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Why Korean students prefer math over literature

More students choose advanced math, science courses due to higher earning potential, better job prospects

By Choi Jeong-yoon

Published : Jan. 1, 2024 - 16:51

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Students look at college admissions data at a private academy briefing session on strategies to successfully enter university. (Yonhap) Students look at college admissions data at a private academy briefing session on strategies to successfully enter university. (Yonhap)

"Mungwa," which broadly refers to studies in the liberal arts in Korea, is crumbling due to a sharp decline in the number of students choosing to pursue a career in the humanities, the arts and social sciences.

According to recent data released by Jongro Academy, one of the biggest education firms in Korea, among 166 classes on offer at some 16 private high schools in Seoul, only 53 classes (31 percent) were categorized as mungwa. The remaining 113 classes were classified as "igwa," which stands at the other end of the spectrum, covering advanced math and science-based subjects.

The reasons behind the trend likely stem from the social perception that such fields yield higher rates of employment, as well as from a potentially strategic motive to achieve higher scores in the Suneung, the national college entrance exam.

A senior at a Seoul high school who wished to be identified by his surname, Kim, says nine out of 12 classes in his school are categorized as "advanced math classes."

"This is a boys' school, so many tend to take advanced math courses. There's a stereotype among students that if you select courses in the humanities or literature, you will have a lower chance of getting a job after graduating from university."

The phenomenon of an increasing number of students selecting math and science courses may also correlate to the perception that medical and engineering graduates tend to have greater earning potential.

"I'm sorry for being a mungwa," a self-deprecating expression used by young people to acknowledge the hardships of getting a job with a degree in the humanities, is an accurate reflection of the trends in Korean society.

According to data from the Education Ministry on the employment rate of college graduates, those who obtained degrees in the fields of math and science recorded an employment rate 12.5 percentage points higher than those who studied social studies and the humanities.

Across some 558,000 college graduates, the employment rate was above average among those who studied medicine (83.1 percent) and engineering (72.4 percent), while it was below average among those who studied the humanities (59.9 percent) and social sciences (63.9 percent). The gap between the employment rates of those who majored in the humanities and engineering widened from 11.7 percentage points in 2021 to 12.5 percentage points in 2022.

Though the Korean Education Ministry has worked to bridge the gap between the two areas of study by reforming the education system and the Suneung, many remain pessimistic on the efficacy of the policies.

Currently, the Suneung allows students to choose one mathematics exam among the areas of probability, statistics, calculus or geometry.

As the Suneung previously evaluated students based on standard scores and not raw scores, the final results of the exam after students took tests in different subject areas differed even though, for instance, two students might have answered the same number of questions correctly. As calculus and geometry were considered comparatively more "advanced" than statistics, students who selected the former subject categories would get higher standard scores despite their raw scores being the same as test takers of the statistics exam.

The ministry has said that, starting from the year 2028, it will combine the three math areas into one test, in a bid to narrow the gap between mungwa and igwa.

However, experts in the education sector point out that consolidating the subjects will only result in students excelling at math having a higher possibility of entering prestigious universities, while students who have greater abilities in literature and social studies will fall behind in the university entrance process.