Students take an engineering course at Sudo Electric Technical High School, Seoul, Nov. 16, 2011.
Students take an engineering course at Sudo Electric Technical High School, Seoul, Nov. 16, 2011.

Students in Sudo Electric Technical High School?s workshop weld rods together while others hammer metal plates.

In a country that wins praise for its education system - U.S. President Barack Obama frequently cites Korea as a model for scholastic performance - the 600 students at a Seoul vocational school aren't receiving a typical Korean high school education, and most won't head to universities once they graduate.

"We are now focusing on some practical skills, which the IT field or the mechanics field really require," says Geum Donghoe, a teacher in Sudo?s information technologies department.

Although Korean students are among the highest scorers on international standardized tests, and up to 80 percent of high school graduates enroll in a university, some say there is a downside.

Conventional schools, critics say, are too focused on getting students into top universities when there aren't enough jobs for highly educated graduates.

Now the South Korean government is promoting alternatives to college, such as the electrical and electronics-engineering curricula at Sudo, much of which, says Donghoe, is on par with graduate-degree coursework.

"Once they graduate they can get into the real field right away and apply the techniques they learned in the high school immediately," he says.

Meister schools

Sudo is one of 21 so-called Meister schools nationwide. Modeled on German academies, some of the trade schools receive funding from the South Korean government.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, who was on hand at Sudo?s opening ceremony in 2010, says Meister graduates receive an internationally competitive high-tech education.

With government figures indicating that less than half of 2010 college graduates hold full-time jobs, along with news media reports that highly-educated applicants are usurping low-skilled positions from those with only high school diplomas, President Lee is promoting trade schools as an alternative to university education.

Because of a partnership with Korea?s electrical power authority that guarantees employment for all Meister graduates, students like 16-year-old Kang Seok-ho are forsaking traditional education.

"If someone graduates from university they are not so easy to get a job," says the first year Sudo student. "Too many university graduates are seeking for a job, and [it?s] very hard."

An outmoded post-war development

Korea?s emphasis on higher education is a product of its post war economic development, says Jasper Kim, visiting scholar at the Korea Institute, Harvard University, who teaches East-West comparative studies.

Photo of student on mother's prayer beads as she p
Photo of student on mother's prayer beads as she prays for daughter's success in college entrance examinations, Seoul, Nov. 8, 2011.

Korean families regard a university degree as the means to improve one?s financial and social status, he says, which lifted South Korea out of poverty during the 20th century but no longer satisfies the needs of today's job market.

"There?s a lot of supply of highly educated, arguably over-educated people, but on the flip side, the demand side, they all want to work for a narrow bandwidth of companies, namely the LGs and Samsungs of the world," he says. "They only need a few people and they only pluck those people from a certain narrow bandwidth of schools."

The only path to those schools is a high score on university entrance exams, which, he says, build tremendous pressure on students and lower the quality of Korea?s entire educational system.

Students, he says, become victimized by an obsession to attend elite schools.

"At the primary and secondary level, that?s really where the problem is - relatively low-quality education in which teachers effectively teach to the test," he says. "This means that they?re not really focusing on the pedagogical advancement of their students, [but] rather how to get students to pass a certain test, the college entrance exam, so that their placement rates at top universities will be very high and make the [primary and secondary schools] look prestigious."

He says fixing the system won't be easy, but that government promotion of vocational schools as an option for students is a step in the right direction.

A difficult decision

Still, the decision to skip university is a tough choice for any teenager.

Earlier this month, students outside In Jang Boys High School in Seoul cheered test takers as they passed through the main gate, heading in to take the exam that many Koreans consider the most important event in their lives.

Of South Korea?s 196 universities, it is only the top four that almost all Korean families want their children to attend.

Bae Tae-il?s son, who took the entrance exam on November 10 and will receive the results at the end of this month, says university name is critically important to most Koreans.

If you get into a famous university, you have more opportunities to define your life," he says. "You get more respect from other people, depending on what school you go to."

Sudo Technical High School student Seo Hyun Joos says she made the right decision to study here, instead of a normal school. But the 17-year-old says she understands her career interests may change with age.

Describing herself as young with opportunities awaiting her after graduation, if she doesn't like the work, she says, she will just study for university exams.

"I'll keep my options open," she says.