“Elite” Preschools in Korea Pave Path for Future Success

South Korea is known for its emphasis on education, but is this going too far?

South Korea has no end to “elite” institutions, including specialized high schools, international schools, and english language schools for students hoping to get a leg up on the fierce competition to get into brand name schools and eventually, land a job in a large conglomerate. Instead of normal institutions, these elite schools are pursued by parents hoping to give their kids access to another “elite” group of kids, who will serve as useful social connections for their career. The academic elitism that was prevalent in universities and high schools is now trickling down to preschools, and many South Korean parents believe that the path to a successful career starts with getting into an “elite” preschool.

Article from Kukmin Ilbo:

Academic Elitism in Preschools

40-year-old Choi, who lives in Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, is worried about her 5 year-old daughter’s entrance to preschool next year. Through the “chaos of the preschool lottery system,” her daughter won a spot at the local preschool. In making preparations for her daughter to drop out of the ordinary preschool, Choi paid in advance the entrance fee at the neighboring english language preschool in Shinsa-dong. Meanwhile, among the local mothers, she heard, “The community created in the preschool will result in elite connections later on.” They even said “If your kid doesn’t go to the expensive english language preschool here, when she goes to elementary school, she will feel alienated.” The monthly tuition for the english language preschool is 900,000 won, which is four times higher than the cost for an ordinary preschool, but eventually, Choi made the hard decision to abandon the ordinary preschool that her daughter had been accepted into.

elite preschools south korea education

The rampant academic elitism in our society in some elite high schools and special purpose high schools has already stealthily trickled down to preschools. In the past, you could obtain elite treatment just by going to a good college, but now you need to take “prestigious courses” from english language preschools, international elementary and middle schools, international high schools and special purpose high schools to become part of the “pure elite.” The future we once joked about where people would have to fill out their educational background from preschool through university on employment forms is now approaching.

Ordinary elementary schools are marginalized: the new system of ranking that stars from preschools becomes more segmented when they enter elementary school. In the 1980’s-90s, some overeager parents used false addresses and other methods in order to send their kids to Gangnam and Jongro area private elementary schools. The majority of parents are relieved when their kids are assigned to a school near home. The kids in the neighborhood they used to play with would become their elementary school friends, and it was common for the majority to attend the same middle school. However, in the 21st century, recognition of achievement and a sharp increase in international schools admitting local students has led to the perception that sending one’s child to an ordinary elementary school means the parents don’t care as much about their child’s education.

Some parents also argue about the hierarchy between international schools. Ms. A, who lives in Pohang in Kyungbok, decided to send her five year old daughter to an international school near her house, but recently, she’s changed her mind and will send her daughter to Jeju island. This is because she heard that the sons and daughters of the upper class are flocking to international schools in Jeju where the domestic admission policies are more relaxed. Her friend also advised her, “If you want to build a good “network” for your kid, you have to send her to Jeju.” The schools Ms. A is looking at require annual tuition rates of 12,000,000 ~ 1,900,000 won ($10,922 – $17,293), but she “can bear this for the sake of my child’s future.”

If her kid can’t get into the international school, she can also try to get into the english language preschool as the next best option. Ms. B, who lives in Songpa-gu, Seoul has a seven year old daughter who was assigned to the public elementary school near their apartment complex. Circumstances didn’t allow her to send her daughter to the international school farther away, so she registered her daughter for afternoon classes at the english language preschool. There, they offer extracurricular activities such as horseback riding, and flute. Ms. B said, “The majority of english language preschools are similar to hagwons, so many kids continue attending them even after beginning elementary school.”

The tuition rates are more expensive than attending college, but there are no open seats. Tuition for international schools is surpassing that of middling private schools. On the afternoon of Dec 10th, at a French international school. The majority of students exiting the school building are Korean kids. The school has an entrance fee of 3,000,000 won ($2,730), and an annual registration fee of 10,300,000 won ($9,375). Including dormitory fees of 510,000 won ($464) per month and incidentals, parents can rack up an annual bill of 15,000,000 won ($13,653).

Despite the price tag, the popularity is such that students cannot get in because there are no available spaces. The school restricts the number of domestic students to 30% of the school’s total enrollment, but last year, in an audit of the Education Office, it was discovered that 91 out of 211 enrolled students (43%) were illegally admitted. The majority of such cases were the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers in the Gangnam-gu and Jongru-gu areas who forged documents so their kids could enter the schools.

This phenomenon started in high schools. A policy abolishing special purpose and autonomous private high schools proposed by Cho Hwi-won, the Superintendent of Education in Seoul City, started in the same context. As the number of special purpose high schools and autonomous private high schools overflow, students who enter regular high schools are stigmatized as “dumb” even before they begin their exam life.

The reason why parents are so eager is because of the “good alumni connections.” In some preschools, parents are the ones who periodically arrange gatherings for the alumni after graduation, and force their kids to interact. Education critic Lee Beom says, “Universities continue to create admission criteria for ‘global talents’ where students from international schools show strength, and it’s also easier for them to enter large export-driven conglomerates. This resulted in an extreme situation in education.” He also points out, “early education has become a precondition to join the establishment and survive in the employment competition.”

