Star Korean test prep instructors make huge salaries, often many million dollars a year, the Washington Post reports. The high salaries stem partly from the scale made possible by online technology and partly from the intensely competitive nature of Korean education.
"It’s hard to exaggerate the premium South Korea places on education," the Post reports. "This is a society in which you have to get into the right kindergarten, so that you can get into the right elementary school, then into the right middle school and high school, and finally into the right college. Which, of course, gets you the right job and scores you the right spouse."
The payoff for all that pressure comes in the form of test scores. Korea scores near the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. In the latest PISA scores, South Korea scored fifth, behind Shanghai, China; Singapore; Hong Kong, China; and Taiwan. The U.S. ranked 36th.
But the pressure comes with downsides as well. Korea has, by far, the highest suicide rate in the world, and many critics, according to OECD data.
A poll last spring found that half of Korean teenagers suffered from suicidal thoughts, the Yewon Kang reported for The Wall Street Journal.
"South Korea’s problems with suicide are often attributed to lifelong pressure to compete for better schools, better jobs, better physical appearance and even better marriages," Kwang reported. "What’s alarming is that while overall suicide rates in developed countries are falling, the suicide rate for people aged 15-24 in Korea rose to 13 deaths per 100,000 people in 2011, up from 7.7 in 2001, according to the latest Statistics Korea data."
Even if they live to tell about it, some question whether Korea's test obsession is really preparing students for the modern economy.
Lee Ju-ho, a Korean minister of education until last year, told the Post that the emphasis on cramming of exams rather than learning robust problem solving skills is hurting the country in the long term. He noted that unlike the West, which factors in personal essays and extracurricular activities, Korean colleges rely almost exclusively on test scores.
“All this late-night study could lead to problems in enhancing their other skills, like character, creativity and critical thinking,” he said. “Hagwon is all about rote learning and memorization.”