Education in South Korea

By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews, and
Hanna Park, WES Group Manager for the Asia & Middle East region.

Korea_infographicsIn this article, we offer an introduction to the education system of South Korea, with insight on how best to evaluate common academic credentials from both the secondary and tertiary system.

As a follow-up to this profile, WES offered a free interactive webinar on June 14 presented by Hanna Park, WES’ Group Manager for the Asia & Middle East region, with opportunities to submit Korea-related questions at the end of the session. If you missed this session, you can listen to an archived recording of the session here.


At 103 percent (UNESCO: 2010), South Korea has the highest tertiary gross enrollment ratio of any country in the world (total enrollment in tertiary education, regardless of age, expressed as a percentage of the total population of the five-year age group following on from secondary school), a statistic that is emblematic of the premium that is placed on education in the Republic of Korea. Sixty-five percent of Korean 25-34-year-olds have attained tertiary education (OECD: 2010), while over 97 percent of that same age group has finished at least upper secondary education. By both measures, Korea ranks Number One among OECD countries.


Based on international test scores, graduation rates and the prevalence of higher education seekers, South Korea is widely perceived as having one of the best K-12 education systems in the world. A study by education firm Pearson, with data from the Economist Intelligence Unit, found South Korea to have the second-best education system in the world (after Finland).

South Korea is also well known for the results its school children achieve in the OECD’s triennial Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates the scholastic performance of 15-year-olds in over 60 countries around the world. South Koreans ranked second in reading, fourth in math, and sixth in science in 2009, the last year for which results are currently available.

Alongside Korea and other regional powerhouses – such as China (Shanghai Metro), Singapore and Hong Kong – Europe’s Nordic countries also perform well on the PISA assessments. However, while Nordic educational success is largely attributable to well-funded and high-quality public schools, the success of Korean school children is often attributed to significant parental investment in after-school classes and other forms of private or additional tuition outside of the public school system.

Korean children spend 220 days a year in school versus 190 in Finland and 180 in the United States. By some measures, the average Korean child spends 13 hours a day studying after supplemental class time is factored in. According to a PISA criterion known as “study effectiveness,” South Korea ranks only 24th out of 30 developed nations. Children in Finland, the top ranked country in study effectiveness (and third ranked overall), spend significantly less time in school and in studying in general than is the case in Korea.

And therein lies the educational conundrum that policymakers in Korea face. They have a highly motivated and educated populace, but the system is failing to maximize the effort being put in by its students and teachers. The government has introduced reforms in recent years designed to reduce the emphasis on rote teaching methodologies focused on test taking, by lessening the importance of examination results in the university admissions process. However, there is a general consensus among policymakers that there is still a long way to go.

At the university level, there is also much work to be done if the government is to raise standards at its best institutions to a world-class level, as it wishes to do. According to the 2012 ranking produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Korea’s highest-ranked university, Seoul National University, sits among the 100-150th  best universities in the world, while just 10 institutions total are in the top 500. The Times Higher Education’s Ranking puts just six institutions in its top 400, although ranking individual universities a little higher than the Shanghai ranking,
with Pohang University of Science and Technology 50th, Seoul National University 59th and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology 68th.

Just 10,000 of 550,000 high-school graduates win places in the country’s top three universities each year. This dearth of top universities is a major contributing factor to the annual departure of tens of thousands of Korean students to overseas universities, mainly in the United States.

International Mobility


The United States is far and away the most popular destination for Korean students studying overseas. Of the more than 126,000 students who were studying abroad in 2012, over 72,000 were enrolled at U.S. universities (IIE Open Doors: 2012) — third overall behind China and India, despite having a population that is less than 1/20th of those nations. The next most popular study destination is neighboring Japan, followed by Australia, the UK and Canada. Across all levels, some 100,000 Korean students are currently in the United States, according to March 2013 figures from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.


Source: UIS Global Education Digest, 2012

A phenomenon somewhat unique to education-obsessed Koreans seeking English-language fluency is that of the so-called “goose family”: a family that migrates in search of English-language schooling, often with the father staying at home to support them. As many as 200,000 Korean families are thought to have sent their pre-college children abroad for an English-language education, with 27,350 school students overseas in 2008, according to government data. New Zealand, Australia and Canada are popular, but public schools in the United States, and Southern California in particular, are the preferred destination. In addition to English fluency, a major competitive edge in the Korean job market, parents are often looking to spare their children from the notoriously competitive and exam-focused Korean school system by sending their children abroad.

With regards to academic mobility into South Korea, the international student population comes almost exclusively from the Asia-Pacific region, with well over 50 percent of the almost 90,000 international students studying there in 2011 hailing from China. This represents a significant increase from the 49,000 international students that were in Korea just four years previously, and comes close to hitting government targets of attracting 100,000 students by 2012.



