Education in Costa Rica

This topic submitted by Elaine Ivie ( at 7:57 PM on 5/17/04.

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Education in Costa Rica: The Exception in Central America

Costa Ricans are a highly literate people. The country boasts of 96% literacy in citizens 15 years or older, the most literate population in Central America. Many of the country’s early leaders like the first president, Jose Maria Castro, were former teachers who were concerned about the education in Costa Rica. In 1869, the country became one of the first in the world to make the education both free and obligatory, funded by the state’s share of the great coffee wealth. In those days only one in ten Costa Ricans could read and write.
Costa Ricans feel that their high education level sets them apart from many less fortunate countries in Central America and around the world. In the 1970s only 45 to 60 percent of adults in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua could read and write as compared to approximately 90 percent in Costa Rica (Skidmore 327). Many of Costa Rica's rulers have been educators as well, and have placed great importance in the expansion of primary and secondary education, even in the most remote areas of the country.
Costa Ricans are extremely proud of their education level, and they strongly believe that the key to a good life is schooling and continued training. The government of this small Central American country has always allocated a large amount of its budget for primary, high school and higher level education. Many of its presidents, instead of being military men, have been educators who have always encouraged the educational improvement of the Costa Ricans.
There are several articles in the Constitution of Costa Rica to assure the integrity of the educational system. Jose Maria Castro’s reforms and those of following presidents, allowed Costa Rica to become the first country in the world where education became free and obligatory in 1869, as expressed by Article 78 of the Constitution. This and other articles of the constitution work towards preserving the quality of Costa Rica’s educational system.
The last 30 years have seen a significant boosts to educational standards. In the 1970s, 70 percent or more of young children ages 7 to 13 were attending school. Only 33 percent of teenagers, however, attended school (Skidmore 327). Since the 1970s the country has invested more than 28% of the national budget on primary and secondary education. Costa Rica must still do more to further access to education since libraries are the only way for adults in rural areas to continue education beyond the primary level, unless they have the resources to attend school in more urban areas or by correspondence.
Primary and High schools are found in virtually every community and students are not required to pay for basic schooling. Primary school has 6 year levels, where as high school has 5 year levels. Both primary and high school are is divided in two cycles, and upon completion of each cycle, students are required to pass tests on all subjects studied during those years. The main tests are the Bachillerato Tests, which are required to get the high school diploma needed for admission to Universities.
Primary education lasts for six years divided in two cycles of three years each. Secondary education covers five or six years divided into cycle 3, the last three years of basic education, and cycle 4 of two or three years' duration. On entering cycle 3, pupils choose an academic course or a technical/vocational program. At the end of this cycle, a Certificate is awarded. In cycle 4, pupils choose a two-year academic course or a three-year technical course. Both courses follow a core curriculum including Spanish, Social Studies, Mathematics, Science and Foreign Languages in addition to the specialized subjects. Satisfactory completion of this cycle leads to the Bachillerato, which gives access to higher education, however, most universities impose an entrance examination.
This system applies to all public schools, but there are also private grammar schools and high schools, which utilize an American or European system, where more well-to-do families usually send their children. There are several North American schools in addition to a German school, a French school, and a Japanese School. The explosion of private Costa Rican and foreign schools has lessened over-crowding in the public schools and has provided an alternate educational system for those who can afford it.
The Ministry of Education is responsible for regulating education in all of Costa Rica. To help keep Costa Rica current and on top of education, Jose Maria Figueres who was president from 1994 to 1998 declared the teaching of English and Computer Science as mandatory in all of the nation's public schools. This meant the training of 500 teachers and a huge expense from the part of the government. The commitment to education and progress by Costa Rica was shown to still be present. This was able to occur since most of the inhabitants of Costa Rica live in a concentrated area (Wiarda 33) and communication is widespread. New technology and programs are able to be spread quickly throughout the country.
Although the country lacked a true university until 1940, Costa Rica now boasts four state-funded universities and a score of small private ones, whose number has increased dramatically in the last decade, due to the difficulty of being admitted to state-funded, more prestigious universities. From 1992 to 1998, the number of private universities increased from 11 to 41.
