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Costa Rica 2018 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

High levels of public investment have made Costa Rica's education system one of the strongest in Latin America, and government leaders are working to improve teacher quality and ensure that the poorest Costa Ricans have access to quality secondary and tertiary schools.

When global leaders point to Costa Rica as an example of strong and productive development, they are in large part referencing the gains made by the education system. Over the past few decades, heavy investment in education has resulted in significant increases in access and outcomes, giving Costa Rica a strong base of human capital that has played a major role in become one of Central America's success stories. Today, Costa Rican administrators are focused on ensuring they continue to provide needed services as public debt threatens to force spending cuts, increasing technological literacy and forming new international partnerships to improve the state of the higher education system.

Once well behind global standards for enrollment and literacy, Costa Rica has become one of Latin America's standouts. Literacy rates are on par with the best in the developed world at 96.3% according to UNESCO, with the youth literacy rate at 97.8% for males and 98.7% for women. Primary school enrollment has long been one of Costa Rica's strengths, as the nation was one of the first in Latin America to achieve universal enrollment. Today, Costa Rica has full enrollment in primary school for both males and females. Costa Rica's education system requires six years of primary education followed by five years of secondary education, which is split into professional and technical streams.
The intense focus on achieving full enrollment at the primary level has led to admirable literacy rates, but the system lags behind OECD nations at ensuring that most students make the transition to secondary school. UNICEF reports that the nation's primary school attendance ration is at 96% for both sexes, but that drops to 60% for secondary school. Nearly a third of all Costa Rican 15-year olds have already dropped out of school, with these dropouts disproportionally taking place among poorer families. As the nation's economy continues to develop, the minimum level of education needed has shifted from completion of primary to secondary school. As such, the gap between those with primary educations and those with secondary educations and beyond has fueled a growing social and economic divide. While not a critical issue yet—again, educational outcomes on the whole are still among the best in Latin America—this is a growing area of concern for Costa Rican leaders who understand that giving all citizens access to the tools needed for success is critical to the long-term health of the country.
A second area of interest of Costa Rican education leaders is the early childhood education sector. There is growing recognition that giving children under four years of age access to introductory educational programs pays enormous dividends throughout the educational lifespan and can help bridge the gap between poor and wealthy families. Although Costa Rica's progress in primary school attendance has been admirable, the country has often failed to ensure that children attend early childhood education programs that are legally compulsory but rarely enforced. Rates have been slowly rising in recent years, but more than a third of Costa Ricans do not access these programs, and as with secondary school enrollment, this is largely concentrated in poorer communities.
The growing divide in educational outcomes at the secondary level is reflected in the nation's tertiary education system. Costa Rica's university system, originally intended for a small subset of the population, has seen strong growth in recent years as demand has increased and post-secondary degrees have become a prerequisite for participation in the global economy. Five of Costa Rica's 64 universities are public, and these schools generally offer a higher-quality education than the private schools that have emerged to meet demand. Regulations around these private institutions are scarce, and there are concerns that the 50% of university students enrolled in these schools are receiving educations inconsistent in quality. Public expenditure on tertiary education has grown to 1.4% of GDP in 2014, well above OECD average, and there are concerns that further increases might be unwise considering Costa Rica's rising levels of public debt. As such, private institutions are poised to play a larger role in the tertiary education sector in the near future. Plans for new oversight legislation are underway, with the long-term goal of ensuring that every Costa Rican, regardless of class, has access to a high-quality education.