Academic Success at Any Cost?
By Joseph E. Yi
Photograph by Eric Sueyoshi
As you enter the doors of Harvard Square Academy, framed black-and-white posters on the walls depict the prestigious Ivy League college campus that shares the same moniker. Other institutions are represented, too—with the flags of Columbia, Yale and MIT featured—but Harvard University is the obvious star at this private tutorial school. You’ll also notice on display the written testimonials of the academy’s graduates, who are mostly Korean and Chinese Americans, and see that some did gain the coveted admission letter to the college that holds an endearing place in the hearts of immigrant Korean parents.
The infamous “Harvard syndrome,” or the fervor of Korean American parents to send their children to elite universities, has fueled the growth of Harvard Square, located in a Southern California suburb, and other Korean-run hagwons in the past decade. In a 2003 Los Angeles Times article, Korean business directories listed more than 100 academic hagwons (translated from Korean as “study places”) in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Just six years later, the 2009 Korean directory listed 183 academic hagwons, with another 73 specializing in art and music, in Orange County alone.
Similar to the housing bubble, the hagwon industry has grown exponentially in both South Korea and Southern California as parents have invested ever-increasing sums of money in their children’s education. They believe that the more time children spend with after-school programs and tutors, the better their chances of elite university admissions. Private academies stoked the bubble with extensive advertising boasting of graduates admitted to top universities, especially the Ivy League.
Typically, hagwons are established and operated by immigrant entrepreneurs from South Korea, where education is not only highly valued, but also fiercely competitive. There are very limited spots at prestigious universities in South Korea, and many families bend over backwards to get their children admitted. In 2003, according to Dr. Chong Jae Lee of the Korean Educational Development Institute, 72.6 percent of South Korean students received some form of private tutoring, and the cost of that service consumed, on average, 10 percent of a family’s income. For middle and high school students, the percent of family income was even higher, at an astounding 30 percent.
It is not uncommon for high schoolers to return home at midnight after a full day of school and tutoring.
“The Confucian drive to succeed through education means your parents have impressed on you from birth the absolute importance of excellent grades,” explained Horace H. Underwood, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “‘B’ is a failing grade. If you do not have absolutely top grades, you will not get into a top university. Since hiring by the top companies is based on what university you attended rather than on any personal achievement, a ‘B’ in high school could seriously damage your life prospects.”
Koreans who immigrate to the United States largely retain the mentality that admission to prestigious universities is the surest route to success and tend to repeat the pattern of sending their children to tutorial programs, especially in large urban areas, such as Southern California and New York, where hagwons are most likely to crop up.
Most academic hagwons offer courses and tutors in languages, math and sciences. Average monthly tuition ranges from $300 for after-school programs, to $700 for full-day summer classes that include recreation, to $1,500 for intensive, all-day SAT courses. They cater to Korean Americans and recently arrived Korean nationals, but some increasingly are attracting non-Korean families. At larger academies focusing on high school entrance exam and SAT preparation, such as the Fullerton-based Jay Kim Academy, Elite Educational Institute and Harvard Square, Koreans make up 30 to 40 percent of students; the rest are mostly Chinese, Indian, other Asian and Caucasian.
Jeanne Love, a 30-year teaching veteran and former principal of Whittier Friends, a private Quaker school in Whittier, California, has been teaching language arts at the Korean-run Fullerton Tutors since 2005. She noticed the difference between her students at Whittier Friends, who were “very diverse” ethnically (Japanese, Indian, Caucasian, Hispanic and African American), and the Korean American students at the hagwon. “They are harder working than the ones at Whittier Friends,” said Love, noting the Korean kids have higher expectations. “They want straight A’s.”
Such intense focus on education would appear to bolster the “model minority” image of academic success among Korean Americans, and Asian Americans in general. This past spring, the New York Times reported on a study done by Prof. Ruben G. Rumbaut of the University of California, Irvine, which found that Korean and Chinese children have the highest educational attainment among immigrant ethnic groups in Southern California. The study tracked the life patterns of 5,262 second-generation children, who in 1992 attended eighth and ninth grades in public and private schools. It revealed that 50 percent of the second-generation Korean American young adults surveyed received mostly A’s in high school and more than 75 percent attained a college education.
But these statistics don’t tell the full story. As someone who has taught at some of the hagwons mentioned in this story, I know there is a flip side to these impressive figures.
