There are two basic sources of secondary education in Korea; public schools and private institutes (“Hakwon” in Korean). From far back in Korean history, the best Korean universities have selected only those students who scored highest on entrance exams held at the same time every year. These students in turn would receive the best educations, which enabled them to get the best jobs and government positions, while those students who scored less on their entrance exams were only admitted to lesser universities, thus limiting their future chances.
Because of this, the sole goal of every Korean child’s secondary education is to do as well as possible on their university entrance exam. Towards this end, hakwons were born in the 1970s offering accelerated education. After studying normal school hours during the day, students whose parents could afford it would attend hakwons in the evening and night time and learn more and learn faster than those who did not attend, thus giving them a distinct advantage when it came time to write their university entrance exams.
However, this idea backfired on Korean society as a whole. Koreans are extremely competitive and refuse to be outdone by anyone. Not willing to let their children’s future be put at stake because their child could not study as much as the next, parents and grandparents worked themselves to the bone to raise the money to send their children and grandchildren to hakwons. As a result, the hakwons industry flourished and the education level of Korean students greatly increased. Such a large percentage of students attended hakwons that prestigious middle schools and high schools, in an effort to keep the level of competition high, gradually increased the learning requirements of students to include education received at hakwons. These days, if a child is not attending several different hakwons and getting educated outside of normal school, that child will fall behind. Today, over 90% of children attend at least one hakwon, many three or four.
The Korean school year begins in March and ends in February, with about 40 days of summer vacation and about 45 days of winter vacation. Following the western style, Korean schools use a 1-6-3-3 system; 1 year of kindergarten, 6 years of elementary school followed by 3 years each of middle and high school.
Beginning in elementary school, children study during the day at normal school and then for an hour or two at a Hogwon. This increases through middle school until students are studying for upwards of 15 or 16 hours a day, six days-a-week in high school as they spend all their energy preparing for university. The ultimate focus of their entire secondary education is reached when they write their university entrance exams near the end of their final year of high school. The result of their university entrance will determine which universities they are allowed to attend, and can very well make or break a person’s career before they even take their first university class.
In stark contrast to the intense hours and levels of studying that Korean students must put in to gain admittance to a prestigious university, once they have gotten there, the road becomes relatively easy. Korean students find freedoms in university that they never had in secondary school. They can pick and choose the classes they want to study, and then attend them or study at home. They can wear any style of clothing and hair they desire, as opposed to the school uniforms and tight restrictions on hair length and style that were dictated through middle school and high school. They classes are mixed gender and they can go out at night and drink and dance. Ask any Korean between the age of 24 and 35 and they will tell you that university was the best time of their lives.
Hundreds of universities dot the Korean landscape today with an estimated 85% of Korean high school students moving on to graduate from university. With the Korean economy on shaky ground these days, this means students without a university degree don’t stand much of a chance to get a job, and many who do graduate, especially those who attended lower universities, end up taking low paying jobs or even remain unemployed.