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Costa Rica Education: History, Schools & Universities

In contrast to many developing countries, the Costa Rica education system is a good one. According to the 2007/2008 United Nations Development Program Human Development Report, Costa Rica's literacy rate is 94.9 % - evidence that education is a primary concern of the Costa Rica government.

The greatest number of educational options can be found in the Central Valley area. In fact the San Jose phone book has over 300 listings for private elementary and secondary schools.

History of the Costa Rica Education System

The importance of education in Costa Rica can be attributed to early leaders of the country, many of which were schoolteachers. (For more on Costa Rica History) In fact, Costa Rica's first president, Jose Maria Castro, was himself a former teacher. Furthermore, the abolishment of the country's military in 1949 allowed for the allocation of more funding to schooling and education.

Cognizant of the advantages of a quality education, these early teacher-leaders reformed education, and in 1869 made Costa Rica one of the first countries in the world to have free and obligatory education, funding the push with profits from the nation's lucrative coffee industry. Since that time, the country's education system has grown to include approximately four thousand schools.

There are several articles in the Constitution of Costa Rica that ensure Costa Rica education. Article 79 guarantees freedom of education. Article 80 states that the government should stimulate private education. Article 82 orders the government to provide food and clothing to poor students.

As of the 1990s, English and Computer Science are mandatory subjects in public schools. Former Costa Rican President Jose Maria Figueres brought about this change while he was in office. The government bore the expense of training five hundred teachers for this purpose.

Costa Rica Schools & Public Education

The Costa Rica education system has both public and private schools. Public schools consist of six years of primary education followed by five to six years of high school. Each year is divided into two cycles with students being tested on all subjects learned at the end of each cycle.

Nationalized student testing is required at the third, sixth, ninth and eleventh grades and are used to determine whether a student moves to the next grade level. The most difficult tests are the Bachillerato Tests, which must be passed in order to receive a high school diploma and be admitted to university.

The two cycles or terms of a school year are from February through July and then August through November or December. This break used to be for children helping during the coffee harvest, but it's now viewed as an extended break for Christmas. There is also a two to three week break in July.

High school is divided into two segments. The first three years are educational while the remaining two or three give students specialized training. Upon graduation from high school, students receive a title in "Letras" (arts) or "Ciencias" (sciences).

In rural areas education beyond the sixth grade may not be readily available. The approximately one hundred village libraries in the country provide a means for those in rural areas to continue their education. A nuclearization program was put into effect to combine one-teacher schools. The current Costa Rica education system makes attendance compulsory through the ninth year, or age of fourteen.

In public schools, students are required to wear uniforms. The school day generally begins at seven in the morning and ends between one and four in the afternoon. On average, the student-teacher ratio is twenty-eight students to one teacher.

In recent years the public Costa Rica education system has suffered from budget cuts and is experiencing a lack of funding. Underpaid teachers and fewer programs have lead to an increase in private schools looking to offer parents an alternative.

Private Education in Costa Rica

Families who can afford to do so, Costa Rican or expatriate, typically send their children to private schools. North American private schools include the Marian Baker School, the International Christian School and the Country Day School, as well as others. European private schools include the French school Franco Costarricense and the German school Humboldt. There is also Escuela Japonesa, a Japanese school for Asian students.

While most private schools follow the schedule they would in their home country, some choose to follow the Costa Rican schedule. This runs from the middle of February to the end of November.

According to the book Living in Costa Rica, the following are (subjectively) some of the best private schools:

Top Tier

Second Tier
  • St. Paul's
  • Panamerican School (Colegio Panamericano)
  • Marion Baker School
  • European School (Colegio Europeo) -- Best known for primary school
  • Saint Francis
  • Methodist College (Colegio Methodista)
Third Tier
  • Weizman Institute (Instituto Dr. Jaim Weizman)
  • Japanese School (Escuela Japonesa)
  • French School (Liceo Franco-Costarricense or Lycee Franco-Costaricien)
  • West College (Colegio del Oeste)
  • Blue Valley School

Higher Education in Costa Rica & University of Costa Rica

There are four state-funded universities. Most students attending state-funded universities do so on scholarship. However, at a maximum price per semester of $200, education at one of these universities is affordable.

The oldest and largest state-funded university is the University of Costa Rica; it's also one of the most prestigious. The university enrolls approximately 35,000 students per year. The main campus is located in San Pedro, but there are also regional centers in Cartago, Alajuela, Puntarenas and Turrialba.

Around 13,000 students study liberal arts, sciences and professional studies at the National University in Heredia. Students working towards a degree in science or technology generally attend the Technical Institute of Costa Rica in Cartago. The State Correspondence University has thirty-two regional centers where students can work towards fifteen degrees, including health, business administration, education and liberal arts.

For those who are simply interested in learning something new and not necessarily enrolling, numerous public universities in the Costa Rica education system offer courses, seminars and talks that are free and open to the public. These opportunities are listed in local newspapers like La Nacion. Many other programs available through these universities are reasonably priced and are a great way to continue your education while in Costa Rica.

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