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South Korean students balk at the high cost of college

By Jiyeon Lee
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Fight for an education
  • South Korean students protest high tuition fees
  • Students say South Korea's president didn't keep promise to halve tuition costs
  • University tuition fee average $7,000, while income is $20,000 in South Korea

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- Campus protests against rising tuition fees are considered a ritual at South Korean universities.

Each year the tuition goes up, students bring out banners and loudspeakers, shave their heads, take over the university president's office and use other creative methods to get the schools to cut back on tuition. The fight usually comes to an end by the time flowers start blooming on campus.

But final exams are almost over in the country and students are still protesting. This year they are not fighting with their schools, they have taken to the streets, sometimes in the thousands, and are pointing their fingers at the government.

"Halve the tuition," is their slogan.

Students and parents say they are tired of the unaffordable prices, lack of scholarships and paling quality of college education. Stories of students and fathers committing suicide due to the pressure of tuition circulated in the local media earlier this year, and students are frustrated with President Lee Myung-bak for not having kept his campaign promise to reduce college tuition by half if he was voted into power.

The administration said it was the president's pledge to reduce private education in half that was taken out of context by protesters. However, the government said it understands the importance of education and is coordinating with related ministries to help find a solution.

I wasn't sure if the education I was receiving was worth all these loans.
--Lee Hye-su, student

Whatever the promise, students say the cost of tuition and living is too high. Taking classes, doing assignments, and taking on part-time jobs in their free time, they say, leaves no room for self-development.

The average tuition fee at a private university can cost up to $7,000 U.S., while the average income hovers above the $20,000 mark. South Korea has the third highest tuition among OECD countries but falls behind the average of those in state scholarships and student loans, according to the Ministry of Education.

Lee Hye-su, a 22-year-old journalism major, believes student loans are better than nothing. She is in her sophomore year and is roughly $16,000 in debt. Having been fired from a campus restaurant with only a day's warning, she is now living on what little savings she has and needs to find another part-time job.

Lee said, after her freshman year, she wasn't sure she wanted to continue pursuing a university education. So she took a year off, she said.

"I wasn't sure if the education I was receiving was worth all these loans," Lee said.

However, Lee decided that in a country where more than 80% of students go to university, if she didn't earn a college degree she would not stand a chance in the job market. To get through her university education, Lee said she will take another year off to patch up her financial troubles.

"In the case of tuition, I'm taking out student loans, so I'll be focusing on making money for living costs. At least for tuition fees I can take out loans for now," said Lee. By the time she graduates, Lee will have accumulated nearly $32,000 in student loans.

This is why Lee took part in a major student rally in Seoul earlier this month, and said she continues to attend the demonstrations as long as they last. She is hoping collective voices will make a change.

By her side is her friend Lim Cho-youn, who has taken out $15,000 in student loans and relies heavily on her parents for financial support. She said she is not proud of that.

"I can't ask my parents to shoulder all of that for me, so I'm usually working part-time jobs non-stop," Lim said at the protest. Lim goes to classes four days a week and works nine-hour shifts at a supermarket for the remaining three days.

"I personally want the tuition to be cheaper, but I think that's not something I can do on my own. I think everyone needs to come together with their opinion so that our voices are heard, and I think it's important that everyone takes action together," she said.