Drive for education drives South Korean families into the red
Students took the all-important college entrance exam this week. Many households in South Korea are deeply in debt, and analysts point to high family spending on private education as a key culprit.
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Rising stature is linked to how well a student scores on the South Korean standardized university entrance exam, a multiple-choice test, which was held Nov. 8, this year. Many consider it the most important test of their life.Skip to next paragraph
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After-school and private education in South Korea is centered on preparing students to ace the exam. It’s a multibillion dollar industry that caters to families hoping to send their children to one of the nation’s top four universities. Owners of these private preparatory academies, known in Korean as hagwon, are making huge profits.
“People want to go to high-ranking universities. They think that the better the school the more successful you will become,” says Kim Dong-young, director of the Highest Hagwon in Seoul. “But the public school system doesn’t provide enough tutoring to do so. This is why families send their kids to these private schools.”
Kim says that annually, his school brings in around $9 million.
Not enough slots at colleges
But not all South Korean students who score well on the entrance exam and enroll in top universities go on to achieve great success and pay back their family’s investment. There are fewer slots available than there are students trying to get in, and some observers say Korea’s culture of education-driven mobility is creating an economic backlash.
“The problem is we have an overeducated working class,” says Jasper Kim, who heads the Asia Pacific Global Research Group. “There are highly qualified people who want to work for a narrow bandwidth of companies, namely the LGs and Samsungs of the world.”
Kim points out that South Korea’s youth unemployment rate, which stands at about 7 percent, is more than twice the national average. Companies keep raising the bar in order to hire only the most impressive graduates. And the Korean version of “keeping up with the Joneses” is the cause of shame for many young South Koreans.
“What happens to the rest of the pack who don’t get selected? For them, it's a real challenge and a real hardship,” Kim says.
Over the edge
Some mental health experts say this pressure to live up to their family’s expectations is pushing some young Koreans over the edge.
“If they are under stress, feel anxious about their exam score and lack a support system, this could make them think about suicide,” says Kim Hyun-chung, a psychiatrist at the National Medical Center in Seoul. “Suicide is the leading cause of death for young adults.”
The South Korean government is trying to lessen the emotional and economic burden on families that results from this competition. Recently, President Lee Myung-bak encouraged high school graduates to skip college and head straight for the workforce.
Last year, the government opened 21 specialized trade schools as an alternative to university education. The government also initiated tax breaks for companies who hire holders of only a high school diploma. These measures are also aimed at bringing down Korea’s high youth unemployment numbers.
But government incentives can’t resolve all of Korea’s problems, says Kim Hyun-chung. The psychiatrist says it will take a generational shift in the way people regard education and employment to make a real difference. But for now, Koreans need to slow down, she says.
“Everyone is burning out,” she says. “We need to become more self-reflective and take a step back. Everyone is rushing to try to fit in. ”
Ms. Kim adds that Korean mothers can start this by putting less pressure on their children to ace the university entrance exam.
Cheon, the woman who took out a large loan with her husband to give her daughter better opportunities, says her family's move and all the money spent on her education are worth it. Her daughter still has one more year to study before she takes the test, and many hours of private tutoring lie ahead.
“We're giving her more opportunities,” says Cheon. “For Korean mothers, it’s the most important thing we can do for our children.”