San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nation’s Youth Dropping Out, Getting Poorer

Costa Rica, known around the world for its social equality and the quality of its education, may not be living up to its reputation. A report released last week suggests young people, especially adolescents, are becoming poorer and less educated.

The study, an annual collaboration between the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), is a diagnostic of Costa Rica’s achievements, failures and challenges in fulfilling the rights of its children and adolescents.

“After reviewing all the indicators, the impression that remains is the country is advancing, but very slowly – much slower than the country’s abilities would allow one to think,” said Rodolfo Osorio, a UNICEF program official in Costa Rica who worked on the study.

“The Fifth Report on the State of Child and Adolescent Rights” unites and reviews a wide array of other reports, studies and statistics, and this year gives a grim outlook on the reality of life for many under age 18 in Costa Rica.

More Poor Children

While young people make up a shrinking percentage of the population, their percentage of the poor population is growing.

Between 1988 and 2004, the percentage of Costa Rica’s population under age 15 dropped from 37% to 29% because of a sustained decrease in the nation’s birth rate, according to the report. But Costa Ricans under age 18 still make up approximately one third of the country’s population and 32% of the population living in poverty. That represents an increase from 30% in 2000.

In other words, 440,224 children and adolescents are living in poverty in Costa Rica.

The study also points out that education levels are clearly tied to poverty: the heads of household in the poorest fifth of the population have an average of 4.7 years of schooling, three years less than the national average.

The report provides further statistical support for what Public Education Minister Leonardo Garnier and President Oscar Arias have signaled for months as one of the country’s most urgent problems: a staggering two thirds drop-out rate because of economic needs and kids’ boredom in class (TT, June 30, July 7, 14).

Though Costa Rica boasts nearly 100% coverage in its primary schools (meaning nearly all elementary school-aged children are in class), and a growing number of children entering preschool, the system breaks down in high school, where it is in “critical condition,” the study found.

“There, one finds a serious problem – in terms of coverage, in terms of quality, on all levels,”Osorio said, noting that one third of the adolescent population is not in high school.

The good news is the percentage of youth in the first three years of high school rose from 64% in 2004 to 70% in 2005.

Osorio points out that one of the biggest problems in high school is the repetition of grades, resulting in some students in grades two or three years behind their peers.

The report cited a statistic from a recent study by the Public Education Ministry (MEP) showing only 20% of Costa Rican high school students finish high school without repeating a year.

The ministry said it does not know how many years students take on average to finish high school, though this year’s first annual State of Education report, published by the State of the Nation program, said that average is a whopping 9.4 years.

While a total of 53% of high school students finish their coursework, another obstacle stands between them and a diploma: the exámenes de bachillerato, national tests that serve as a graduation requirement.

Of those who finished their coursework, 66% passed the tests last year, so overall, only about a third of students receive a degree (TT, July 14).

“This represents a large investment lost for families and for the government,” Osorio said added.

Osorio, concurring with Arias and Garnier, said that one of the principal reasons students abandon their studies is economic.

“Neither they nor their family can afford to pay, and it is more profitable to leave school and work than to continue studying,” he said.

While public education is technically free in Costa Rica, the price of transportation, supplies, uniforms, books and other associated costs can be prohibitive for many poor families (TT, June 30).

A second reason, the researcher continued, is that many students are bored by their studies, or do not feel it is pertinent to their lives.

“Like the (Public Education) Minister said, it’s a yawn,” Osorio said.

Finally, he said, some students drop out for family or personal reasons. In some communities, particularly rural areas, education is not as valued, and so a young person who sees all his or her peers working or in other activities faces pressure to drop out as well, Osorio said.

A Must for Development

“In the area of education, the lack of attention to adolescents is terrible,” said Milena Grillo, the director of Paniamor, one of the leading advocacy organizations for children and adolescents in Costa Rica.

“For the last decade (education) has been lacking, and it has to do with the relevance of its content and faults in the methodology.

We also have problems of inequality.”

According to the study, the gap in education between the wealthiest fifth of the country and the poorest fifth is drastic. For example, 72% of those older than 18 in the top fifth have completed high school, while only 5% in the bottom fifth have.

“If we do not resolve this, we are not going to advance in terms of sustainable human development,” Grillo said.

The Legislative Assembly is considering an amendment to the Constitution that would increase the amount of money to be spent on education from 6% of the gross domestic product (GDP) each year to 8%.

However, since the 6% mandate was established in 1997, the government has never met the goal, coming the closest with this year’s 5.6% (TT, July 14).


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