International Branch Campuses

For those that do not want to send their children overseas for an international education, there are increasingly options closer to home. South Korea has become a magnet for international schools that are being built outside the major metropolitan areas. On the southern island of Jeju for example a number of branches of international schools from Canada and the UK have been established in recent years to give parents the option of an international education without having to leave Korea. According to current plans, 12 prestigious Western schools will have opened branch campuses by 2015 in the government-financed, 940-acre Jeju Global Education City, where everyone speaks only English. The first school, North London Collegiate, broke ground for its campus in 2010.

Forty miles south of Seoul, the city of Songdo has been created on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land on the Yellow Sea. Chosen for its proximity to Incheon International Airport, the development project includes Songdo Global University, which opened in 2012 and currently houses the State University of New York at Stony Brook, with agreements in place for the launch of branch campuses of George Mason University (2014), the University of Utah (2014), and Belgium’s Ghent University (2014). Also in the planning stages are campuses of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Russia’s prestigious St. Petersburg State University (2014).

World Class University Program

Korea’s World Class University program is an approximately US$600 million five-year funding initiative that was introduced in 2008 to attract leading researchers from around the world, as part of a government drive to internationalize and boost the global competitiveness of its universities. Under the scope of the program, international academics have been invited to submit applications to establish new academic programs and conduct joint research at 30 Korean universities in fields of emerging technologies.

The program has attracted applications from over 1,000 foreign researchers, including more than 400 from the United States, with almost 350 having been selected over the program’s two phases. According to the Korea Science and Engineering Foundation, which administers the program, 11 Nobel laureates, 12 members of the U.S. National Academy of Science and 18 members of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering have lectured or conducted research in Korea under the program.


Other Internationalization Efforts

Universities in Korea have been encouraged to internationalize their curricula, and a number of the top-tier universities – including Yonsei, Korea University and Ehwa – have recently established all-English four-year liberal arts colleges to attract both Korean and international students. In addition, faculty and tenure rules have been changed to now make it possible for foreign academics to take tenure-track positions. Currently, there are very few international staff at Korean universities and most are employed on short-term contracts.

Education System

With the growth of the Korean economy in the second half of the twentieth century came a period of rapidly increasing access to educational opportunities through the 1960s and 1970s. From 1945 to 1970, the number of children attending primary school rose from 1.4 million to 5.7 million; at the high school level between 1945 and 1990, enrollments grew from 40,000 to 2.3 million; while at the university level student numbers have grown from under 8,000 in 1945 to approximately 3.3 million today.

This rapid expansion of the education system led to overcrowding, teacher shortages and intense competition for university places. To address these problems, teacher education was reformed and upgraded, entrance examinations between school levels abolished, junior colleges and correspondence schools created, and the college entrance examination was standardized in an effort to normalize high school education. From 1985, after the creation of the Commission for Educational Reform, the emphasis of education policy has been on improving infrastructure, teaching and curriculum standards, and the promotion of science education.

Judging by the performance of Korean students in international benchmarking testing (see introduction), the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s have been highly successful. At the tertiary level, Korea’s institutions are less competitive on an international basis, but are still among the best in the Asia-Pacific region, according to various global rankings of the world’s universities.

School Education

The Korean education system operates on a 6-3-3-4 basis, with six years of primary schooling followed by three years of middle school, three years of high school and four years of undergraduate education. The first nine years of schooling are compulsory for children between the ages of six and 15; however, school attendance is close to universal all the way through to the upper secondary level. Students typically attend their local elementary and junior high schools and have little school choice until the end of compulsory education.

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology oversees the national school curriculum, with flexibility in design accorded to individual schools depending on their objectives. The last major curriculum overhaul was enacted in 1998 (revised in 2009 and 2012) with a focus on promoting individual learning pathways, the reduction of study loads, and the nurturing of creative thinking. The so-called ‘Seventh Curriculum’ consists of the Basic Common Curriculum and the Selected Curriculum at the high school level, covering 10 years from primary school through the first year of high school. Students are given the flexibility to choose their courses in the final two years of high school as they prepare for a future career or study path.

Despite the emphasis of the l998 reforms on promoting individuality and creativity, Korean students still face incredible pressure and long hours of study in the pursuit of strong results on examinations that can make or break chances at future career success.

Primary Education

Primary education in Korea is free and compulsory from the age of six. Primary education runs from first grade through to sixth grade, and the enrollment rate at this level is essentially universal.

