Youth taken hostage by tuition fees
Many collegians buried in part-time work at expense of study
By Jung Min-ho, Bahk Eun-ji, Kim Bo-eun, Kim Jung-yoon
Paying for school is a nightmare for many collegians. They are stuck in a vicious cycle ― having to do multiple part-time jobs to cover tuition fees at the expense of their studies.
With earnings from part-time work far from sufficient, they also have to take out loans to foot education bills, which will hold their futures hostage.
Yoon, a 27-year-old junior at Sogang University in Seoul, is juggling three part-time jobs to pay for school. He reenrolled this semester, after taking two semesters off to do a wide range of part-time work.
After attending classes in the morning, Yoon starts as a working-scholarship student in an administration office at his college for five hours in the afternoon
He usually finishes at around 6 p.m. but sometimes has to stay until midnight.
He also works as a private tutor for a high-school student twice a week. On weekends, he heads to a karaoke bar in his neighborhood and from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m., he works behind the counter taking money and cleaning the rooms.
On top of the low wages, he is constantly worried about being laid off.
“I live in fear of losing a part-time job. Since there is no legally binding contract when it comes to part-time work, it totally depends on the employers. You never know when you will be laid off,” Yoon said.
“Social welfare for students is not just about providing financial aid, but about letting students work with stability so that they can strike a balance between work and study.”
His predicament is becoming the rule rather than an isolated case on college campuses across the country. Students from low-income bracket families are feeling the squeeze the most.
Hard to keep up with school work
Although it takes more than three hours from school to her workplace, a 23-year-old college student chooses to commute every weekend.
Kook, a student at Youngdong University in North Chungcheong Province, 260 kilometers south of Seoul, works every weekend at a restaurant in Itaewon all day to pay for her college tuition and living expenses.
“I take a free fair bus to work at a Spanish restaurant in Itaewon on Saturdays and Sundays to save money for the next semester, and to cover my living expenses,” said the 23-year-old.
Asked why she has to work on weekends and catch up with her studies on weekdays, she said there is no one in her family who can afford to support her.
“My family cannot afford to pay for my tuition, dormitory fees and cost of living. I am currently receiving a state scholarship and state subsidies that amount to slightly above 1 million won ($854) in total,” said Kook.
Yet, 1 million won only pays a small portion of her tuition.
Living in the dormitory, she says she cannot find a place to work in the remote and rural area where her college is located, not to mention a place that can pay her minimum wage.
“Since I work on weekends from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., it’s difficult for me to keep up with school work. Obviously, I am not getting good grades.”
As working only two days a week is not enough, Kook is also looking for another part-time job at a coffee shop.
At the same restaurant, her co-worker Kim, aged 24, is also working as a part-time waitress to save up money for graduate school. Kim works at a restaurant at night, teaches English as a tutor during the day, and does translation work as a freelancer.
Poor grades, no credentials
Lee, a 22-year-old college student in her senior year, is covering her tuition through loans. Previously, she had engaged in various part-time jobs at convenience stores and fast-food chains to save up for her tuition.
Although Lee would work night shifts during the vacation, sometimes she has had to take a semester off, because the amount she had saved up was not enough.
Lee had been paying about a third of the 3.3 million won fees until the spring semester of her sophomore year, with her parents paying the rest.
However, since the fall semester of that year, she started paying more and is now bearing the full amount.
Her parents weren’t able to afford to pay for Lee’s entire tuition, their only asset being their house. In addition, she and her older brother attended college at the same time for a couple of years, creating a greater burden.
At times, a relative would lend money to the family, but with the economic downturn, the situation worsened.
When she worked during the semester, Lee said she would be dead tired by the end of the day, and her grades for that semester would inevitably fall. “You simply cannot focus on studying when working at the same time,” she said.
Now in her senior year, Lee is preparing to find a job. However, when she looks back at her college years, all she has is a low GPA and part-time work experience. She said she doesn’t have any licenses, certificates or scores for certified English tests. She simply has not had the time to prepare, due to worries over her tuition.
“Honestly, it’s upsetting that things have turned out this way,” she said.
Lee is planning to pay back her loans once she starts working. However, with her lack of credentials, the chances of finding a decent-paying position do not appear very rosy.
Kim was full of hopes and dreams when he entered graduate school last year. With an opportunity to work as a research assistant, tuition fees were no longer an obstacle to keep the 27-year-old from pursuing what he was passionate about. However, it only took a few weeks for him to realize what he had really got himself into, which once appeared to be a great opportunity.
“My daily schedule for the past one-and-a-half years has literally drained my energy. Waking up at 7 a.m., I had to cope with enormous amounts of work every single day,” Kim said. “What made me even more frustrated was it was mostly unrelated to my major. I also had to work on weekends to cover my living costs. It was really tough.”
Swamped with excessive tasks, he barely had an opportunity to study, which resulted in poor grades. He said he has been unable to reach anywhere close to the academic goal he set before entering the school, describing his situation as “putting the cart before the horse.”
“I think many college students’ situation these days is little better than factory laborers in the 1960s where they had to work really hard and study at night in an effort to achieve their dreams suffering from chronic fatigue,” Kim said. “That is pretty much what I do. The order is just different since I study in the morning and work at night suffering from exhaustion all the time.”
He said the problem appears to be indelibly stamped in the structure of Korean society where everyone works extremely hard without any promise of opportunity at the end of the long dark tunnel.
He said it is a sad fact that universities and colleges have lost their original value of educating students who thirst for their academic fields. He said he feels schools are becoming factories churning out laborers in a form tailored to the needs of companies.
“It just prolongs an unproductive period where students have to spend their money and time. I believe, credentials-wise, this generation is the most educated and qualified one in history,” Kim said. “Unfortunately, the cut-throat competition won’t stop even after people somehow land a job.”
He said even after graduates find work, they will be haunted by the specter of debt they borrowed to pay for school.
“No wonder everyone seems so unhappy these days,” Kim said.