Comments from Naver :


Sad, this is so sad. If this is the case, what’s the point of encouraging childbirth?

prad****[Responding to above]:

Only in the Kangbuk area where private schools are concentrated, they might send kids to these schools, thinking they are on par with Gangnam public school. However, in Mokdong and Gangnam, most parents send their kids to public schools. If you go to a private school in Gangnam, you will have no friends in the neighborhood, and you have to get up at 6 in the morning because the school is so far. Recently, mothers have become smarter, and are preferring to send their kids to public schools that finish early(when school is over, they send their kids to the art, music and physical education, and english and science hagwons). The reason parents still try to enter their kids in the lottery for private schools is because they hear there are many crazy teachers in public schools and think that the private school will pay closer attention to their kids like preschools do.


These crazy ahjumma [older women]. How pathetic. This is a Korea in which people’s dreams and hopes are disappearing…

kiss****[Responding to above]:

Wait, why are there so many idealists? The reality is war, but everyone can work together to be well-off? I have to step on people who are worse than me to be rich. What are they all doing when they know this? The way I see it, they seem to be jealous.


Sigh they have to suffer from this kind of education beginning in preschool.


What a sad reality…


Sigh they’re just kids though.


What are these elite courses? They’re courses for people below those born with gold spoons in their mouths, who work until they’re in their mid-40s, then retire.


We should somehow stop mothers from getting overly involved in their kids’ lives? They’re one of the reasons ruining our country’s education system.


Even if I don’t know the parent’s perspective, from my perspective as a high schooler, attending hagwons [academy or cram school] in elementary school wasn’t worth it. It’s not too late to start attending them in middle school, so please let them have fun while they still can.


In Seoul, there are only two international middle schools, and the capacity for each is a little over one hundred people. Exactly how many parents are like that in the article? Why do they write the article as if it is the overall societal trend? The 99% of parents like me focus on our kids’ health and personality as we raise them, as well as educating them on proper habits. Every time I see these articles in the morning, I feel out of place, and I’m not in a good mood.


It seems the reporter’s article was meant to instigate readers.


After all that fuss, the only thing that will remain is their relationships with high school classmates.


At this rate, soon they will classify delivery rooms as obstetrics keke Damn collectivism, sigh…These people can’t think of themselves outside the herd mentality.


Crazy people, the child’s personality is all the parents’ fault!


Wow, I’m speechless. These people create a society based on one’s educational background, and later on, wouldn’t they blame the country…

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  • Bryan Cheron

    First comment :)
    I have to wonder how widespread this phenomenon is. The author makes it seem like it’s a major social trend, but without any statistics I have to wonder if it’s just made to seem that way.

    • Chucky3176

      The media is probably over exaggerating the numbers as usual. But the problem of run away education costs is real. The Korean government stats on the numbers look horrifying. Each Korean family spends up to a third of their entire monthly family income on children’s education. So even if we’re not talking about people who can afford to spend $13,000 a year to send their kids to school in Jeju, the issue of Koreans overspending on education is all too real. In the west, people who spend a third of their income on housing (mortgages), are considered house poor. In Korea, it should be called “education poor”. This is one of the reasons why Koreans don’t have the money to spend on its domestic economy, and why the household savings rates are so low. The government just refuses to bring any meaningful reforms. On the other hand Korean people know all too well what the problem is, they also want changes, but end up giving into the mass social pressure. Those Koreans who don’t want to be part of this system, just pack up and leave Korea, instead of staying to bring meaningful changes.

  • 금정산

    I don’t think any parents would send their children to a particular preschool or elementary school for “networking”. This article doesn’t provide any example of parents who do so. Basically all it says is “a friend of Ms. A advised that…” — which is nothing but hearsay. These parents are just sending their preschool children to the best school they can afford. And these few can afford it, believing that higher prices translate into better education. They aren’t doing it as “the next best thing”, as the article implies.

    Another example of poor journalism.

    • Ken Morgan

      Sometimes it does, the UK for instance all of the MPs and top civil servants come from the same 7-8 schools. These schools are MBA type schools whereby they get their foot in the door by networking.

      However often it does not as seen in the ESL industry. Haegwons and Eikawas or even bottom barrel scraping schools in China. They are very expensive but lacklustre in the quality of provision.

      • 금정산

        When you talking about high schools, yes. Middle schools.. well students who attend the elite high schools typically attend the elite middle schools. The networking is in the form of the boys club. I don’t think that club extends to primary school attendance.

        I was referring to preschool and primary school. I would be surprised if anyone cared enough about which preschools schools the MPs’ children attended such that they also sent their children there. It would be more about separating their children from the commoners.

  • Yaminah Jamison

    Well, I’ve heard of this happening in other places before… preschools being linked to top middle and high schools and blah blah. Kids getting stressed while just getting potty trained..

