Higher education leaves students anxious, unprepared for workforce - Korea Times
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Higher education leaves students anxious, unprepared for workforce

By Christina Lee

Over the last year, COVID-19 has put Korean students' lives through a pressure cooker. After trying to learn without the normal sources of support, they are now graduating into one of the toughest job markets ever.

With nearly four out of 10 recent graduates unemployed, and 57 percent of the unemployed still jobless one year after graduation, it is no wonder students often feel that the tuition bills they pay are out of all proportion to the opportunities that result. Stuck at the starting gate of their careers, they may fear that the pandemic will mar not just 2021 for them, but the following decades too.

The Chegg.org Global Student Survey gives us a detailed picture of the views, hopes and fears of students in Korea and 20 other countries around the world as the pandemic upends their lives. Korean students have shown great determination to keep learning ― yet the study shows the toll that is being taken on their mental well-being.

Nearly four in 10 students (39 percent) say their mental health has suffered during the pandemic, with more than 5 percent of all students reporting suicidal thoughts.

Since 41 percent of all Korean students said they had struggled to afford housing, food, bills or medical expenses in the last year, financial pressures are likely contributing to poor mental health.

Student debt is inevitably also a contributing factor: 28 percent of those with a loan related to their studies say they lose sleep over it, and nearly half (46 percent) say it makes them wish they'd made a different career choice.

As the pandemic forces students to adapt to a new set of circumstances, many will be reconsidering whether they can justify the huge cost and time commitment of campus-based higher education. And if the price of higher education is the loss of one's health or unmanageable levels of debt, students will eventually seek other routes to their career goals.

In fact, our study indicates that Korean students are already rethinking whether their college education is a good investment. Only 27 percent say it is good value for money ― the lowest percentage in any of the 21 countries we surveyed.

Although 63 percent said their main motivation for studying was career-related, less than half (46 percent) think their education is preparing them well for the job market ― again, the lowest of any country polled.

According to a separate OECD survey of youth unemployment in Korea, many Korean students think the education system does not equip them with the skills for success, and employers also seem to judge formal qualifications as insufficient, preferring their own employment exams as indicators of ability.

Mismatches between field of study and occupation were also found to be higher in Korea than the OECD average, while the earnings premium for graduates was lower, with a significant share of graduates earning less on average than non-graduates.

How, then, can universities adapt and survive, whilst at the same time giving students a fairer deal? It is clear that they need to offer a more flexible and affordable higher education model.

Now that Korean students have had a taste of the benefits of online learning, 57 percent say they would like their university to incorporate more of it after the pandemic.

Furthermore, over half (53 percent) said they would prefer a shorter degree if it were cheaper, and nearly two-thirds (64 percent) said they would rather their university offered the choice of more online learning if it meant paying lower tuition fees.

The shift toward online learning is now inevitable ― and Korea is one of the best-prepared countries to take advantage of this, with 99 percent 4G or better coverage and 99.5 percent of households having internet access.

Over the last 25 years, Korea's government has prioritized national investment in EdTech, developed its own online courses for tertiary science education, and more recently increased the capacity of e-learning platforms to support millions of students.

More online learning will give young people access to a higher education that is on-demand, affordable and accessible anywhere on whichever device suits them best. It could also reduce the time it takes to graduate, helping to shrink student debt.

Despite all the obstacles they have experienced in their education, and the challenges that lie ahead as they enter the workforce, Korea's students remain resilient: Most (58 percent) say that all things considered, they feel happy, and nearly twice as many (47 percent) said they felt optimistic rather than pessimistic (27 percent).

Faced with setbacks, the majority of today's students are looking to the future with hope. The much-needed reform of higher education will allow the next generation to benefit from the lessons of today ― and will help give them the opportunities that have hitherto been denied to so many.

Christina Lee is vice president of International Growth at Chegg, an American education technology company based in Santa Clara, California.

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