San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

In Costa Rica, Higher Education Serves the Few

The sight of thousands of students clogging city streets, staging roadblocks and occupying the administrative offices of the public universities is a common one in any other Latin American country, but when it occurred in Costa Rica last month, many Ticos were surprised.

During a march on Casa Presidencial in August, several students shouldered a cardboard coffin meant to represent the impending passing of public universities. Others propped up signs to “Save Higher Education” or “Invest in the Future.” But most just pushed through the streets to show solidarity with the public education system.

The situation wasn’t pretty, José Andrés Masís recalled, sitting in his office in the western San José district of Rohrmoser a few weeks later. Over the last 20 years there hasn’t been confrontation in the negotiation of the universities’ budget approximating the levels this year, said Masís, the director of the office of planning for CONARE, the umbrella organization joining the country’s public universities.

“There haven’t been disagreements. There haven’t been strikes,” he said. “In general, Costa Rica has been a country with very little tension between the government and academia, which has allowed universities to develop.”

But with rising costs and more students knocking on the door of the public education system, universities are requiring bigger budgets to sustain programs. The heads of public universities said if they don’t receive at least an 8 percent raise in their budgets, tuitions will rise, programs will be cut and fewer students will receive scholarships.

At the head of the mass of students who crowded the streets heading past Casa Presidencial, University of Costa Rica (UCR) Rector Yamileth González urged her audience to fight to maintain public education, ensure its continued prestige and protect the quality of its programs. 

“We are convinced that to invest in education is to invest responsibly in democracy and development for the benefit of all inhabitants of our nation,” she shouted over a megaphone.

When President Laura Chinchilla, herself a UCR alum, said she could only offer a 4.5 percent budget raise, she was accused of dismantling public education in a push for privatization. 

González said, “We are in this battle because we don’t want to be privatized. … We want to remain public universities. … We want to be part of the public sector to redistribute knowledge, open opportunity and allow for social mobility.”

The concern of González and others is not so much that public universities will turn private, but that they will be starved of resources to the extent that students would opt for private education instead, or be excluded from higher educational together.

With the Costa Rican central government posting budgets in the red, with primary schools suffering leaks in the roof and shortages of every kind, and other public needs such as infrastructure and security screaming for attention, public universities risk being pushed to the sidelines.

Already public higher education suffers from a deficit of technology and a lack of resources for research and innovation; but the recent battle for more funds raises the thorny question of to what extent higher education – or some aspects of it – might be better off in the hands of the private sector.

“When the government funds teachers’ Ph.D. degrees in the United States, when they pay for students to stay in school for six to seven years, that’s taxpayer money,” said Costa Rican education expert Silvia Castro, who holds a master’s degree from Harvard University and a doctorate from University of Pennsylvania. “And it is taking away from younger students who might go without chalk or books.”

The Rise of Private Education

Like most Latin American countries, Costa Rica’s higher education system was founded by government initiatives. A 1940 law created the University of Costa Rica, which was later followed by the Costa Rican Institute of Technology (1971), Heredia’s National University (1973) and the State University at a Distance (1977).

But by the early 1990s, the demand for higher education was growing faster than the number of seats in public universities.

The imbalance proved a catalyst for a birth of a private university system in Costa Rica. Over the past 20 years, the number of private universities has grown from only a handful to 54. Some cater to the working population, while others have perfected a field of focus such as medicine or agriculture, and still others provide a broad alternative to the public option. 


A picnic area outside the University of Costa Rica

And while private education in Costa Rica is often dismissed as being second rate (a CONARE study showed that 85 percent of final year high school students want to pursue a degree at a public university), most education leaders recognize their importance to the country’s development.

With the plethora of private options now available, the central government has launched an initiative to regulate education programs. Through the National Accreditation System for Higher Education (SINAES), authorities have been working to accredit university programs to ensure offerings meet certain national and international standards.

“When one has a big offering, it’s difficult to choose between all those options,” said Rosa Adolio, director of SINAES, in an interview with The Tico Times. “The accreditation assures students that programs have been thoroughly vetted for quality.”

However, even with 60 different career tracks spread among more than 60 institutions of higher education, much of Costa Rican society continues to be excluded.

Access to Universities

Only two out of every 10 Costa Ricans have a degree from a higher education institution, compared to a 28 percent among countries worldwide evaluated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But the reason for the relatively low number of college degrees is found not so much at the gates of universities, but in the halls of the country’s high schools.

A mere 40 percent of the population earns a high school diploma, with most dropping out for work or family-related reasons before they reach the 11th grade (the final year).