  • JEng

    I envy the yeshiva lifestyle described in Davita’s Harp because it was love of learning. My grade school experience basically created an anti-crime jury pool while in high school, I was still flummoxed from being stabbed in the hand with a blue bic pen and having the teacher observe it and then cover it up for the boys involved and not happy that my father wouldn’t let me go to a nonCatholic school, less white school in the city but he had no idea how to go about it and didn’t want to share that I got jumped in the back of the classroom because I told a particularly hideous redhead that I wasn’t going to sit in his lap because he had mistaken me for a Japanese. And every time someone had watched Shogun or China Girl or Year of the Dragon aired on WPIX, white boys who were total strangers would harass me in Queens.

    If I had to do it all over again, my parents would have stayed in Hong Kong and it is more important to believe in the righteousness of your teachers and to also enjoy the previous generation of Cantonese culture and language than it is to do anything international – that’s bull – you just need a summer immersion and you have it. I learned English from tv shows and didn’t read books until I was 8 years old. My brother’s English is worse than my mother’s.

    I would never send a kid to an international school in HK or China.

  • Chucky3176

    This is massive national child abuse.

    And these dumb people complain after they’re old and broke, that there’s not enough welfare for them.

    Well.. just look at this, and tell me if this isn’t what the real problem is, spending $13,000 a year, for each kids on education. If they were able to take that money and saved it for their own retirement and happiness, what would Korea look like right now?

    This is why increasing elderly welfare will do absolutely nothing to eliminate elderly poverty in Korea. Because if they know that the welfare will bail them out later when they get old, these people won’t save a dime to help themselves to prepare for their own retirement. They’ll end up spending down to the penny, spending on their kid’s education, their weddings, and buying their kid’s houses.

  • Small twon

    So that’s how Gangnam rich leeches “educate” people like nut vp…great job ! well done !

  • yurah

    Sucks to be them…

  • KamJos

    Sounds like the preschool scene in Manhattan.

    • UserID01

      Or rather, Park Slope in Brooklyn. The insufferable “Park Slope Mom” has actually become a thing in New York. You hear about a Park Slope mom and you already know it’s some pretentious thirtysomething who’s hired a private tutor for her toddler to learn Italian in her $10 million high rise apartment building while deciding which Israeli food brand to ban from the local grocery store at the neighborhood association meeting this week.

      And I’m not fucking joking even though I wish so badly that I was. These people put so much pressure on their kids that they forget to let them be kids. These are babies with a schedule set out for them from the moment they wake up. Play dates, private classes, private tutors, lessons on this, that, and the other thing, and God help them if they don’t perform because why else is mommy and daddy paying $30k in tuition? Toddlers don’t know shit. They should be learning how to build social skills by interacting with other children, not how to compete before they can count to twenty. But they’re putting a ton of pressure on these kids to be super babies so they can win some imaginary Best Parent Award.

      • KamJos

        Oh I know it! Have you seen the documentary “Nursery University”? It’s on Netflix. It’s about this whole scene. And your last point is key, I don’t think it’s about getting into a good school anymore, but being seen as a “good parent”.

        • UserID01

          I’ve never even heard of Nursery University, but it sounds interesting. I’ll give it a look. I remember the whole “Baby Einstein” DVDs or CDs or whatever they were and it’s like… you know your kid actually learns more through everyday human interaction than they ever will from a fucking DVD, right? All you’re doing is lining the pockets of the people who sold you the idea of “Your kid can be extra special if you give me enough money!”

  • jonny

    this is the same as japan and hong kong

  • XVVI

    Kids should be allowed be kids for as long as they can.

    • vonskippy

      Every read “The Lord of the Flies” – kids need structure early on or they all turn into crap.

      • chris

        WTF! how the hell do you compare Lord of the flies to kids being kids? hahahaha bit extreme buddy

    • 42

      some kids act like kids even till their mid 40-ties…..

      • Sid Driver

        …and beyond. I’m always amazed when I meet adults that act immature and wonder what happened to them that they’ve been allowed to act this way all their life and who’s let them get away with it.

    • know-it-all

      little girls don’t need school, they just need plastic surgery at 15 then marry a rich guy. make ugly babies then get that plastic surgery too. just an endless cycle

      little boys should (1) study hard, attend college at SKY, work at samsung and make lots of money OR (2) skip school, be a k-pop idol idol and make lots of money THEN marry a pretty and skinny girl who had plastic surgery

  • KoreanWho

    This should make its way to UN for investigation. This is serious human rights abuse and denial of freedom.

  • know-it-all

    its like social climbers meeting in one place. but they don’t meet the rich there, just their kind. too bad money can’t buy manners and etiquette

  • Sid Driver

    Looking at this from a broader sense, I wonder how much of this problem rests on the shoulders of the Chaebol. Economically speaking, they own this country. Everyone wants to get a good job at one of these companies. In order to do that, you needed to attend a prestigious University. To attend a prestigious University you need to attend a good high school or middle school. Etc, etc.

    A prestigious kindergarten like this just feels like a cash-grab to get more money from uneducated parents by playing on their fears or playing on their dreams and expectations for their children.

    Caveat emptor. & There’s a sucker born every minute.

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