Making Caring Common: Tuition and Ethics

Harvard's Turning the Tide

Harvard’s Making Caring Common – a part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education – recently made a dramatic call to all college admissions officers to look for active contribution to community and to reduce the pressures of excessive over-achievement.  Almost 90 colleges including all of the Ivy League Universities have signed this petition.

Too often, today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good.  

Led by the work of Professor Rick Weissbord, the report made three recommendations (read the executive summary here):

  • To actively promote more meaningful contribution to others and community service.
  • To assess student’s ethical engagement and contribution to others that takes into account race culture, economic class
  • To reduce achievement in ways that level the playing field for economically diverse students and to reduce excessive achievement pressure.


A specific recommendation coming out of the report is to discourage “Over-coaching”. 

Harvard MCC Turning the Tide REduce over coaching)

Ethical and Intellectual Engagement 

The Harvard point of view introduces an interesting perspective in to the Tuition Nation and “kiasu-culture” that we have in Singapore


Harvard asks parents to reflect on the ethical challenges faced during an application process. I have no doubt that many parents in Singapore will struggle with the ethical implications of “over-coaching” as most parents want the best for their child and education as investment in their children’s future.

But let’s try reasoning by analogy:

  • In business, if you bribe a government official to get a permit, is that ethical?
  • In college, if you bribe an admissions officer into admitting your child into college, is that ethical?
  • What about if you make a big donation like donating a library? Is that ethical?
  • Is that equivalent to bribing an admissions officer?
  • What about over-tutoring?
  • Parents that have more money and can afford more tutors can give their children a headstart?  (“Heartstart in school, headstart in life” is the tag 1line for one of the leading tuition centres in Singapore).  Is that ethical? Is that fair?
  • At which point do we draw the line?

What’s unfair vs unethical

To make this more concrete – take for example Jim Rogers and his two children Happy and Bee Rogers. It is common knowledge that he moved to Singapore so that his children can grow up in a Chinese speaking environment.  In fact, he even wrote a book about it.


Happy Rogers speaks fluent mandarin – better than most Singaporean kids.  (Watch this video that I subtitled).  In fact, she even has her own youtube channel.

Many Singaporean parents I speak to are either dismissive of her efforts or reactive to the full time Chinese speaking nannies the two girls grew up with.  They see that as an unfair advantage that she has been given; “that compared to the average Singaporean family, that’s still 2 full time nannies more than most children in Singapore”.

The problem with Averages

By comparing the Rogers family to the “average Singaporean”,  I will assume that these parents value a democratic and equitable society.  But that also requires the all Singaporeans to be average. And that’s the problem with averages. By definition, average means that at least half the population, if not more, is less advantaged than to the other half.

Using the same logic, are we being unfair to those right at the bottom of the income scale in Singapore? What about to those in the lowest quartile on the income scale? What about the person who is immediately below you?

If you spend more on tuition for your child, is that being unfair to him or his child?

Food for Thought

At what point does using money to buy academic tuition to give your child a head start become unfair? Some commentators warn about mental illness as a consequence from over emphasis on academic results (does this suggest that it is unfair to the child?)

If it’s not fair, should we not be doing something about it?

If we don’t do anything about it, then are we being unethical?

Zooming Out

Zooming out, what about children in less developed countries?

Is it fair that children in Singapore have access to a high quality education system?

If it’s unfair, then should we not be doing something about it?

If we don’t do anything about it, then are we being unethical?

Articles from Straits Times
Let’s not drive our children sick with success, Straights Times, 5.1.15
Parent offers him $20,000 for an A grade | The New Paper 8.26.15
7 in 10 parents send their children for tuition – The Straits Times
Tuition has become an educational arms race – The Straits
Starting from pre-school, parents sending kids for classes in arms race to keep up – The Straits Times, 4.7.15
Tuition seen as ‘necessity’– The Straits Times 2.2.15
Does tuition help or hinder? – The Straits Times 7.7.15
$1 billion spent on tuition in one year, AsiaOne Education 9.11.14

Articles from the Harvard Study:
5 ways elite-college admissions shut out poor kids, National Public Radio, 1.15.16
Poverty preference admissions: The new affirmative action? US News & World Report, 1.12.16
The story of one disadvantaged teenager in Brooklyn and her fight to get into college, AlterNet, 1.8.16
Our obsession with elite colleges is making our kids feel worthless, Quartz, 12.19.15
The Silicon Valley suicides, The Atlantic Magazine, 12.15.15
Silicon Valley’s college consultant industry, The Atlantic 12.9.15
College admissions odds are stacked against high achieving low-income students, HuffPost Education, 11.20.15
We’re destroying our kids – for nothing: Too much homework, too many tests, too much needless pressure, Salon, 10.31.15
High school students are stressed out about college admissions; the reality of burning out before college, Medical Daily, 8.12.15
The heartbreaking physical toll of high achievement among disadvantaged teens, HuffPost, 7.20.15
Push, don’t crush, the students, NYTimes, 4.24.15
Some students feeling college-admissions stress, USA Today, 3.26.15

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