By Jason Strother
The pressure to get good grades at an elite American university, like Harvard, or Princeton, or Yale, can be overwhelming. But the pressure to get good grades at a top university in South Korea can be even worse.
The Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology is a case in point. Four students at KAIST have taken their own lives in the past five months.
KAIST is one of South Korea's most prestigious universities, and its graduates are practically assured a job in the science and engineering fields.
KAIST models its curriculum on American universities; even the classes are taught in English. And that makes it tough for some students, said a 22-year old math major. who asked to be called Chung.
"Many students haven't experienced lectures done by English, so when they come near they need some help," Chung said.
Switching to Korean, Chung added that what makes studying at KAIST especially stressful, though, is the school's unique tuition policy.
Undergrads at KAIST attend tuition free — as long as they maintain a 3.0 grade point average. But if their grades slip, they have to start paying tuition — up to $5,500 per semester. It can be a financial burden on a family, and a source of shame.
KAIST said three of the four students who committed suicide didn't have the grades to get free tuition, and that's caused some critics here to blame the tuition policy for the deaths. They say KAIST president Suh Nam-pyo also shares some responsibility.
Suh recently appeared on television and in front of lawmakers to apologize for the suicides. He promised to end his school's competitive tuition system.
Officials at KAIST declined to be interviewed for this story. But Choi In-ho, a KAIST student council vice president, said the critics may not know the whole story.
"We can't say that the suicides were just the result of the tuition fees; those students could have had other problems," Choi said.
Still, he added that he thinks the current policy punishes students who are already falling behind and he's glad to see it go. So is Kim Jong-duk, a chemical engineering professor at KAIST. He said Koreans have a deeply ingrained notion that education is the means to a family's social betterment, so students at KAIST and all over Korea feel enough pressure already.
"Parents and school and society push them to have better scores and higher academic achievement," Kim said, adding that they feel that if you get a high score, you're the hope for the family.
Several students I spoke with echoed that sentiment. But one 22-year-old chemical engineering major, who didn't want to give her name, said her family doesn't put pressure on her.
"They think the most important thing in my life is happiness, not study," she said.
For thousands of parents here, their children's happiness means taking them out of the Korean education system all together.
Suh Hee-jung, 50, decided to send her son and daughter to the United States for high school and college. She said Korean schools are too competitive and students have no freedom, and she doesn't want that type of life for her kids.
"The Korean education system is focused only on studying and only a student's grades are important," she said. "There's no opportunity for a student to play sports or do other activities. I just don't think kids can have a happy life here as a student."
At KAIST, the administration has recently announced changes that some students hope will make their lives a little happier and less stressful.
Starting this fall, all students will be guaranteed eight semesters of free education, no matter what their GPA is.
Student council vice president Choi In-ho said it's a good start, but the pressure doesn't begin at KAIST.
"It's a general problem in Korean society," Choi said, "whether in middle school or high school, students have the same stress."