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  • Writer's pictureJiah Hwang

Review: "[The Social Effects of Higher Education Policy in South Korea: The Rise of the 'Pig Mum']"

Author’s Note

One of the greatest cultural differences I noticed between Korea and America was the focus on education. In Korea, the object of desire for the majority of the student population is to get into one of the top three schools: Seoul University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, while the rest of the Korean universities are not nearly as recognized of respected. However, in America, there are a great variety of rankings for schools that are adjacent to or slightly below the lines of the ivy leagues. Because of this, the push from the families, especially mothers, have grown so that their child can get into the top three using the most resources that they have to offer. The title "pig moms" were therefore bestowed on these activities in Korea, as referenced in the title and throughout this article. So, let's find out what makes Korea one of the leading countries for the average student intellect.


*It is important to note that, although this summary is longer than others, the original is 24 pages while this is 4, with the essential parts of the article for your full understanding*

Due to Korea’s exceptionally high testing scores, with it and Finland being tied for the Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment and more, this article aims to focus on identifying “the impact that national education policy has had on the creation and shaping of the pig mom phenomenon in South Korea’s private education.” The great demand for educational perfection comes from the lack of employment opportunities in successful corporations, as the rigorous education system itself makes it hard for employers to find differentiating factors between grown students. This pressure not only comes from wanting a job but also from what’s characterized as a “pig mom,” someone who “​​is fully involved in organizing, scheduling and managing the educational process from primary to secondary school for a group of children in a neighborhood,” with the purpose of sending their children to one of Korea’s equivalent to the ivy leagues: Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University (SKY).

First, the article explains the roots of Korea’s competitive educational system, starting with the introduction of the High School Equalization Policy (HSEP) in 1972 by the Korean Ministry of Education. This was introduced in order to decrease the existing competition in the school climate. Yet, this policy was revised in 1996 to the “so-called common catchment area schools, where students were allowed to apply to schools of their own choosing.” However, this was also heavily criticized, and in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, market competition was introduced into school choice.

This determination towards education and continued testocracy (a society that finances competition and privatization in public education rather than public good) had many layers, including the stagnant Confucian belief of self-development through education. This also leads to a market-merit debate for the government, as “In 2018, 73 percent of 5.58 million students attended hagwon,” and hagwon (additional teaching institutions for specific subjects after school), yet the results of this are the declining mental health rates due to rising household debt, increasing depression and suicide rates, alcohol rates, and low marriage rates. Yet, this pressure is propelled for many Korean teenagers due to the “oppressive desire” to pass the entrance exam (College Scholastic Ability Test), which determines if they go to high-ranking universities such as SKY.

The article then introduces two subsections to the original question/aim: "1) What is the motivational rationale for Korean parents to socialize, and from like-minded networks such as the “pig mom” while investing substantial sums of money in private education? This is answered with the reasoning that getting a high test score by investing in prestigious hagwons will ensure a financially brighter future for the student and the family unit in general. The government supports these hagwons (as they massively help Korea’s economy) by putting high stakes on the college entrance exam. Yet, this can lead to “ (1) the mismatch between demand for highly educated workers and its supply, (2) the problems of debt payments, (3) low fertility rates, as well as (4) emerging social problems of depression, life dissatisfaction, divorce, and even suicide.” The negative outcome of the government enforcing its test-driven policies and the investments made by families was shown in 2018, when the workforce employed by large chaebols (wealthy families) provided only about 20% of the jobs in Korea, increasing the unemployment for those 15-29 by 11.6% due to automation and overseas expansion. Yet, this cycle is nearly impossible for the citizens to escape, as families feel pressured to invest as much as or more as other families do for their children’s private tutoring or hagwons, leading to more investments for a university graduate. However, the rapidly changing labor market, rising education costs, the reduced acceptance rates of SKY, and reduced employment rates at high-quality workplaces showed that this funding might just be spending lifetime earnings for less than the earned result. Because of these strained financial situations, more people restrict themselves to having only one child.

The 2nd sub-question raised was, “2) To what extent did education policy application and mechanisms facilitate the conditions for the creation of “pig mom” networks?” This was reasoned with Korea’s “collectivity,” or its socio-cultural tendencies to find power in the number of connections and knowledge you have from the quality of those connections. For example, an ideal circle for a “pig mom” would be multiple networks of private tutors, hagwons, powerful families, politicians, admissions workers, and more.

