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What is an Escalator School?

An escalator school is a private school that virtually guarantees students admission to university from a young age, usually grade one. This is a Japanese term that applies to a system that is commonly used by prestigious universities in Japan. Similar systems exist in other Asian and Western countries.

K-12 Admission

An escalator school primarily accepts students from a young age, usually grade one. This involves entrance exams and is competitive. As such, many parents have these young children cram for many months or years in preparation. Escalator schools also require an interview that gauges the cultural capital of the family. Some schools will eliminate any families that aren't perceived as having an upper class background. Likewise, some families have enough social status to have their children accepted despite a low test score.

Drop Out Rate

Once admitted into an escalator school, the drop out rate tends to be very low through to the end of university. Again, the idea is that you are essentially guaranteed a prestigious university education from a young age in exchange for years of private school fees.

University Admission

Members of the escalator school are typically offered university admission even if their academic performance is far lower than the average of those accepted through standardized testing.

Social Mobility

Escalator schools reduce social mobility by filling universities with wealth students who were virtually guaranteed admission from the age of 6 or 7.


Escalator schools likely reduce the global competitiveness of Japan. For example, Japan only has 2 universities in the top 200 World University Rankings published by the Times Higher Education. This is unusual relative to the size of its population and economy. For example, Canada has a far smaller population and economy but has 7 universities in the top 200.

Preference for Certainty

Japanese culture is known for its strong preference for certainty. Japan's largest companies mostly hire from its top universities and offer employment for life. As such, a 6 or 7 year old that is accepted into an prestigious escalator school has a virtually guaranteed path to lifetime employment at a large Japanese company.


The parents of escalator school students must be willing to have their children cram hard for admission tests at a very young age. As such, many of these parents continue to push their children to study such that they do score well on standardized testing in high school. In this case, the escalator school system is used as a backup should the student not receive admission to a higher status university based on their results.
In some cases, admission into the escalator school's preschool at age 2 or 3 eases the admission process for the elementary school. At this age, admission is based on an interview alone.
Escalator schools can be used as a case study in how an elite "rig" a society in their favor.
Overview: Escalator School
The Japanese system of private schools that offers a virtually guaranteed path to university admission from a young age.
Translation Of
エスカレーター学校, esukareita gakkou
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Teru Clavel. "Prepping for university straight from the crib", Japan Times, 2014.
Kyodo, Jiji, "Japan failing to cultivate elite universities, global survey suggests", Japan Times, 2019.
Gainey, Peter, and Curtis Andressen. "The Japanese education system: Globalisation and international education." Japanese Studies 22.2 (2002): 153-167.
Amano, Ikuo. "Education in a more affluent Japan." Assessment in Education 4.1 (1997): 51-66.


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