South Korean ‘Hagwons’: Why are they so popular?

Angela Shim, Writer

Most of us have heard of South Korean “academies”. In fact, it would not be a complete exaggeration to say that most Korean students have attended these institutes in some form. Commonly referred to as “hagwons,” these academies are deeply integrated into the lives of both students and their guardians. But why are hagwons so prevalent in Korea? And what are the effects of attendance on the students?

The concept of hagwons is relatively simple: they provide additional support to boost students’ academic performances. With South Korea consistently ranking high on education rankings and South Korean students regularly outperforming their international peers in academics, it would seem that hagwons are an effective method for learning. However, a deeper examination into the culture surrounding academics suggests otherwise. 

In Korea, education is viewed as the sole route to achieving success. Graduating from university is practically mandatory, and attending a top college greatly boosts socioeconomic status. This mode of thinking results from the rapid development that South Korea has experienced in recent years. During the 1980s, the South Korean government began allocating money to human development, which includes education. Since investing in education has proved to be so beneficial, the importance placed upon education surged. This emphasis has continued in Korea to this day.

Students work under extreme pressure in the competitive environment of their schools, in which everyone strives to be “better” than everyone else. Whether it be through means of private tutors, expensive hagwon fees, or even neglecting one’s own well-being, students work towards the single goal of academic success. Many parents play an active role in their child’s learning, investing a large portion of their money into hagwon fees, placing a heavy burden on their children. 

While there is nothing wrong with placing emphasis on academics, prioritizing grades over all else can lead to detrimental effects on adolescents’ health. A study conducted by the Seoul Child and Adolescent Mental Health Center found that about 35.8% of participants in their adolescent years suffered from mental illnesses. Another study reported that 37.5% of students had experienced severe depression within the past year. 

In recognition of this issue, the Ministry of Education has made attempts to lessen the workload of South Korean students. A limit was put on the time that students could attend academies, and schools reduced the amount of homework that students would receive over their vacations. However, these changes did little to prevent academic stress. Hagwons responded to the bans by secretly running in nearby study cafes to allow students to study past the time limit set around 10 pm, and the reduction in workload only gave students more time to go to hagwons during their breaks. 

Unfortunately, little changes have been made as Koreans continue to place a high value on education.