The article aims to perform a quasi-method (both quantitative and qualitative) to approach the two questions based on a series of interviews and surveys in 2013 and 2015 with two different groups of parents and students. (4 groups total.)

In the quantitative phase of the study, the questions focused on the existence of the “pig mom” phenomenon and its connection with the Korean education system. “The goal of the quantitative phase was to identify the potential weight of selected factors shaped by the education policy (asking whether the education policy had caused students to be more creative, competitive, and stressed and whether it was expensive, driven towards university entry, requiring private education, elitist and required parental interference) on the behavior of parents and students and their choices towards private shadow education.” The survey used 6-point Likert-type scales on 12 variables: divisiveness, cause of stress, cause stratification, lack of creativity, focus, and access limitation. Survey responses were collected from 120 participants, 70 parents, and 50 students in 2015 and 2016 in Seoul and Gyongi-do province.

For the second phase, a multiple case study was conducted to understand the phenomenon of “pig moms” and see if the factors in the first phase of the research were predictors of parents’ and students’ behavior in implementing “pig mom” behavior. This analysis was conducted in two layers: within and across each case. To collect data, participants from the first phase were asked to give in-depth explanations for their survey responses, and a thematic analysis was performed on the data in the two layers described above. They looked for overlaps in the interviews and surveys by using verification procedures by triangulating different sources of information and providing descriptions of the cases. A major limitation of this study was that the researchers had difficulty gaining access to pig moms as their image is not portrayed positively overall.


The results were separated into 4 clear themes. The 1st was that there were public attention towards private education, with references to the parents’ willingness to move towards the area of Gangnam, where there are more tutors and hagwons, especially after the government implemented changes in the college entrance exams. The 2nd theme was connected to the pig moms, where lucrative hagwon businesses would trade with government officials to gain more information on the tests until stricter laws were implemented against it. Yet, this practice of going as far as possible to get the best test grades became more stapled into the pig moms, starting first from the 1990s, and in Gangnam School District 8, according to one respondent, with one example being a mother forging their address so that they would be eligible to a district with a better education system. Many respondents talked about how this is unfair for the students who feel less prepared compared to the students with the pig moms, and therefore, more resources. The 3rd theme was the social status of the pig moms, as it was shown that they would go to great lengths to avoid attracting attention from their activity until the day of the exams, or they may choose to continue their activities in the case that they may have more children to get into college. Some may choose to turn their social status and networks into profitable ventures by establishing registered private schools. The 4th theme was that the pig moms’ influence goes beyond education but also on the real estate market, especially for “small study studio-apartment complexes” that are located in Gangnam. Respondents also differentiate the pig mom from stereotypical “helicopter moms” or “soccer moms” as pig moms have economic and bargaining power. This is because “A pig mom sets up a financial balance within the group and decides how much money will eventually go to private schools and independent private teachers.”

Overall, the results suggest that pig moms have become socially accepted in South Korea as the education policies in Korea promote students to participate in private education, even after school. Therefore, pig moms are one of the choices, if not the majority choice, made by the parents who want absolute academic success for their children.


  1. I found this article well-researched about the current academic culture in Korea. However, it was unfortunate to see how limited the research for thirst study was. Korea currently has a population of 51.72 million people. This study interviewed/surveyed 120, and the researchers themselves showed that there wasn’t a clear analysis due to the pig moms being unavailable to interview/survey directly as there are certain controlling images of pig moms.

  2. This article doesn’t go into exactly how many hagwons there are in Korea, of all different varieties. Although, understandably, it is nearly an impossible task to do, to track them all, I believe it could have been implemented more strongly on how much hagwon culture dominates Korea. For instance, even in international schools in Korea, although it prepares students for American universities, the phenomenon of “pig moms” remains as it is located in Korea and well within the Korean culture. There are hagwons for the SATs that students sit at over the summers and solve endless practice problems, AP hagwons, hagwons catered specifically to the curriculum of the biggest international schools, and more. We can see how this relays back to the fact that students without the needed financial resources could feel anxious, unprepared, and more, compared to the students with pig moms.


Hagopian, Jesse, et al. “A Brief History of the "Testocracy," Standardized Testing and Test-Defying.” Truthout, 25 March 2015, Accessed 23 June 2023.

Lee, Eugene, et al. “The Social Effects of Higher Education Policy in South Korea: The Rise of the “Pig Mum” phenomenon.” Journal of Contemporary Eastern Asia, vol. 18, no. 1, 2019, pp. 70-93. Korea Science, Accessed 23 6 2023.



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