How is the Mobility of Korean Students to the U.S. Shifting?

By Mirae Baik, WES Research & Advisory Services

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The Republic of Korea, more commonly referred to as South Korea, has been among the top three sending countries for international students to the United States for the past 10 years. The United States attracts nearly 63 percent of all Korean students who study abroad, followed by Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Increasing competition for a U.S. education has also resulted in admissions related fraud as evidenced in the recent SAT scandal.

Historical trends show that the absolute number of Korean students in the United States rose steadily until 2009, but has declined since. Looking more closely, the number of Korean undergraduate students surpassed graduate students in 2006. Today undergraduate students outnumber graduates by some 17,000. This undergraduate growth can be attributed to the increased affordability of a foreign higher education, with the country’s gross national income (GNI) per capita increasing by more than $10,000 over the same 10-year period, as well as the need for younger generations to have a competitive edge in a tough job market.

At the graduate level, application data for 2013 shows continued weakness with a 13 percent decline in applications for the 2013/14 academic year building on a 1 percent decrease in 2012. Additionally, business and engineering programs have become increasingly popular among Korean students, while education, health, and the humanities have seen a decline in popularity over the past four years. This shift is likely a reflection of the Korean economy which is driven largely by technology-centered conglomerates exemplified by the rise of Samsung.

Korean Student Mobility to the U.S.

Despite the recent increase in Korean undergraduate enrollments at U.S. institutions of higher education, the overall stagnancy in Korean student mobility is likely to persist due to low fertility rates and new opportunities to earn international degrees at home. Already, three U.S. universities – State University of New York at Stony Brook, George Mason University, and the University of Utah – have joined the ambitious Songdo Global Campus Project, with the promise of more to come.

Given the value placed on a U.S. higher education among Korean professionals, it is likely that institutions in the United States will maintain a competitive edge in attracting Korean students versus institutions of higher education in other popular destination countries, but the academic profile of Korean students has begun to shift. The number of undergraduate level students is likely to continue to increase as graduate students decrease, while the total number of students remains steady. Korea, therefore, remains a promising source country of international students but recruitment efforts will need to be targeted at the right audience.

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WES Research & Advisory Services offers research-based consulting solutions on student mobility, international enrollment, and transnational education.

See more at wes.org/RAS

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