English has been taught as a part of the regular curriculum since 1997, with one hour per week assigned to third and fourth graders, and two hours per week for fifth and sixth grade students. Core subjects include: ethics, Korean language, mathematics, science, social studies, PE, music and the arts. Over 34 weeks of schooling per year, children attend 850 hours of classes in grades one and two, 986 in grades three and four, and 1,088 in grades five and six.

Middle School

Middle school runs for three years and is free and compulsory. Since 1990, progression from primary school to middle schools has essentially been universal. In middle school, students are streamed according to ability in mathematics, English, Korean language, social studies and science.

Other core subjects, which are not ability-streamed, include moral education, PE, music, fine arts and practical arts. In addition to these core subjects, students pursue extracurricular and optional courses, including home economics and technology, foreign languages, computer and information technology and environmental education. Annual instructional hours total 1,156 at this level.

High School

High schools are divided into general/academic, vocational, and special purpose (foreign language, art, and science high schools). Graduates of middle schools or the equivalent may enter high schools. This three-year period of study is neither compulsory nor free; nonetheless, the progression rate from middle school to high school has been above 99 percent since the mid-1980s. The majority of students attend general/academic schools, and about 30 percent attend vocational schools.

Admission to senior high school differs across school systems. In major metro areas, designated “equalization areas,” a computer lottery system places students, while schools in other regions admit students based on prior academic achievement and school-administered entrance examinations. At a minimum, those entering upper secondary must have a Junior High School Diploma.

Both public and private schools follow the national curriculum framework developed by the ministry. In the first year (grade 10), the curriculum includes 10 compulsory subjects and 10 elective courses. The 10 compulsory subjects are: Korean language, ethics, social studies (including Korean history), mathematics, science, technology and home economics, physical education, music, fine arts, and English.

After the first year of general education, students select their major areas of study, with options to pursue humanities & social studies (divided into geography, history, politics, economics and cultural studies), natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology and earth science), or vocational training. Most students at general/academic schools choose a path based on their future college preference. Students graduate with a Senior High School Certificate.

Vocational/technical high schools offer general secondary education in the first year, with specialized courses in the fields of agriculture, industry, commerce, fisheries/maritime, and home economics in the final two years. At the end of vocational high school, students receive a Vocational High School Certificate.

To graduate, students must attend a minimum of two-thirds of all classes (220 days), and promotion between grades is based on educational assessment and evaluation, with midterm and final exams at the end of each semester. Students receive activity records providing detailed information about their academic performance. These records, which include attendance, extra-curricular and service activities, and details of awards, are increasingly used for admission to university in order to reduce the pressure of admissions examinations.

Aside from general and vocational high schools, the government also runs foreign language high schools, science high schools, and art high schools. These ‘special purpose schools’ have greater autonomy and students gain entrance through a lottery system. Approximately 10 percent of students who attend academic high school in Korea attend a special purpose school.

University Admission

At the end of high school, students must take the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) if they want to continue on to university. The test is administered by the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation in November each year, and is offered in one of three streams (social studies, sciences or vocational education). It covers five subject areas: Korean language, mathematics, foreign languages, social studies/sciences/vocational education, and a second foreign language/Chinese characters. An average of 250 out of 400 is the minimum needed to pass.

The college application process is divided into three phases: special selection, regular selection, and additional selection, based on application and acceptance volume to each university. The special selection process allows participating universities to admit up to 40 percent of their students before the general pool, but students using this method cannot apply to other institutions with the main pool.

Despite the introduction in 2008 of the “Admission Officer System,” designed to promote admissions based on more than test scores, the results of the CSAT remain crucial in determining which university students will attend. Given the high stakes nature of the test and the importance of entering a highly regarded university for future career prospects, most parents spend large sums of money on private tutoring and cram schools to help prepare their children.

Higher Education

According to government figures, 85 percent of Korean institutions of higher education are private. Approximately 78 percent of university students and 96 percent of professional school students are enrolled in private institutions. Government funding for Korean universities accounts for under 23 percent of total university revenue, significantly lower than the OECD average of 78 percent.

Unlike many other countries around the world, the perception of private institutions of higher education in Korea is on par with that of public universities, much like in the United States. However, the rapid expansion in access to higher education has led to concerns about the quality of university teaching and university graduates in general, a factor that has been one of the driving forces behind the exodus of Korean students to universities abroad.

The ministry recognizes seven different types of institution at the higher education level:

  1. Colleges and universities
  2. Industrial universities
  3. Universities of education
  4. Junior colleges
  5. Broadcast and correspondence universities
  6. Technical colleges
  7. Other miscellaneous institutions

According to the latest government figures there are currently 359 institutions of higher education operating in South Korea with an enrollment of just under 3.3 million students. Of the country’s 222 four-year colleges, 180 are private, and among two- and three-year junior colleges, all but nine of the 149 schools are private.