The University of Costa Rica, the largest and oldest university, enrolls some 35,000 students, mostly on scholarships, even though full tuition rarely surpasses $200 a semester. The National University in Heredia, offers a variety of liberal arts, sciences, and professional studies to 13,000 students. The Technological Institute in Cartago specializes in science and technology, and trains people for agriculture, industry and mining. The State Correspondence University, founded in 1978, is modeled after the United Kingdom’s Open University with 32 regional centers offering 15 degree courses in health, education, business administration, and the liberal arts. It has had great success especially for people who live in rural areas. These public universities have large facilities and some, like the University of Costa Rica, has a large and very nice campus. Even though the fee is small to moderate, these institutions still offer scholarships for students who can't afford even the minimum charge.
Before these universities were established, Costa Rica had one location for higher education. The first university in Costa Rica was called “Universidad de Santo Tomas,” located in San Jose. This institution had been the "Casa de Ensenanza de Santo Tomas" since 1814, but it didn't become a full-fledged university until 1843. The Law School was the only department that survived when the whole university was shut down in 1888. The closure of this education center was due to the idea of establishing a more technological and "practical" institution; this proved to be a bad move, since another university wasn't inaugurated until 1940.
Rafael Calderon Guardia was president of Costa Rica from 1940 to 1944, and he initiated a series of socialist reforms that included the establishment of the public University of Costa Rica. The founding of the University of Costa Rica was and still is of extreme importance, since until then, middle-class or poor people couldn't afford to send their children to foreign universities, like the upper class. Therefore, they were limited to a high school degree and in the best of cases, to studying Law in the University of Santo Tomas. The University of Costa Rica transformed the country completely, since it created new opportunities for people of all classes. Before this point, public education for all had been limited to the primary and high school levels.
Apart from these public universities, there are several private ones that have multiplied immensely in the past ten years. These institutions offer shorter careers, since most of them do not require the liberal arts courses that are obligatory in public universities. Since they are private, the charge per unit or per class is much more expensive than in public universities, but many students that can afford them prefer to attend these universities because they are interested in a more focused education. Most of these private universities are located in San Jose or very close by, since this is where most of the wealth and population lie. There are also technical schools for those who do not wish to follow the academic path. In the non-university sector, institutions are usually privately run and specialize mainly in business courses. The degrees and diplomas awarded by such institutions are not recognized in the formal education system.
Because of unstable economic and political situations, many Latin American students have come to Costa Rican universities because they offer an excellent education in a politically stable environment (Peeler 170). Since Costa Rica is a democracy with freedom of association, higher education is easy to obtain (Wiarda 64). Professors are usually highly trained and educated individuals who hold Master or doctorate degrees from institutions in Costa Rica, the United States or Europe.
The country has achieved net rates of 92.6 percent in 2001 for primary education attendance, however the serious problems of grade repetition and drop-outs still exist. Three out of every 10 children drop out of school before completing basic general education and eight of them do not complete secondary studies within the allotted time frame. Some 40 percent of adolescents have left the education system, even though flexible policies have increased. According to the “Report on the State of Child and Adolescent Rights,” prepared by UNICEF and the University of Costa Rica, 30 percent of poor Costa Ricans are children and youths. To lessen social and economic distinctions between students, those in public schools are required to wear the official uniform. While this helps students with a low socio-economic status feel more confortable in school, more needs to be done to keep poorer students in school. In the area of child and adolescent policy, institutional reform has progressed slowly. With increased educational opportunities for Costa Ricans to have higher education, economic conditions for many will likely improve.


Benavot, A. (1989). Education, Gender, and Economic Development: A Cross-National Study. Sociology of Education, Vol. 62, No. 1, Special Issue on Gender and Education, 14-32.

Peer, J. (1998). Building Democracy in Latin America. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

Reimers, F. (1993). The Role of Organisation and Politics in Government Financing of Education. The Effects of 'Structural Adjustment' in Latin America.. Comparative Education, Vol. 27, No. 1., 35-51.

Skidmore, T. E. and Smith, P. H. (2001). Modern Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wiarda, H. J.(1995). Latin American Politics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

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