On and off since 2004, I have worked as a private tutor and hagwon writing teacher in Orange County for mostly Korean American middle and high school students. When I first started, I needed a quick, flexible way to support my wife and newborn baby financially while finishing my dissertation and applying for tenure track jobs. For someone who graduated from top-tier universities, but lacks business experience, tutoring offers a flexible, potentially lucrative, economic opportunity. Depending on their skills, experience and contacts, teachers could make anywhere from $20 to $100 per hour.
After four years out of state to teach at colleges and to publish my first book, I returned to Southern California earlier this year to work on a new book about Korean Americans. For both research and financial reasons, I resumed my role as writing teacher and tutor, and it is through this lens as an observer-participant that I explore the hagwon.
In a way, these academies offer a unique window into the struggles and aspirations of Korean American families who have invested so many of their hopes—and dollars—in their children’s education.
Although hagwons in the United States tend not to be as intense—or expensive—as their counterparts in South Korea, the students here still feel incredible pressure to perform. Certainly, many Korean American students have the will and ability to study hard and aspire to attend the best universities in the land. About one-third of the students I encounter are in this “overachieving” category. However, for another third of Korean students, the very name “Harvard” is a curse. Every time the Korean media celebrates another overachiever, it creates that much more pressure on these young people who, for a variety of reasons, struggle academically.
April Kim*, a hagwon teacher at the Fullerton-based Remnant Academy, said it is this group that leaves the deepest impressions on her. “Many times I felt so bad for my students who confessed that they are happy with the ‘C’ they received and [said] they just want to be an average kid,” she recalled. “They wanted to be freed from the stress of homework, projects, grades.”
Although many of them did make some improvement during their time with her, she said that it was never to their parents’ satisfaction. As a result, some of them grew depressed. “They think in order for them to meet their mothers’ expectations and [for] their love, they need to do well in school,” Kim described. “However, they hit upon their limitations over and over again and give up on their future, their mother’s approval. It really broke my heart to see them shed tears over a math problem.”
Elaine Kim, the owner of the Fullerton-based CL Education, noted that at times, she had to play an intermediary role between struggling students and pressuring parents. Some students at her school suffered from depression or even learning disorders like dyslexia, but their parents did not want to acknowledge these issues. “They actually got offended when I told them their children have problems,” Kim said. “They just want me to push their children to work harder.”
Instead, some parents will go so far as to offer luxurious material incentives to their children. At one popular Orange County SAT prep institute, students were promised new cars if they scored above 2100 (out of a 2400 possible) on the SAT.
But even incentives threaten to create a mindset to succeed by any means necessary.
Kathy*, a high school senior, said that academic cheating was prevalent at her prestigious, college-prep high school. “I could say that all of us cheat at least five times a year, even 10, maybe 20 times,” she said, explaining that it usually involves asking a friend who took the test a couple periods earlier what was on it. “It has become such a casual, ritual thing for us.” Otherwise, Kathy said, “we find it impossible to get an ‘A’ in class.”
Because the tutoring market has become highly competitive and lucrative, some instructors also cross ethical lines and become accomplices in such cheating. High school senior Candy* attended a Cypress-based hagwon that kept old tests on file from nearby high schools, including the prestigious Oxford Academy. Some parents tolerated or even approved of such practices, she said, but Candy’s mother immediately pulled her out of the hagwon. Another student described tutors who ghost-wrote “perfect” college application essays for high school seniors.
The “education-at-all-costs” mentality undermines the true principles of education, said Fullerton Tutors instructor Love. Students ideally should have an “incredible thirst for learning…learning how to think, reason, ask questions, go beyond the lines,” she described. They need room to experiment, make mistakes and have the freedom to take classes they are interested in, even if they lower their GPA.
Dr. Austina Cho, a Cerritos-based psychiatrist who counsels many Asian American families, believes that many immigrant parents live vicariously through their children, viewing them as extensions of themselves. They celebrate their son or daughter’s victories and lament his or her struggles as if their own. As a consequence these parents “lose sight of the ‘good motive’ of improving their children’s situation in life and may push their children in a short-sighted effort to improve their own status in society,” said Cho, who grew up in Louisiana, where her father was a college professor.
