With the worldwide boom in higher education and in the demand by business and governments for college graduates, the Korean and Japanese emphasis on hard work in secondary school has spread to other nations. For example, since enrollments in Chinese universities have increased manifold since 1995, the competition to get into the top schools, such as Beijing University, is fierce, even though the number of Chinese universities has also expanded rapidly. As a result, many Chinese parents are spending increasing amounts on the secondary education of their children, including private schooling and extra tutoring.
Although secondary school students work very hard in Japan, Korea, and many other countries, they tend to relax and take it much easier at universities. They often need a few years to recover their energies. So even at the best universities there, homework is not that extensive and much time is left for play.
The American education system had traditionally followed an approach that is the opposite of the Japan-Korean approach to education. High schools, even the better ones, did not give much homework, and relatively little money was spent on private tutoring. Of course, much learning occurred in the better high schools, but at a leisurely pace, with considerable time for athletics, theatre, school newspapers, and other school activities, and also for parties, watching television programs, listening to music, and other out of school pursuits. But once at a good university students had to buckle down to hard work, or at least much harder work than in high school.
This American approach to education is radically changing at the better public and private high schools because during the past couple of decades it has become much more difficult to get into the top colleges and universities. Teachers are giving greater amounts of homework, and families are also spending a lot more on private tutoring. The tutoring is partly in math and other subjects, and partly in direct preparation for the SAT exams that in good measure determine whether students get accepted into the better colleges and universities.
Presumably, parents, high school teachers, and students perceive that the students gain enough from attending the top colleges to justify the additional time, money, and energy put into trying to gain acceptance to these schools. It has long been known that graduates from top colleges and universities get better jobs and earn more than do graduates from lesser schools. What has been much less certain is whether these graduates do better because they are abler, and hence would have done better even if they had attended lower level schools. Recent econometric studies have more successfully separated out the performance of colleges from the selection of students. These studies examine the earnings of students who were rejected from and accepted into the top American schools when they have comparable SAT scores, high school grades, and other characteristics.
The studies find that students who attend harder to get into schools earn considerably more over their lifetimes than comparable students who attend schools that spend less per student and where average SAT scores are lower (a good summary is by Caroline Hoxby in “College Choices Have Consequences”, SIEPR Policy Brief, December, 2012). Most of the difference in earnings is apparently due not to the amount that schools spend per student, but to the quality of the other students attending the same schools.
Earnings of college graduates depend on how much their schools spent on their education, the various abilities and skills of the graduates, and the characteristics of the other students at the schools they attended. Hoxby shows that spending per student has grown much more rapidly since the 1960s at the top colleges than at lesser colleges, while at the same time tuition per student at the top schools has grown much more slowly than spending per student. It is also documented that earnings of college students per dollar spent on their education has risen substantially since 1980. As a result, the economic gains to graduates from the top schools have risen greatly during the past 40 years.
These three facts, that returns to college education have risen rapidly during the past several decades, that spending per student at the top colleges has also increased rapidly, and that the cost of attending these schools has grown much more slowly, can readily explain why students at the better high schools face a much more rigorous workload than in the past. They also explain why their parents spend a lot more on private tutoring. The gains from having better grades, higher SAT scores, and more extracurricular activities have risen considerably because that helps students get into the top schools.
These results do not answer the basic question of whether the extra effort by high school students is socially productive, or whether it is partly a social waste (an “arms race”) because efforts by different students partly just offset each other without producing socially valuable knowledge. The evidence I have discussed has a mixed message about this. On the one hand, the fact that the better colleges and universities ration entry rather than by raising tuition to the more marginal applicants suggests that these students fight it out for the limited and rationed slots at the top schools by becoming better “armed” with higher SAT scores and more extracurricular activities.
On the other hand, the fact that the quality of other students at the same university positively affects the subsequent earnings of all the graduates from that university suggests that too little is spent on higher scores and better preparation. The reason is that higher scores by any student improve the subsequent performance of other students at the same college. A further issue not fully resolved is how much of the benefits from attending universities like Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, Tokyo, Seoul National, and Beijing come from the reputation of these schools rather than from the valuable knowledge and skills (including networks) possessed by graduates from these schools.
Although the net result on the “arms race” aspect of the improved student preparation for college admission is not clear from the available evidence, the evidence cited explains why students in the better American high schools are working so much harder than they did several decades ago. I suspect that the greater earnings and other gains from attending top universities also applies, perhaps even more strongly, to Japan, Korea, and the other countries where the better high schools require so much work.