic — suggesting deeper reasons are afoot.

What is discouraging students from studying abroad?
Whereas one of the notable advantages of a foreign degree for students was once an edge in the Korean job market, domestic recruiters say this is no longer the reality.
One former consultant, who said he was active in recruitment up until his retirement last year, told the Korea JoongAng Daily on condition of anonymity that he witnessed a marked decline in enthusiasm for hiring foreign university graduates over his career.
“As recently as the 2000s, candidates with a foreign degree used to get a second look during the hiring process, but a lot of the advantages only they used to have — like their English or other foreign language abilities — are now also exhibited by graduates of domestic universities,” he said.
While acknowledging “there are outstanding candidates from both foreign and domestic universities,” the former consultant said, “Some recruiters can’t help but believe that graduates of Korean universities are survivors of our country’s much more intense college admissions process, and that trait proves they are able to endure higher pressure than foreign university graduates in a Korean workplace.”
An anonymous finance executive who previously worked at an investment bank recalled that although “there were expectations that Korean graduates of foreign universities could help our companies globalize, attract international investment and adopt the best of foreign business practices” when he joined the bank in 2000 in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, that enthusiasm waned in his company when some hires “seemed not only to struggle with Korean professional culture, but also with communicating in Korean.”
Dr. Lee Kang-ryol, director of the educational consultancy TEPI, said that prospective students’ parents are apprehensive that a resume indicating long-term overseas studies could be seen as a handicap in the eyes of most Korean employers.
“Parents now know that their child isn’t a shoo-in for a department chief position at a major domestic company just by virtue of being a fluent English speaker,” Lee said.
Lee noted that those who studied for an extended period of time abroad — usually defined as attending middle or high school overseas before matriculating at a foreign university — were at the greatest disadvantage in the domestic job market, and that Korean families have caught on.
A banner at the 53rd International Education and Career Fair at Coex in Gangnam District, southern Seoul reads ″All you need to know about long-term studying in the United States!″ [NEWS1]

A banner at the 53rd International Education and Career Fair at Coex in Gangnam District, southern Seoul reads ″All you need to know about long-term studying in the United States!″ [NEWS1]

