Harvard Class of 2024? <a href="http://flickr.com/photos/gusgordon/2284832191/">Gus Gordon</a> (<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/deed.en">CC</a>).
Harvard Class of 2024? Gus Gordon (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: No Skipping Class

Jun 2, 2008

As if Ivy League aspirations among American students aren't competitive enough, top South Korean high school students engage in extraordinarily intense and disciplined study to get admitted to Harvard, Yale, and other prestigious American colleges.

A recent New York Times article explored the day-to-day study habits of typical students at Daewon Foreign Language High School, an elite prep school in Seoul aimed at placing students in preeminent universities at home and abroad. Students are known to wake at 6:00 a.m. and finish the day sixteen hours later with evening study hall.

Ivy League competition is tough and getting tougher. College acceptance rates reached unprecedented lows for classes starting fall 2008. This drop can be attributed partially to larger applicant pools.

In South Korea, attending an Ivy League school has become something of a fad. Chinese and Indian students aspire also to an American education. The three countries send the largest numbers of international students to American schools at all levels—even more than neighboring Canada. What is it about the Ivy League that so resonates in Asia?

Ivy League education certainly carries a global brand. Asia is a large consumer of international luxury brands, and the Ivy League may fit that bill for higher education. With the emergence of mass affluence in Asia, brand names in general have become a regional obsession. According to a 2005 press release from the Chinese government, it is predicted that China will displace the United States as the world's second largest luxury goods consumer by 2015, surpassed only by Japan.

Leonardo Ferragamo, chief executive of Salvatore Ferragamo, predicts that the luxury goods craze will follow suit in India. "India will be tomorrow what China is today," he says. Radha Chadha and Paul Husband explore the sociological implications of luxury consumption in their book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia's Love Affair with Luxury, calling the Asian phenomenon a "luxeplosion."

Similarly, the number of international students in U.S. higher education has risen. The Institute of International Education reports that international students increased by 3 percent to a total of approximately 583,000 for the 2006–2007 school year. The top three contributors—India, China, and South Korea—grew by 10, 8, and 6 percent respectively. International students from Asia constitute 59 percent of total international higher education enrollment in the United States.

South Korea is special in its Ivy League ambitions. "Going to U.S. universities has become like a huge fad in Korean society, and the Ivy League names—Harvard, Yale, Princeton—have really struck a nerve," Victoria Kim, a Daewon alumni and recent Harvard College graduate, told the New York Times. School is also on a different calendar in South Korea: While the U.S. academic year includes a leisurely summer, elite prep schools in South Korea graduate in February and recommence in March.

But just like luxury goods, attaining an elite education remains a privileged affair. The number of Indian international students has increased, but not everyone has the means or opportunity to attend college domestically, let alone abroad. Tuition and student living expenses for an Indian public higher education institution cost about one quarter of an average family's annual income (one half in the case of private institutions).

Even basic education is limited: The 2001 Indian census shows that more than 35 percent of Indians remain illiterate (with female illiteracy topping 46 percent). China's literacy efforts have pushed its overall rate above 90 percent. Higher education enrollment rates have been steadily increasing in India and China for the past two decades, though they remain at about one-fourth to one-third of U.S. levels.

Access to the elite preparatory schools in South Korea is predominantly an upper class phenomenon, with students following in the footsteps of their doctor, lawyer, and professor parents. But despite this class division, South Korea's overall higher education enrollment rate is one of the highest in the world, suggesting a broad cultural dedication to education.

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