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Costa Rica 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

High state investment has improved education levels considerably over the past decade, but more work needs to be done to increase school quality and reduce the dropout rate.

Costa Rica's education system has made strides in recent years, but it still lags behind its neighbors in several key aspects. High levels of state investment have raised literacy rates and improved access to public schools, but further work is needed to ensure that poorer communities have access to high-quality secondary schools. Current areas of emphasis for the system include reducing of the dropout rate, ensuring that rural communities have access to high-quality education, and increasing the rate of high-skilled workers to ensure that Costa Rica remains competitive in the global economy.

The Costa Rican government has demonstrated a willingness to invest in educational programs. In 2010, the Costa Rican Assembly set a goal of having education spending reach eight percent of GDP. “It was constitutionally established that Costa Rica shall allocate 8% of GDP to education," Minister of Public Education Sonia Marta Mora told TBY. “We have continually achieved spending of 8% of GDP on education despite the fiscal situation that Costa Rica is currently experiencing." In 2014, education spending equaled 7% of GDP, just below this target but a 40% increase over a decade ago. At the current rate of spending, Costa Rica is projected to reach its 8% of GDP target by 2018. Costa Rica's educational expenditures are well above both the Latin American average of 4.5% and the OECD average of 5.4%. When adjusted for per capita spending, Costa Rica spends less than Mexico, Brazil, and high-performing OECD countries, but still remains above regional countries Argentine, Colombia, and Israel, as well as high-income countries like Korea, Israel, and Singapore. This spending has resulted in near-universal access to education; the share of adults with no formal education has gone from 21.2% in 1950 to 3.4% in 2015. As a result, the literacy rate for adults above 15 years is an outstanding 97%.

Despite this spending, the average level of education among the Costa Rican population is lower than what would be expected. Less than 40% of the overall workforce has completed secondary education, a rate much lower than comparable regional and international countries. This is linked to a few principal causes. Unsurprisingly, education disparities are linked to income and parental education levels. Costa Rica has good enrollment rates among all levels of income in primary school, but dropout rates for the poor increase in secondary school, with rates separating quickly beginning at age 12. By the time they are 16, Costa Ricans with parents who did not complete primary school are more than twice as likely to no longer be enrolled in school than Costa Ricans whose parents completed secondary school. Another possible factor is the fact that more than 70% Costa Rica's education spending goes to primary and tertiary education. Secondary education's relatively low levels of spending might contribute to the increased dropout rate of students at that level. As is, the current system of makes tertiary education spending somewhat regressive, as all Costa Ricans end up supporting a level of education that the majority of the population will never reach.

Like many of its Latin American neighbors, Costa Rica also has to deal with regional disparities. 2011 census figures reported that the median educational attainment of adults in the Central Region (home to 70% of the population and the capital city of San José) is twice as high as in the rural provinces surrounding it. The gap between the regions has been closing slightly in recent years as increased enrollments have jumped in the outer districts, but further work will be needed to ensure that educational opportunities are equal for all Ticos.
The quality of education received by Costa Rican citizens is also below what would be expected considering the country's levels of investment. Costa Rica's results on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an OECD-run educational assessment for 15-year olds, were well below countries with comparable levels of spending. This result was especially concerning considering the country's high dropout levels, which suggest that the actual average level of education is much lower. This holds concerning implications for Costa Rica's long-term ability to meet the high-skilled worker needs of the modern global economy. In recent years, the majority of the jobs lost have been low- and unskilled positions. The arrival of foreign firms for manufacturing has been a boon to the Costa Rican economy, but these firms are drawn by the potential of high value-added sectors such as medical device and electronic construction. Textiles, construction, and agriculture have been stagnating while skilled sectors such as the service and finance industries have been growing in response to increased global demand, and rising unemployment even in the midst of a growing economy is revealing structural issues in readiness of the labor force. One of the Costa Rican education system's missions in the future will be to more widely equip the population with the skills needed to meet whatever role might be required of them in a global economy.

To meet that goal, Costa Rica's educational institutions are working to reform their curriculum to adapt to new realities. “An important priority has been the quality of education," Mora told TBY. “Different projects have been promoted. One of these has been continuing to transform and update the curriculum of new programs in English and French." Working to meet international educational standards is one of he Public Education Ministry's priorities. Mora explained that her office has been working closely with the UN and UNESCO to mold educational policy around global principles of equality and sustainable development. The increased emphasis on foreign interaction can be seen in the increased popularity of Mandarin, which has become the second most popular language studied at many public Costa Rican schools. Costa Rica established diplomatic ties with China in 2007, and the growing economic links between the two countries have only increased the availability of Mandarin teachers and demand for language classes.

The increasing push toward internationalization to improve standards can also be seen at the university level. The Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR), the largest and oldest school in the country, has more than 300 different cooperation agreements with international institutions. Rector Prof. Dr. Henning Jensen Pennington explained that these ties are central to the continued innovation and academic excellence of the university. “ They are one of the main platforms we have to foster international cooperation with other universities," he told TBY. "Many of us including myself have been trained in Germany. France, the US, and, of course, Spain." UCR operates joint research projects with German and South Korean universities that bring advanced technologies and global perspectives to students and benefit the country as a whole. These research programs are especially important due to the overrepresentation of social science graduates in Costa Rica's higher education system; government data shows that the number of social science graduates has grown over the past decade while there were fewer than 6,000 engineering and science graduates in 2013.

Moving forward, the increasing popularity of technical programs will be key to developing a skilled population. Schools like the National Institute of Apprenticeships (INA), which sees over 136,000 students attend its 54 national locations every year, have provided a blueprint for incorporating vocational skills and into the educational system while keeping up with global standards of technology. INA is developing mobile units to increase accessibility and knowledge exchange outside the central valley. “The main purpose of this project is that within a year at the latest we will be able to acquired from six to seven units with the purpose to expand our offer," INA Executive President Minor Rodríguez Rodríguez told TBY. “[We want to] reach the populations that are unable to come to us." With the government's documented willingness to invest in education, the future looks bright for programs like these.