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Mobtown Beat

Tuition Trials

South Korean College Students Learn Economics the Hard Way

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 3/4/1998

When Johns Hopkins University (JHU) junior Joowon Park was studying for his business and international relations finals last December, he received an international business lesson he hadn't counted on. The South Korea native saw his nation's currency nosedive to less than half its previous worth in relation to the U.S. dollar.

A combination of slowing exports and excessive bank and corporate debt made South Korea--the world's 11th largest economy--the latest Southeast Asian nation to be mired in financial crisis.

"It was a shock," Park says. "It has a direct impact on me because when the currency went down it meant it would cost my parents twice as much to send me here."

Annual tuition at Hopkins is $21,700. With only one more year of study left, Park plans to stay at JHU despite the added financial burden. He may get a campus job to help make ends meet. Certain lifestyle changes are also in order.

"I don't go out as much as I used to," he says.

Park isn't alone in facing this problem. Students have been one of South Korea's fastest-growing exports; their numbers on U.S. campuses have almost doubled in the past 10 years to about 37,000, according to the New York—based Institute of International Education. While spring semester is well underway at most schools, officials and students alike are just beginning to grapple with the financial fallout.

"I don't know if this is going have a lasting effect," says Nicholas Arrindell, Hopkins' director of International Student and Scholar Services. "We've had six Korean students who've told us they may have some difficulty paying tuition. We've made arrangements for them to defer their current tuition installment, giving them a longer period to pay."

With only 62 Koreans enrolled at Hopkins' Homewood campus (out of a student body of 12,300), Arrindell feels the impact on the university will be minimal. He views the South Korean crisis in a similar light to financial and/or political problems that affected the school's Nigerian, Ethiopian, Liberian, and Chinese students in the past.

Towson University is also offering deferred tuition payment programs for its South Korean students. The school has more than 80 Koreans registered for the spring semester (out of a student population of just under 15,000). The exact number of Koreans currently on campus, however, is somewhat lower.

"There have been a few students that we know have had to go home," Janene Oettel, director of Towson's International Student and Scholar Office says. "A few others have disappeared" from campus.

How future enrollment at the university may be affected by the ongoing crisis is uncertain at present. Oettel does say that Towson's English Language Center, an institute attached to the university that teaches English to international students, has experienced a 20 percent reduction in enrollment. (Koreans traditionally make up one of the institute's largest groups.)

Perhaps no local institution is as widely effected by the South Korean financial morass as the Peabody Conservatory, the Johns Hopkins-affiliated music school. The 92 Koreans enrolled constitute about 15 percent of the school's student population of just over 600, making them the largest international group on the Mount Vernon campus.

"I heard a lot of students are having problems with their families paying for school," says a Peabody-enrolled pianist who requested anonymity. "I'm saving money and working harder. All we can do is just practice harder and try to finish up soon."

"We have a very long-standing relationship with South Korea, going back 40 years," Peabody director Robert Sirota says. "They have been a vital artistic and financial resource for the school for a couple of generations."

Sirota was in Seoul this past October, meeting with Peabody alumni and parents of current students. This visit gave him a heads-up on the crisis, and instilled a sense of the cultural sensitivity that surrounds the prickly turn of events.

"In mid-December it became clear that the Korean currency was going to crash at exactly the same time that our second semester term bills were due," Sirota says. "Knowing the culture, I understood that some students might be ashamed to tell us they couldn't afford to pay their bill and just wouldn't come back."

To head this off, Peabody sent a letter to all Korean students (and to their parents back home) informing them the school was prepared to defer upcoming tuition payments. (Yearly tuition at Peabody is $19,775).

"The result was that virtually every Korean student came back this semester," Sirota says. "Just under half of the students have elected to defer their payments until the currency has at least somewhat rebounded."

With such a large group at risk, Sirota felt the proactive approach was justified. And there was more than just money at stake.

"We're a trade school basically," Sirota says. "We run ensembles that are interdependent organisms. If we lose a half dozen members of an orchestra, we can't give a concert. We felt that we could not afford a wait-and-see approach."

The school is now finishing up its audition period, determining who will be accepted for study in the fall. It's not yet clear if there's been a sizable drop-off in Korean applicants.

"We're just admitting the best qualified students like we always do," Sirota says. "And we're experiencing the largest overall number of applications we've ever had."

Sirota is confident that the South Korean financial turmoil is a temporary situation and won't have a lasting effect on the school's financial or artistic footing. But he keeps a careful watch on the situation.

"I used to be a happy-go-lucky artist," Sirota says. "I read the newspaper's arts section and the comics. Now I read the business page first."

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