University entrance fee system profits from unstable job market

February 28th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

One of the big local news stories last weekend was the revelation that an unknown party posted questions from university entrance exams on a website while the party was actually taking the exams. Apart from the obvious question of how someone could do that and not be noticed by a proctor, the incident is further evidence of how twisted the whole entrance examination (nyugaku shiken) process has become.

Can't touch this: Entrance to University of Tokyo

Now that most of the entrance examinations are finished, the students who took them (presumably without cheating) have to wait impatiently for the results. For their parents, the wait is doubly unnerving. Because national universities are more prestigious and tend to lead to better employment opportunities, many students sit for the two examinations required to get into national schools. The first, given in mid-January, is the Joint Stage Achievement Test, colloquially referred to as the sentaa shiken (“center test,” since it’s administered by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, yet another bureaucratic organ whose main job is to justify its own existence), a uniform exam that screens out some of the applicants. Then, in February, remaining applicants take exams for each national university they want to attend (kobetsu gakuryoku kensa). Students who are applying to private universities take only the tests for those schools.

The overlap in test-result announcements is what makes parents nervous. Many young people want to attend national universities, but they know the odds are against them: For the 2011 academic year there were 207,299 applications for 64,111 slots. Consequently, many also apply to private universities as a backup in case they don’t get into a national school. This process is known as suberi-dome, literally “prevention from sliding down.”

A man recently wrote a letter to the Asahi Shimbun explaining the dilemma that’s built into this system. The man has three children, the oldest of which will take entrance tests next year, probably for two or three schools. The problem is that the results for the private school tests are released first, and if a successful applicant wants to attend those private schools he or she has to pay an entrance fee (nyugakkin), usually between ¥200,000 and ¥300,000, by a certain date in order to reserve the “right” to be admitted. However, in almost all cases this deadline is before the announcement of the national test results, and the entrance fee is non-refundable. If the student manages to get into a national school and has already paid the entrance fee to a private school, that money is “dead” (shinigane). The letter writer asks why the education ministry doesn’t make national universities and private universities announce results at the same time.

A better question is: Why are private school entrance fees non-refundable? Or, more to the point: What is the purpose of an entrance fee? People have been asking these questions for years, and the universities’ answer has always been that they need to know as soon as possible exactly how many students will be enrolled so that they can make appropriate “plans” for the new academic year. The money is essentially a guarantee: School management knows it has the funds to carry out academic planning. Without non-refundable entrance fees, students who have confirmed they will attend a private university and pull out at the last minute leave that school’s management in the lurch financially.

Understandably, a lot of people don’t buy this reasoning, and there have been a number of court cases challenging the nyugakkin system. Judges usually said that according to contract law universities must refund tuition but don’t have to refund entrance fees; but five years ago the Supreme Court said that schools should refund some of the money if the student withdraws his application by a certain date, usually March 31. The entrance fees confer “status” on the student as having the “right” to attend the university, but in cases where the fee is judged to be “unreasonably high” it should be returned to those who change their mind. In other words, it depends on the school and it depends on the student.

What private universities mainly care about is that the student pays the fees, usually nyugakkin and a first installment of tuition, by a certain date that happens to fall before the national university test results are announced. Once a payment is made, the majority of students don’t ask for a refund even if they are accepted to a national school. The tuition they paid is refunded, but people have become so conditioned by the practice of nyugakkin, which applies to all private education and not just that for universities, that they accept it as part of the process.

What’s more, parents have to pay high fees for each test their child takes: ¥35,000 for a private school and ¥15,000-¥20,000 for a national university. The reason for these fees and why they are uniform has also never been properly clarified. Prep or “cram” schools (yobiko) only charge a few thousand yen for practice tests that are identical in form and length to the real tests, and they also provide answers and post-examination counseling. The universities don’t even tell test-takers their results, only whether or not they passed.

Due to the current recession’s debilitating effect on household finances, more parents might be expected to vocally object to these exorbitant test fees and nyugakkin, but the opposite seems to be true. An increasing number of college graduates are having trouble securing desirable employment, so getting into a national university, which tends to guarantee jobs in the public sector or with “name” companies, is more important than ever. Students are thus expanding their options by applying to as many schools as possible, and parents are willing to risk the loss of nyugakkin because if their child doesn’t get into any school right away, it means a full year of being a ronin — a university-age student without a university. A full year of prep school to prepare their child to take the tests again next year may cost more than the nyugakkin. It’s a situation that private universities take advantage of.

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6 Responses

  1. The U.S. isn’t much better. I have a friend who has a son getting ready for college. The complaint he has is each college that his son applies to require between $100 to $200 application fee which you don’t get back and it’s not applied to the normal college costs. Mind you these are just regular old colleges nothing major like harvard or yale. The fees are lost to him no matter what happens. So far two rejections and $300 gone.

  2. You could compare the application fee in the U.S. to the test fee in Japan, since both are non-refundable and are about the same amount. Every J. univ. a student wants to try he/she has to take an entrance test that costs up to ¥35,000. The entrance fee, however, is over ¥200,000, and it’s non-refundable, too. That’s a huge difference.

  3. I think that is a good point, but if you showed many Japanese the fees that American college students have to pay and the fact that most students end up with tens of thousands of dollars of debt upon graduating they might stop thinking that 200,000 yen to sacrifice for security is such a bad thing.

    Although I have never heard of financial aid that covers full tuition in Japan. Is that something that occurs?

  4. Bottom line is we as parents want our kids to go to college and get a great job. But the cost is soaring out of control. My son could go either way Japan or U.S., I am hoping for the U.S. since the cost is more than half. But I will have to sacrifice at least $1000 just for application fees. They the government want more doctors and lawyers but don’t want to foot the bill and turn their heads when universities do what they want in fees. By the way High schools don’t allow cell phones in exams, why would colleges allow phones during entrance exams?? I think it’s hilarious.

  5. Student loans are expensive here, too, and there’s very little in the way of “grants.” Actually, we talked about this issue in an earlier post here.

  6. There is a middle way: public university (one of 76 schools run by local governments in Japan). The overall tuition fees are basically the same as national universities – around $6000 per annum – but there is far less competition for places. At my son’s school, around one in every eight applicants are accepted, which compares favourably with Todai’s apparently one-in-a-hundred pass rate. These schools tend to be small and specialised, and depending on the city can be quite prestigious – local people gasp when I tell them where my son goes! – but are not very well-known in Tokyo, or other big cities. From what I recall, the exam fees were around $200, but that didn’t bother so much as the huge fees that were suddenly whacked on me after he entered the school, mainly for insurance and alumni membership dues.

    Make no mistake about it, parenthood is always going to be full of unpleasant financial surprises, so it’s always best to be prepared. I’m glad I was.

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