South Korea Has Taken Academic Rivalry to the Extreme: 84% of 5-year-olds Go to Private Academies to Become Even More Competitive

  • Spending on private education has reached record levels in the country, causing some families to allocate more funds to it than to food and housing.

  • The Asian country is grappling with a birth rate crisis that has prompted its authorities to declare a “national emergency.”

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When you travel to South Korea and visit cities like Seoul or Daejeon, the latter being country’s fifth-largest metropolis, you may notice numerous private academies called hagwons. These academies help children learn English and math or prepare for the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), the competitive college admission test also known as Suneung.

In 2020, there were more than 73,000 academies like this. This isn’t a case of mere statistics, but rather a figure that masks a crucial challenge for South Korea, a nation in the midst of an alarming demographic decline where educating children has become a luxury.

Studies show that South Korea is the world’s most expensive country to raise a child. Surprisingly (or not), it also has the lowest birth rate.

A demographic contradiction. Global rankings of birth rate and the cost of raising children show a demographic contradiction when it comes to South Korea. On one hand, the Asian country has a fertility rate of 0.72 children per woman, ranking at the bottom globally. Authorities have labeled the low birth rate a “national emergency” due to its significant impact on the economy, society, and even national defense. Interestingly, on the other hand, South Korea is also one of the most expensive nations in the world to raise a child.

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A small fortune. A YuWa Population Research Institute study showed that raising a child in South Korea is expensive. According to the local outlet Chosun Ibo, the cost of raising a child from birth up to the age of 18 is equivalent to 7.79 times the country's GDP per capita. This translates to about 365 million won (more than $267,000). China ranked second with a cost 6.9 times higher than the its GDP per capita, followed by Germany (3.6) and France (2.2).

To address the population decline in South Korea, the government has invested $280 billion over the past 18 years. Officials have implemented several forms of direct aid, incentives, and policies to improve the quality of life for families. Seoul authorities are even considering providing families with a “super baby bonus” of $70,000 to help combat this issue.

Is education a luxury? Education represents a big portion of the total cost of raising a child in South Korea. As reported by Chosun Ibo, in 2022, South Koreans spent a staggering $19 billion on private schools for their children. This amounts to more than $383 per child, per month. In fact, The Korea Times reported in 2023 that South Korean families allocate more of their budget to private lessons and extracurricular activities for their children than to essential expenses like food or housing.

To be precise, The Korea Times report cited data from Statistics Korea, a government agency, which revealed that households with higher incomes spend an average of 1.14 million won ($834) per month on tutoring for children between the ages of 13 and 18. This amount surpasses what families spent on food ($465) and housing ($394). Shockingly, even in the poorest households, the expenditure on private tutoring exceeds the amount spent on housing and food.

Record-breaking figures. Despite what they already spend on academies and extracurricular activities, South Korean households don't appear willing to want to cut down on their investment in private education. According to data from the Ministry of Education and Statistics, spending on private education in 2022 reached $19.7 billion, a 10.8% increase from the previous year, which was considered a record at the time.

A year later, spending on private education rose further. After a 4.5% interannual rise, spending hit a new record of around $20 billion in 2023 despite a decrease in primary, secondary, and high school students due to a lower birth rate. This increase is attributed to the government’s decision to raise the admission quota for medical schools.

A key concept: hagwons. Private education in South Korea is closely tied to the idea of hagwon, which refers to “cram schools,” academies, and private classrooms where students supplement their school learning, study extra subjects, or prepare for important exams like the Suneung, South Korea’s demanding college entrance test.

Even preschoolers attend hagwons to learn English, math, taekwondo, swimming, or piano. According to a report from Frontline, there were over 73,000 private tutoring centers in South Korea in 2020, with half of them located in the capital. Moreover, Time reports that there are more than 24,000 hagwons in Seoul alone, three times the number of convenience stores.

Some data to consider. A percentage is worth a thousand words, or at least when it comes to private education in South Korea. In 2017, the Korean Institute of Child Care and Education (KICCE) reported that 35.5% of two-year-olds and 83.6% of five-year-olds in the country attended private academies. This, of course, included traditional hagwons, but also culture centers, daycare centers, kindergartens, and home-based or online training.

The KICCE report is a few years old, but more recent data also shows that around 80% of South Korean students attend hagwons or “cram schools.” The KICCE study also revealed that young children spend a significant amount of time in these private academies, with two-year-olds participating in 2.6 sessions per week, averaging 47.6 minutes per session, and five-year-olds attending 5.2 sessions per week, each lasting approximately 50 minutes.

But why? Why do South Korean parents enroll their children in academies, spending hundreds of dollars each month? To understand this, it’s interesting to see what they say about it. “Tutoring expenses are now the largest burden on our family budget. I am trying my best to reduce the number of classes my kid attends, but it’s hard to decide which ones to drop. Each subject is important to have good grades in middle school, and I don’t want my child to be left behind,” Kim, a Seoul mother of a 13-year-old teenager whose full name wasn't provided, told The Korea Times in 2023.

In addition to regular school, Kim's teenager attended English, math, writing, and taekwondo classes. While it may seem like a lot, Kim mentioned that other neighbors’ kids were doing even more extracurricular activities and acknowledged her fear that her child would fall behind and compromise their future in hyper-competitive Korea.

Looking ahead. “A good private education on top of regular school is meant to make sure that a child gets good grades and a place at one of the best universities,” Han Ye-jung, a lawyer with a toddler, told German broadcaster DW. “And that should mean a good job, so getting into a top university is critical as it guarantees success in life,” she added.

Some people in Korea are concerned about excessive competition in the classroom and believe that education spending is becoming excessive. Others argue that the current system makes it difficult for students to prepare for exams on their own. “The fact that everyone else is attending hagwons makes me feel like I’m missing out on something if I don’t,” high school sophomore Yerim Kim told TIME.

Keeping kids busy while parents are at work. Academies and after-school activities provide South Korean working parents with options for keeping their children busy. According to Frontline, for instance, it’s common to see parents waiting in their cars in Daechi-dong, a posh neighborhood in Seoul seen as “the Mecca of private education,” for their children to finish classes, sometimes until 10 p.m. when the classes end.

Recognizing this need, the South Korean government in February announced an expansion of after-school programs for elementary school children to run until 8 p.m. The aim is to accommodate working parents’ schedules, as first-graders typically finish their classes at 1 or 2 p.m.

A controversial issue. Private education and its high cost also raise some controversy. First, it can be an extra obstacle when trying to raise birth rates in a nation facing a demographic winter and a “national emergency.” Second, it can overburden children and domestic economies, leading to what has been called “edupoors,” a term that references families that go into debt or live in impoverished conditions in order to pay for private education.

And third, it affects the education system and equal opportunities. “It’s difficult to prepare for school exams on your own when hagwons provide abundant study material that you would otherwise be unable to obtain,” Kim, who attends one herself, told TIME. With varying success, the South Korean government has attempted to regulate these private academies, which some accuse of “preying on [parents] anxieties” about their children’s education and future job prospects in Korea.

Image | Open Government Partnership via Flickr [1, 2]

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