It seems that graduating college in more than four years has now become the norm. Reasons why students end up being “super seniors” vary, but the leading cause seems to be the trend of taking a leave of absence from college, or hyuhak in Korean. According to The Chosun Ilbo, as of April 1 of 2013, 932,703 college students nationwide are on a leave of absence from their studies. This figure represents almost a third of all students enrolled at a university in Korea. The huge number of students spending an extensive number of years in college has some experts concerned, especially since it seems only to increase each year. This leads to graduates entering the job market later, which some believe will result in some dire long-term consequences. For instance, the overall time an average person spends in the workforce could decrease; universities would have to bear the costs of hosting an unexpectedly larger student population; and delayed marriages, which often accompany postponed employment, could exacerbate the already slow growth in the working age population.
Though the rise of super seniors may lead to some undesirable consequences, it could also be a positive symptom of more students recognizing that there has been something missing from their education. With years of memorization and passive learning, countless high-stress exams, cutthroat competition, and overemphasis on grades and name value, students never really catch a break until they earn admittance into a college. However, an equally competitive educational environment awaits them in universities, and added to the list of challenges is answering the uncomfortable question of who they are and what they want to become. Some students tend to follow a straight-arrow path, deciding on a career early on and trying to build up a resume geared towards it. This could be a smart move for those who are certain they have found the right match. However, for those who feel lost, taking a leave of absence can be an eye-opening experience. Whether the students choose to volunteer, travel, intern, or simply take a well-deserved break, the very act of removing oneself from a competitive environment can facilitate self-discovery. And conquering the fear of lagging behind could promote a much-needed divergence from Korea’s infamous bbali bbali (which translates into “hurry up”) culture that stratifies success and prods people to compete in an aggressive race to the top.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of Koreans do not seem to take a leave of absence with soul searching in mind. Rather, they use the time to pursue anything that could give them a leg up in the competitive job market. In a recent study conducted by the Federation of Korean Industries, almost 60 percent of college students planning to find employment straight after graduation stated that they have either postponed or were planning to postpone graduation in order to build a profile tailored to the wants of big companies. They spend their time studying for qualification exams, participating in competitions, interning at consulting firms, studying in advance to raise their GPA - anything that would look good on paper. There have even emerged groups trying to capitalize on this rather large group of students by providing advice on how to achieve a “successful” hyuhak and promoting the idea that it is a short-term investment that would lead to an accelerated career in the future.
It is regrettable that postponing graduation has simply become another tool for success in Korea’s ultra-competitive environment because it has the potential to be so much more. It offers students the opportunity to pursue the education they never had, and take time to ask questions and explore interests that were considered a “waste of time” in school. Though this may lead to a large population of super seniors on campus, it could also produce more broad-minded, contemplative individuals who make significant contributions to society and experience a greater degree of satisfaction in their life. The courage to slow down may be the key to building a happier future for Korea.