Compulsory Education: Primary education is compulsory. It has been free since 1979. At the age of six, children are admitted to a school in their residential area. By the late 1960s, the primary school enrollment rate reached 100 percent. Once children enter primary schools, they automatically advance to the next grade each year.
Middle school education is compulsory for all students ages 12 to 15, but free only to a limited number of students. Free middle school education began in 1985 in farming and fishing areas and is to be expanded nationwide step by step (MOE). The middle school enrollment rate reached 99.9 percent in 1994. The high rate is attributed to the policy dropping the entrance examination in 1969.
Educational Attainment: Since the Korean War, education has expanded enormously. As of 2000, there were 536 higher education institutions with 1,434,259 students in a country of 47 million; and in 1945, there were 19 such institutions with 7,819 students (in 1949 the population was just a little over 20 million). This means that the number of tertiary schools increased by a factor of 28 and students by a factor of 18.3, while the population only doubled. Korea boasts a literacy rate near 100 percent and one of the highest levels of education anywhere in the world. This is a dramatic change over the past 70 years. In the late 1930s the adult literacy rate stood at less than 30 percent, in spite of the Confucian respect for learning and the easy to learn Korean writing system, han’gûl. In 1995, it was about 98 (UNESCO).
As of the late 1990s, almost all Koreans of school age were able to finish high school. Even at college level, the enrollment reached 61.8 percent in 1996, compared with 6.7 percent in 1966 (UNDP). The enrollment rate in primary education reached 100 percent as early as the 1960s. The dropout rate is negligible in secondary schools. In 1985, the transition rate from primary school to middle school reached 99 percent. The transition rate from middle to high school exceeded 91.4 percent at the onset of the 1990s and 98.7 percent in 1996.
The transition rate from high school to higher education has also been increasing. Until the late 1980s, however, the government, while trying to make universal education available to precollege students, strongly controlled the expansion of higher education for fear of creating an oversupply of college graduates for available jobs. Following the government’s relaxation of such control beginning in the 1990s, the transition rate from high school to higher education reached 79 percent in 1996. As of 2000, upon birth, a child has a 77 percent probability of receiving a higher education. Though the rate of high school graduates advancing to college has been increasing for both men and women, 92 percent of male high school graduates ages 18 to 21 went on to colleges in 1998, whereas the share for women was just 55.5 percent. Some scholars point out that concentration of male and female students in specific areas of study leads to gender discrimination and employment inequality (Shim)
Almost all high school graduates would be attending an institution of higher education were the quota increased and financing available. The overwhelming majority of Korean parents want nothing less than a college degree for their children. For example, in 1993, about 86.5 percent of the Korean parents expected their sons to get a college or university degree and 79.4 percent, their daughters (KEDI 1994, 33). Many who cannot pass their preferred institution’s examination study abroad.
As of 1995, about 28 percent of Koreans ages 25 to 29 had college degrees. This figure can be roughly compared with percentages of college degree holders in other countries among those ages 25 to 34: Canada, 20.1 percent; France, 12.4 percent; Germany, 12.9 percent; Italy, 8.3 percent, Japan, 22.9 percent; the United Kingdom, 15.2 percent; and the United States, 26.5 percent (National Center for Education Statistics).