Oversight and accreditation of Korea’s institutions of higher education is regulated by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. Among other things, the ministry controls the establishment of institutions and academic departments, curriculum and degree requirements, and student quotas. Institutional accreditation in the university sector is the responsibility of the Korea Council for University Education (KCUE), while programmatic accreditation is conducted by specialist agencies recognized by the ministry. There are currently 201 universities accredited by KCUE.

Although Korea’s universities do not rank that well in global rankings, there is incredible pressure on high school students to secure places at the nation’s best – or most highly regarded – universities, as institutional reputation and alumni networks are strong predictors of future job prospects. The top three – often referred to as ‘SKY” – are Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. According to the influential Joongang Ilbo University Rankings, the top 10 universities in 2012 were:

  1. Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)
  2. Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH)
  3. Yonsei University
  4. Seoul National University
  5. Sungkyuwwan University
  6. Korea University
  7. Sogang University
  8. Kyung Hee University
  9. Hanyang University
  10. Chung-Ang University

According to government figures, more than 85 percent of high school students go on to some form of higher education. However, a looming demographic crisis has government officials predicting an enrollment decline of as much as 40 percent in the next 12 years, with more university places available in 2016 than there will be high school graduates. Current government estimates foresee the closure of 100 universities by 2040.

Higher Education Programs and Qualifications

Associate Degree (2 – 3 Years)

Junior colleges offer two- or three-year postsecondary programs, after first being established in 1979 in response to the increasing demand for technical manpower brought on by the nation’s rapid post-war industrialization. Since then, the number of junior colleges has grown to 149 with an enrollment of over 772,000 students.

Junior colleges and industrial universities offer two- to three-year programs in a range of vocationally oriented fields. Most programs are two years in length and require 75-80 credits. Three-year programs require the completion of 120 credits, and are offered in nine fields, including nursing, mechanics and fisheries. Approximately 50 percent of the junior college freshman quota is reserved for graduates of vocational high schools, craftsmen qualified by the National Certification System, and workers meeting specified industrial requirements.

Programs are typically structured to offer 40 percent general subject content and 60 percent technical content, with an increasing emphasis on internships. Students are assessed by examinations taken in the middle and at the end of each semester.

Junior colleges are focused on training mid-level technicians, but students can also transfer credits to four-year programs (much the same was as community college students in the United States can) under junior college – university agreements.

Bachelor Degree (4 Years)

Korean bachelor programs (Haksa), offered at universities and colleges, are typically four years in length, although accelerated study programs can be completed in three years. Professional degrees tend to be longer, with architecture requiring five years, and dentistry and medicine being six years.

The standard four-year bachelor degree requires a minimum of 130 credits and is typically structured to include two years of general education and two years of specialized education. One credit point requires one hour of coursework (two hours lab/practical) over a 16-week semester. A thesis, project or comprehensive examination is required for graduation, in addition to an overall grade point average of at least C (2.00).

Master Degree

Offered at universities and four-year colleges, the master’s degree (Suksa) requires two years of full-time study, the completion of coursework and a thesis, 24 or more credits and a grade point average of B (3.0) or better.

Entry is based on the completion of a bachelor degree with a GPA of at least 3.0, qualifying exams in the intended field of study and English, and a selection interview.

Doctoral Degree

Doctoral programs are supervised by the Ministry of Education and require the completion of a thesis, 36 credits over at least two years full-time (four years after a bachelor degree – 60 credits). Students must also show proficiency in two foreign languages and maintain a grade point average of a B or better.

Entry is based on the completion of a master’s degree (in some cases, students can enter directly into a combined masters/doctoral program that requires twice the coursework of a standard doctoral program). Some research experience is typically required.

Grading Scale


WES Required Documents

In order to complete a credential evaluation at the secondary level, WES requires the applicant to submit a clear, legible photocopy of the graduation certificate or diploma issued in English by the institution attended. In addition, academic transcripts issued by the institution attended should be sent directly.

For higher education, the applicant must submit clear, legible photocopies of all graduation certificates or diplomas issued in English by the institutions attended. In addition, academic transcripts issued in English by the institutions attended for all postsecondary programs of study must be sent directly by the institutions attended. For completed doctoral programs, a letter confirming the awarding of the degree must be sent directly by the institutions attended.

Sample Documents

This file of Sample Documents (pdf) shows a set of annotated credentials from the South Korean education system, beginning with public high school documents, and followed by junior college and undergraduate credentials. For a more in-depth discussion of the documents seen here, WES is offering a free interactive webinar on June 14.

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