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2017-11-22 17:07
By Kim Dong-ha



It is a cruel irony: Korea is a society noted for its passion for education, but the number of adolescents dropping out of school is soaring. According to the Ministry of Education, 60,000 to 70,000 students drop out of school each year ― and the dropouts are getting younger.

How times have changed. In the 1960s and ‘70s, sending children to school was the greatest investment and sacrifice parents could make. Back then, it was a privilege enjoyed only by the eldest son or the only male child. Today, education is universal ― but schools and schooling are no longer so attractive.

Quitting school by itself is no catastrophe. The problem is that juveniles who drop out are more likely to be involved in delinquency and crime, or end up in poverty. Current university enrollment is over 80 percent of high school graduates, and job competition is intense. This means young people without a basic education are especially likely to become social outcasts.

To put this in economic terms: The government estimates that the social cost for each adolescent dropping out of school is about 100 million won.

The Law on Supporting School Dropped-Out Youths was enacted in 2015, yet, drop-out rates remain significant and those who drop out are getting younger. According to Ministry of Education data, 62 percent of all adolescents who drop out do so during middle school ― which is compulsory education.

Dropping out of school is not a uniquely Korean problem; it occurred earlier and more severely in Western countries. For example, seven times more American than Korean students quit school. In response, the United States has developed a number of policies and programs for prevention and intervention, some of which have been proven effective. As a result, the drop-out rate in high school significantly declined from 15 percent in the 1970s to 8 percent in 2013.

However, in Korea, there is little in the way of prevention programs for adolescents who are at high risk of dropping out, and existing programs are more focused on post intervention or punishment. In most Korean high schools, students who have lost interest in school, or are often absent, are suspended from school rather than receiving any preventive intervention.

Currently, in a government-funded project, I am interviewing teenagers who are at high risk of dropping out of school in order to build a prevention model. My biggest takeaway from these interviews is that the students do not suddenly decide to quit school. Instead, after consistently dealing with a poor environment over a long period of time, they feel forced out. Most of the at-risk have been victims of peer bullying or indifference; of neglect; or of abuse from parents or teachers.

One high school girl said: “Both of my parents are too busy working. So since elementary school, I have almost always been left alone when I come home from school. At first I was lonely but now my friends are jealous because I can enjoy my freedom. There are no rules or regulations. My parents do not even pay much attention when I don’t go to school.” So this is another factor: school dropouts are often the result of an accumulation of frequent absences or tardiness that is ignored by parents or teachers.

Unlike Korea, which does not make parents responsible for student absences, the United States strictly regulates parental liability for teenage school absences. In West Virginia, parents of adolescents who are absent from 40 percent of their classes are obliged to attend school each day with their children or are fined up to $100 a day. Benchmarking this policy, the problem of school dropouts in Korea should no longer be regarded as an individual problem of the adolescents themselves, but should be expanded to encompass families and schools as responsible parties.

Dropping out from school is a complex phenomenon. The identification of potential dropouts and responding to their problems by placing them as early as possible into effective intervention services would benefit them, their families and society.

The rise of dropouts in Korean society reflects the erosion of the family function, as well as of the school function. Amid rapid economic growth and social change in Korea, families and schools have long been overlooked as policy priorities. Moving forward, the nation needs to restore the functioning of our families and schools so that our young people grow up in a healthy environment.


Kim Dong-ha (
dhkim@chungwoon.ac.kr) is a professor of social welfare at Chungwoon University.


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