Saturday, May 14, 2011

Private Study Abroad Agencies (유학원들) in South Korea

Over the past several decades, private study abroad agencies have come to play a dominant role in South Korea's education sector.   The majority of Korean students interested in study abroad, often with their parents, employ the services of a study abroad agency to help find a suitable program, prepare for it, and apply for admission.  This pattern persists despite the fact that the activities of study abroad agencies are controversial, both here in South Korea, and in the United States, which is still the single largest destination for Korean students who study abroad.
The source of the controversy about study abroad agencies is succinctly described in a recent article in The Japan Times by Liz Reisberg and Philip G. Altbach of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston University.  In it, they note that "The primary client for agents is the institution that hires them. In order to be successful, they must deliver an acceptable number of students to their sponsoring institutions. Of concern is their activities, source of their fees, propriety of their services and transparency, particularly to students. Many universities suspect that agents sometimes complete applications and write essays for their student clients."
Because most private study abroad agencies accept commissions from schools for delivering student applicants, it is nearly impossible for many of them to provide comprehensive and impartial information about the full range of educational opportunities available in the United States, which is home to by far the largest and most diverse education sector in the world.  Partly for this reason, the U.S. State Department-affiliated network of more than 400 EducationUSA advising centers around the world  all subscribe to a code of ethics in student advising that prohibits them from certain types of work with study abroad agencies.
It should be noted that study abroad agencies in Korea have served a very useful purpose by translating the largely English language materials of U.S. colleges and universities into Korean and interpreting the sometimes complex cluster of admissions tests, essays and other requirements for the prospective students and their parents.  This is a need that will continue, even with continued development of the internet and mobile, digital media networks.   However, as Reisberg and Altbach note, there are alternatives to the private recruitment agents.
The digital information revolution makes possible direct, audio-visual and interactive communication between U.S. schools and prospective students not only in Korea, but throughout Asia.  The emergence of virtual events such as CollegeWeekLive in the United States have broad implications for how U.S. study abroad programs recruit students in Asia.   I will be commenting on some of these in future posts. Comments on the above issues are welcome.

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