Cho, also a local education official, believes Koreans, and Asian Americans in general, need to broaden their definition of success. “Parents must be sensitive and recognize the abilities and interests of their child,” she said. “Ultimately, some children may rebel if they are pushed in a way that does not take into account their talents, gifts, intellectual abilities and interests. Not every Asian student will have a superior IQ, score a perfect score on the SAT test and excel academically.”
Perhaps Korean immigrants parents may find it useful to know that even the Harvard dean of admissions appears to agree with this line of thought. In a September blog with New York Times readers, William R. Fitzsimmons, citing Harvard Prof. Howard Gardener’s groundbreaking theory of “multiple intelligences,” stressed that every child has a unique set of abilities and interests.
“Students who make the most of their potential in a variety of ways are more likely to make significant contributions to a world that values talents of all kinds,” Fitzsimmons wrote. He even warned students against trying to meet others’ expectations: “Professionals in their thirties and forties—physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others—sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined goal.”
To be fair, there is a great variety of hagwons, each with their own particular philosophies and methods. Some focus on test-taking skills, while others seek to develop the academic foundations of students. Some tutors just give the answers to homework; others take the time to help students solve their own problems.
Stephen Lee, a 1.5-generation Korean American and director of Elite Academy’s Fullerton branch, for example, said he stresses individualized counseling for students to find the college and career that suits them. He does not push them to attend an Ivy League, and most of the parents at Elite agree with his philosophy, he said.
Dr. Lauren Kho, 38, a board member of Fullerton’s Fisler Elementary School, believes parents who attended college in the United States, such as herself, better understand that there are many routes to long-term success. Her husband William attended community college in Salinas, California, and was then accepted to the pharmacy school at the University of Southern California. She personally chose a less prestigious University of California branch, Riverside, to study for her bachelor’s in a quiet, smaller setting. Later, she accepted a full scholarship to UCLA Medical School to study family medicine.
Because both parents work full-time, William Kho said the couple may one day send their elementary-age children to nearby Fullerton Tutors after school. Still, he emphasized, “I want my kids to have enough time to play, to enjoy school. I want them to do their best, but not push them to any particular job or university. The type of college really depends on the child.”
Gina*, a sophomore at Troy High School, says her parents are not as success-obsessed as others. “My mom even said that just because one has good grades doesn’t mean [the person] will be successful in life,” said Gina. “They need to have good social skills, and having a variety of friends can help develop those skills.”
But the high schooler still aspires to earn straight A’s and to gain acceptance to Stanford University, and she thinks tutors can help her achieve that. On the other hand, she also worries about the long-term consequences of that support. “I think to some extent, [tutors] are helpful to students in allowing them to preview beforehand what they will learn in school,” she said. “However, if I get too used to private tutors directing me on what exactly I have to do, I will never be able to survive the rest of my life by myself.”
The current economic recession has punctured not just the housing bubble, but also, to an extent, the education bubble. Parents seem less compelled to—or perhaps simply can’t—spend whatever it takes to attain educational success. Kathleen Rhee, owner of Fullerton Tutors in Orange County, said her student enrollment fell from about 80 to 60 this past summer. Rhee and other hagwon owners she knows reduced tuition for struggling families.
Despite the current hardships, perhaps a silver lining is the slowdown of the exponential growth of hagwons in Southern California. Rhee worries that some owners are in it largely for financial reasons, rather than a genuine desire to add value to students’ education. Owners who genuinely enjoy teaching, she predicted, will survive the current shakeout.
Though it is easy to blame immigrant parents for undue pressure on their children, there are plenty I have spoken with over the years who seem to genuinely struggle over the right way to raise their children in America.
In past years, Mrs. Chung* required her teenage boys to attend hagwon to prepare for school and the SAT. This summer, however, she decided to let them decide for themselves. The recession-induced drop in family income contributed to her decision, but so did the realization that by pressuring her boys, she was alienating them.
“It is very difficult to raise children in America,” said Chung, speaking in Korean. “It is so different than in Korea. I want my children to attend hagwon and to prepare for the SAT and to make friends with other college-bound kids. But if they say no, I cannot force them.
“Ultimately, it may be better for them to make their own decisions and to learn from their mistakes. Unlike Korea, America is a big country, with, I hope, lots of second chances to get a good education.”
*These names are pseudonyms, used at the request of the subjects due to the sensitivity of this issue.