By Taylor Beglane
It’s exam time at Dongguk University Affiliated Women’s High School, and the young women scribbling down their answers studied day and night to ace these tests. This is the way of life in South Korea, where any young student not constantly studying is wasting their energy. That’s the culture that their principal, Park Hyun-sook, is trying to change, shifting to a more American-style school with more free time and variety in courses.
But that’s harder than it sounds; Korea’s addiction to studying still has a firm grip on the high school. To get an edge, the girls attend a math hagwon, or for-profit “cram” school, on top of the formal education system. “When teachers consult us,” said Kang Da-young, a 17-year-old student, “they pressure us by saying study harder and improve your grades.”
They’re not alone. Over 95 percent of South Korean students have attended a hagwon before graduating high school, sometimes juggling three or four at a time. Most children continue to study in what little free time they have after school and hagwons. It is this competitive, all-consuming atmosphere that the affiliated high school is trying to combat.
Hagwons pack in large amounts of students, sometimes over a hundred to one room, to be lectured on mathematics, sciences, and Korean or English grammar. Tight admissions to top universities — Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University — place enormous pressure on the shoulders of students, driving them to cram schools in droves. And Korean parents invest over $18 billion a year in private schooling, about 20 percent of the average household’s income.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants to move away from that; his election campaign ran on giving high schoolers and college students a gap year, and allowing students more electives to figure out their goals. Seoul’s hagwons were barred in October 2009 from operating past 10 p.m.
But stopping students from studying is a tough habit to break. Though the affiliated high school refuses to take a stance on hagwons and remains neutral about what students choose, Park acknowledged that most go to hagwons after school anyway. Officials have even conducted raids to stop late-night hagwon students desperate for a spot in their dream university.
Na Yeon-joo, an 18-year-old student, said that though her parents do not pressure her into attending a hagwon, she would feel left out if she didn’t because all of her peers do. “Math is so hard to study alone,” she said. “Also, if I don’t go to hagwon, I feel anxious and unstable.”
It’s hard to even know where to start to repair the broken parts of Korean education; as a small nation with few natural resources, most of what it has to offer is technology and brainpower. To get to top-ranking companies — Samsung, LG and SK — you need to have graduated from a SKY school, which means you had to have done well on the Korean SAT. To do well on the SAT, you need to have hagwons stacked upon your regular education to ensure a great grade on the test that will determine the course of your life. The hagwons start early, usually in elementary school or earlier; over 83 percent of Korean 5-year-olds attended a hagwon, according to the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education.
Those who fail to enter a SKY school or a company’s workforce just take a gap year and try again, over and over, until they either get in or settle for a university or company of a lower tier. There’s even a Korean word for these people: jangsoosaengs, people who take a year off after high school to prepare for a college entry exam retake.
Many former hagwon students question if the cram schools were even effective. Lee Chang-beom, a 20-year-old business major at Dongguk University in central Seoul, said that the things he learned in hagwons were only about the test, never about raising his own competence. “I think that the life (studying for K-SAT) was meaningless,” he said. “Since it was just for a test and nothing could be applied here in a university.”
Lee Woo-chang, an electrical engineering major at Dongguk, feels similarly. The math and English taught in Lee Woo-chang’s childhood hagwons were only to help him pass the Korean SAT, not to be applicable to life after that. The second he got out of the test, their usefulness vanished. He said, “Now I use math a lot (here in the university) but I don’t think I use what I learned in the (previous) schools that much.”
His girlfriend, Chung Eun-su, disagrees. She could ask hagwon teachers questions she wouldn’t be able to answer on her own, and “it led (me) not to be lazy.”
As South Korea struggles to depart from cram culture, the United States is instead embracing it. Kumon, a Japanese cram school company in the states, and Eye Level Learning, a South Korean equivalent, are experiencing a rapid increase in white customers, usually from high-income households looking to gain an edge on the SAT or college entry exams.
A large part of the problem is parents. Many were born just after the end of the Korean War, when South Korea was weak and education was lacking. They are willing to pay anything to help their children avoid the same fate, shelling out large portions of income to send their kids to private cram schools. They gossip between themselves and compare their children’s academic success to that of others, piling on more pressure.
Kim Soo-yeon, a 23-year-old global economic trades major who attends one of Dongguk University’s campuses, said the pressure from her parents to attend five hagwons in middle and high school led to rifts between them. “My parents forced me to go to hagwons and I didn’t really want to,” she said. “So, (we) often had arguments.”