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The Peninsula

Why are there Fewer South Koreans Studying in the United States?

Published November 26, 2018
Category: South Korea

By Phil Eskeland

Earlier this month, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released its annual report documenting student flows both into and out of the United States.  While the total number of internationals enrolled at institutions of higher education in the United States grew slightly by 1.5 percent to reach nearly 1.1 million students in the 2017/2018 academic year, the number of students from South Korea in the U.S. declined to 54,555 or by 7 percent.  While Korea was still able to maintain its ranking as the third largest source of foreign students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities, the decline is apparent and is spread across all levels of higher education.  This is critical because South Korean students contributed nearly $2.3 billion to the U.S. economy, from paying hefty tuition and fees to living expenses, helping to contribute to the robust bilateral trade surplus in services for the United States.  On the local level, the economic effect of a typical student from South Korea amounted to nearly $42,000 in 2017, one of the highest financial impacts out of the 25 countries highlighted in the IIE report.  However, if the number of South Korean students coming to the U.S. continues to decline, their economic impact both locally and nationally will be more limited.

Why are the numbers of South Koreans studying in America declining?  There could be several explanations.

First, the number of young people in South Korea is not as large as it was even a decade or so ago.  In 2006, there were 9.2 million children between the ages of 0-14 in South Korea, representing nearly 19 percent of the population.  Now, there are only 6.7 million children, forming 13 percent of the total population.  As a result, the pool of future students from Korea continues to shrink.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea now has the lowest fertility rate out of all the developed economies of the world, which has fluctuated somewhere between a 1.1 and 1.3 replacement rate since 2001, down from 1.8 in 1992.

Second, young South Koreans have more opportunities around the world to obtain a college education taught primarily in English by going to school in either the United Kingdom or other English-speaking countries, such as Australia and Canada.  These countries have less cumbersome visa requirements, particularly if students wish to remain and work in the country after obtaining their degree.  South Korean students no longer feel the need to come to the United States to gain a high quality education.  In addition, some of these non-U.S. colleges and universities are less expensive than their U.S. counterparts, which often charges international students the full tuition rate with little or no scholarship opportunities.  According to the IIE, personal and family contributions comprise nearly 60 percent of the primary funding sources for international students to pay for college (vs. only 5 percent by a foreign government) so every avenue to find the best value for a college education is explored.

Third, some U.S. universities have opened up satellite campuses in South Korea, including George Mason University, the University of Utah, and the State University in New York (SUNY), to enable students to obtain a U.S. degree and still reside in Korea.

Fourth, there may be an unfortunate sense of unease among some Korean students (and their parents!) in coming to America, both with increasingly toxic rhetoric against immigrants and foreigners in recent years, along with concerns about security with the heightened media attention to every large scale gun shooting or other acts of violence that regrettably occurs on occasion in the United States.

Finally, the IIE reports that while the overall number of foreign students in the U.S. has increased, the number of new internationals enrolling at an institution of higher education in the U.S. has declined for a second year in a row, this time by 7 percent.  Thus, the declining trend of foreign student enrollment is not unique to Korea, but affects students from many other countries in the world as well.  This will have larger implications for colleges and universities across America as they deal with ways to close their budget gaps and increased competition for international students who pay full fare to enroll at their institution.

The one bright spot in the IIE report shows that the number of Americans studying in South Korea continues to increase.  In the 2016/2017 academic year, 3,770 Americans studied abroad in South Korea, an increase of 4.1 percent.  South Korea is ranked 20th in terms of country destination for the 332,727 U.S. students seeking a higher education in another country.  This may be due in part to the relatively new satellite campuses of U.S. universities in South Korea.  However, it may also be a testament to the growing world-wide reputation of South Korean universities, along with a desire for Americans, particularly those of Korean descent, to be immersed in the Korean culture and language to understand both countries.

While the IIE report points out some warning trends for U.S. educational institutions and U.S. government policy makers who are interested in attracting more international students to America, particularly from Korea, the outlook for Americans who wish to study in South Korea continues to look promising.

Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.  

Photo from Jeremy Sorrells’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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