“The drop in Korean demand for studying abroad I’ve witnessed is most pronounced among younger students,” Lee said, before adding, “Studying overseas from a young age is just not a thing anymore.”
The ever-rising cost of pursuing a foreign degree compared to attending a domestic Korean university poses an additional disincentive to studying abroad.
In the United States — by far the most popular destination for Koreans seeking an education abroad — international students pay $26,000 per year at a typical public university and $35,800 at private colleges, according to Times Higher Education, compared to an average yearly tuition fee of 6.76 million won ($5,200) at Korean universities.
For middle-class Korean families that may have previously considered sending their offspring to foreign universities, declining domestic employment prospects, coupled with growing tuition costs, means that studying abroad offers poorer returns on investment than before.
How has the image of studying abroad changed?
It wasn’t long ago that overseas studies enjoyed a rosier image.
One Korean drama series that captured the national enamorment with the idea of attending school abroad is “Love Story in Harvard” from 2004, which revolved around a love triangle of two male law students and a female medical student from Korea, set at the eponymous university.
But as recent headlines about drug smuggling rings run by former overseas students suggest, the mention of people who have studied abroad in domestic news is often negative.
“The Korean public’s impression of people who study abroad has been tainted in the media by mudslinging over politicians’ children who were educated at overseas institutions,” Lee said.  
“The undue attention on whether so-and-so’s son or daughter attended a foreign university has fostered a prejudice that studying abroad is the preserve of those with socioeconomic advantages, which doesn’t sit well with our society as it grapples with issues like inequality and privilege.”
One example of negative political publicity tied to overseas schooling was the repeated mention of New York’s Parsons School of Design in an unfounded 2017 accusation lobbed by a minor conservative party politician Lee You-mi against former President Moon Jae-in’s son, Moon Joon-yong. In that case, Lee falsely accused Moon of securing a job thanks to his father’s political ties by fabricating an audio recording of Moon’s former Parsons classmate.
The son of a Korean broadcaster who requested that neither his name nor his father’s name appear in this article said his parents decided to withdraw him from a U.S. college and enroll him in a Korean university “partially because they were worried about how poorly society would view my father’s initial choice to send me abroad for my studies.”
One senior newspaper editor who shared the news with his colleagues that his son had been accepted at a prestigious U.S. boarding high school was taken aback by some of their negative feedback.
“One colleague straight up asked me, ‘Don’t overseas students just party and do drugs off their parents’ money? You should be careful your son doesn’t do that,’” he recalled. “I was shocked he would say that.”
Why don’t overseas Korean students stay abroad?
Even as Koreans who hold foreign degrees face unfavorable headwinds in finding jobs at home, they are still left with the option of seeking employment in the countries where they studied — and while some do, available data suggests that most do not succeed.
In the case of the United States, the annual number of Koreans on full-time student visas who had received Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization — which allows international students to work for 12 months in the United States after graduation — has fluctuated between 5,000 and 8,000 in the past twenty years, reaching a peak of 8,074 graduates in 2018.
Not every person with OPT authorization necessarily seeks longer-term employment in the United States, but the temporary work permit is widely seen as a steppingstone to the H-1B visa.  
H-1B visa applications can be made by an employer that makes a case that a job candidate has specialized knowledge and experience. But not all are approved due to an official annual cap that ranges between 65,000 and 130,000, depending on exemptions and unfulfilled rollover quotas, and approximately two-thirds are granted to applicants who studied science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects.
Since 2001, just over half of all H-1B visas granted have gone to applicants from India, while only 2.8 percent of all successful H-1B visa applications were made by Koreans.
According to Lee, the fact that only 1,500 to 4,000 Koreans annually receive H-1B visas, and the chance to work long-term in the United States, is the result of most Korean students not majoring in STEM subjects at their American universities. 
“Over 90 percent of Indian H-1B applicants are STEM majors, which is true for only 20 to 30 percent of Korean students in America,” he said. “Since the H-1B program is designed to attract people with specialized knowledge and skills to the United States, most soon-to-be graduates from Korea have already kneecapped their American career prospects when the time comes around to figure out how to stay on in the United States.”
One 30-year-old woman, a former finance professional currently working at a start-up in Seoul who spoke to the Korea JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity, said her choice of French literature as a major at her Ivy League university likely reduced her chances of remaining in the United States.
“The investment bank I worked for in New York sponsored my H-1B application three times, but it fell through. I wanted to stay in the United States, but without a work visa, I was forced to leave and ended up working for the bank’s regional headquarters in Hong Kong,” she said.
Is studying abroad destined to become a thing of the past?
Canada is one of the most popular destinations for Korean students seeking an overseas education. [NEWS1]

Canada is one of the most popular destinations for Korean students seeking an overseas education. [NEWS1]

While the appeal of studying abroad from a young age and a foreign bachelor’s degree has undoubtedly declined in the past decade, enthusiasm for overseas studies remains undimmed among Koreans seeking a so-called “elite” education, advanced degrees and short-term exchanges.
“The most important aspect of a foreign education for Korean parents and students is the brand value of a school,” Lee said, noting that the name of the institution was the foremost priority cited by families he consults, ahead of the cost and prospective major.
Samuel Ryu, who previously worked at an educational consultancy in Seoul’s Gangnam District that offers comprehensive guidance and tutoring services for students targeting Ivy League colleges, said demand for advice about boarding school admissions from parents residing in the area’s affluent Apgujeong-dong and Cheongdam-dong neighborhoods far outstripped the company’s capacity.
“My director used to deliver lectures to parents and students on college admissions in Jeju, where several international schools are located. He wouldn’t ever disclose his contact details or his office location, but parents would chase him into the parking lot after the lecture ended to hand him their business cards and ask him to help their child,” Ryu said.
While Lee said that the establishment of more domestic English-language international and private schools has limited the demand for long-term overseas studies, Ryu said some ambitious parents of students at those schools appear more determined to see their children admitted at an Ivy League university.
“These parents feel that their child now has to play catch-up with peers who are enrolled at elite American boarding schools, like Exeter, Andover and Deerfield. They’re willing to pull their kids out of international schools in Korea if they can get them into a prestigious high school abroad.”
Pursuing an advanced degree, like a master’s or a doctorate, also remains a strong draw for those seeking to burnish their academic or professional credentials.
Large Korean conglomerates such as Samsung will sponsor foreign MBAs for employees whom they believe will contribute their experiences back to their company upon their contractually obligated return, according to one mid-level manager at the company.
A Korean doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, who asked his name not to be shared in this article, said that a Ph.D from a “reputable” U.S. university “remains essential for Koreans who want to pursue an academic career, in both Korea and the United States.”

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]
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