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What should we make of the South Korean tutoring boom?

Is the South Korean private tutoring explosion model something that other countries should try to imitate?

South Korea leads the world in the amount of money spent on tutoring services. (Source:

To say that South Korea takes its private tutoring seriously would be an understatement. In fact, spending on private tutoring in South Korea has surpassed spending on public education in Finland, a country with one of the best education systems in the world. So what, exactly, is driving this crazy growth?

To put it simply: competition. Many South Koreans believe that the only way they can outperform their peers is with the help of a tutor. In fact, nearly 90 percent of elementary students in South Korea receive some form of tutoring.

This tutoring does not come cheap, either; the average South Korean family spends about 20 percent of its income on private tutoring. Although the price is steep, many parents consider tutoring to be just another monthly expense they have to take into account. If everyone is using a tutor, can you afford not to?

Because of the huge demand for tutors, the industry feels a little like a national sports league, complete with its own teams, called hagwons. These hagwons are tutoring companies that routinely compete with each other to hire the best teaching talent. Indeed, top South Korean tutors are treated like famous athletes and paid accordingly. Some tutors can earn as much as $4 million a year and it’s not uncommon to see the faces of famous tutors plastered on billboards or on the side of buses!

However, does it actually work?

(Next page: Examining the South Korean tutoring system)

There is no doubt that most South Koreans believe in the tutoring system. A 2010 survey of 6,600 high school students found that South Korean students rated their tutors significantly higher than their regular school teachers, and considered their tutors to be “better prepared, more devoted to teaching, and more respectful of students’ opinions.”

It is also true that South Korea has greatly improved its education system over the past several decades and now regularly outperforms the United States. As a matter of fact, South Korea now has a 93-percent high school graduation rate as compared to a 77-percent rate in the U.S. Most South Koreans were illiterate only 60 years ago, but the country now has one of the highest reading levels in the world.

However, it’s difficult to say how much of this progress is a result of the tutoring industry. Nevertheless, many people firmly believe that a free-market bidding war for teaching talent is the only way to attract high-quality teachers. This makes sense when you consider the relatively low wages of public teachers. Maybe a bidding system is the only way to make sure that talented teachers earn as much as they would in other occupations?

Despite its glamour, not everyone is on board with private tutoring. For some, the growing force of tutoring is creating yet another way for the rich to receive preferential education. More money means you can afford to receive the best tutoring—and this bidding war for top tutors is going to keep driving the prices higher and higher.

Another problem is the heavy burden it places on students. Because after-school tutoring is the norm, most students effectively end up going to school twice each day: once for their regular school classes and once with their tutor. The government recognizes these issues and is trying to crack down on certain aspects of the tutoring industry. As former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung states: “The lower-income classes will feel unable to cope with this, and parents will bear larger economic burdens.”

The government has gone so far as to fine and even jail some parents or teachers who have violated tutoring-related laws. Despite these measures, tutoring in South Korea continues to grow at record speeds. The government can try to restrict private tutoring all it likes, but the fact remains that people will continue flocking to private tutors as long as they believe it will give them an edge over classmates.

What do you think? Is the private tutoring explosion in South Korea a model that other countries should try to imitate—or do the downsides of private tutoring outweigh the benefits?

Daniel Marks is the founder and CEO of He has been immersed in the tutoring industry for the last three years and spends his time trying to find new ways to teach technology-related skills to students of all ages.

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