“Less developed countries have numbers better than Costa Rica,” said CONARE’s Masís, highlighting the common misconception that Costa Rica tops all charts among developing countries in terms of its education rankings.

A United Nations Development Program study pegs Costa Rica’s high school enrollment rate of 73 percent, below Venezuela’s 85.9 percent, Panama’s 79.7 percent and El Salvador’s 74 percent.

But completion of the 11th grade is not the only requisite for accessing higher education. In order to gain a coveted spot in one of the country’s public universities, students must first pass the nationwide baccalaureate exam administered by the Education Ministry and then achieve a passing score on the universities’ demanding admissions tests.

Intrinsic Injustice

These steps create an intrinsic injustice in higher education in Costa Rica, said Castro, head of the Latin American University of Science and Technology (ULACIT), a leading private university in San José. Because the students who typically pass the exams come from stronger secondary school education programs (such as those offered by private schools), students of higher socioeconomic status are disproportionately the ones who end up enrolling in the country’s public universities.

Thus, the students who most can afford to pay for university education pay the 40,000 ($80) per semester tuition at public universities, while students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds pay tuition at private universities that averages 250,000 ($500) per semester.

“There is something inherently wrong when wealthier students don’t have to pay,” she said. “And the worst part is, no one is interested in shifting the injustice. People don’t want to talk about it.”

Castro explained that the cycle is hard to break. Public university graduates, who benefit from a heavily subsidized education, are the ones who are hired to fill government positions. They perpetuate the system in the hope that their own children will profit from government-sponsored education.

Private institutions are left educating students of lower economic means on budgets that aren’t supported by public funds and that don’t receive tax advantages of public universities (such as exemption from property taxes and levies on imported equipment).

“There’s a saying you can’t make chocolate without cacao, but we make chocolate without cacao every day,” Castro said in explaining the strains placed on university finances. She said ULACIT has to target students of a higher socioeconomic status in order to maintain the quality of its programs.  

The situation has also forced private institutions to be more efficient with their budgets. Castro divided public universities’ budgets by the number of students enrolled in the programs and found that it costs taxpayers an average of 13.7 million (or $27,400) per student for a four-year bachelor’s program. While that number doesn’t take into account community outreach or extension programs, it is the closest estimate available.

According to Castro, the average nonmedical degree program at a private university costs 2 million ($4,000), while the most expensive medical degree program at a private university costs 15 million ($30,000), making the cost to educate students at a private university far below that of public universities.

Castro, who has been called an “enemy of public education,” for her research, acknowledges that adequate data is lacking. Although the public universities have collaborated on a handful of studies, a thorough comparative study including both public and private institutions has yet to be done.  

In order to begin bringing education forward, the country needs to start gathering information on the number of students enrolled, job placements, career choices and tuition costs, Castro said. 

“There is no data,” she said. “So there is no way of knowing whether institutions of higher education are high quality or low quality. And it is hard to set goals.”

Who Attends the Universities?

Data collected through CONARE illustrate a national student body that for the most part is part-time (60 percent), is more interested in law and social issues than science and technology and that generally takes longer than four years to graduate.

Approximately 83,000 students are enrolled in the five public universities. Another estimated 100,000 take classes at private schools. But the numbers of graduates are gradually shifting in favor of private universities.

According to the 2008 State of the Nation report, 68.9 percent of college students were enrolled in private institutions in 2008, up from 60.8 percent in 2004, demonstrating a significant shift to private education, Castro pointed out.

Students are also moving away from parauniversitarias, two-year technical colleges, because – experts say – coursework is going unrecognized by places of employment and other educational institutions. Between 1998 to 2003, enrollment in technical colleges dropped from 21,369 students to 11,272.

High Quality

On the international playing field, Costa Rica ranks well. A recent report compiled by the World Bank ranked Costa Rica 43rd in the quality of its higher education, only two slots behind the Latin American leader, Uruguay.

The numbers don’t surprise SINAES’ Adolio, who said that many people in Latin America come to Costa Rica to study.

“The perception in the region is that the quality of higher education here is good,” she said. “It may not be excellent, but it’s clear to us that we need to continue working to guarantee this quality.”

She said the greatest challenge facing higher education is the maintenance of infrastructure and the investment in technology. Also, Costa Rica needs to advance in research, she said.

Asked whether the future of the country’s higher education system should be in public or private hands, Masís said public universities form a fundamental part of the education system in Costa Rica, but the country can’t be successful without the private arm.

 “The future is much more than public or private,” he said. “It’s which universities can maintain a high level of quality and best contribute to Costa Rica’s advancement.”

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