This Week in Costa Rica

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This Week in Costa Rica is a weekly, online radio program and podcast by US expat, Dan Stevens

Education in Costa Rica

Education in Costa Rica is a touchy subject as this country jockeys itself for a more globally competitive position.  Costa Ricans are quick to boast that education is held in the highest esteem on their shortlist of social priorities.  This country can tout one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America and with no standing army to join, education and schooling are the best option for young Costa Ricans to make their way in the world.  That said, a high literacy rate is about all the public education system in Costa Rica can successfully produce to date.  As with many aspects of Costa Rica, this country is clearly divided into the haves and have-nots when it comes to primary, secondary, and post-secondary education.  The private schools far surpass the public school system in nearly every regard but for pricing. 

Public Schools

Public schools in Costa Rica end for most at the 9th grade.  Some schools do offer the option for students to continue to the 11th grade and are required to offer the Bachillerato de Educación de Diversificada or National Baccalaureate.  Those passing to this level will allow a student to take the MEP (Ministerio de Educación Publico) tests in order to determine eligibility to Costa Rican Universities.  It is a far cry from the prerequisites set out by North American Universities.  Though by no fault of a cash-poor government, the public education system chugs along and does the best it can with the means it has (which are little to none).  Teachers are terribly underpaid (some as low as $300/month), schools rarely have computer labs, there are no afterschool activities or clubs to speak of, and many rural schools are comprised of a single room.  Often schools are overcrowded and only have students taking classes for half days, text books are 3rd generation photocopies, and teachers guard their single whiteboard marker under lock and key.  English is taught at times as a subject and quite often very poorly.  As the teachers themselves are often products of the same machine, their lack of basic global knowledge can be staggering.  However, efforts are being made to improve the system with greater teacher training, updating curriculum, and modernizing facilities.  This, as with many government funded projects in Costa Rica, is a slow and often frustratingly arduous process.   Parents looking to place their youngsters into the free, public education system in Costa Rica with hopes of reintegrating them back into their homeland’s Universities and Colleges ought to reassess this option. 

There are three types of diplomas offered in Costa Rica.


  • ·         The Costa Rican Bachillerato Diploma accredited by the Costa Rican Ministry of Education. (MEP) This is the National Baccalaureate/Diploma of Costa Rica.
  • ·         The International Baccalaureate Diploma, accredited by the IBO in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • ·         USA High School Diploma, accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)

School Calendar year

Most schools are programmed on the Costa Rican schedule which runs mid-February to the end of November. Schools following the United States curriculum operate on a United States calendar starting the middle of August and finishing in June with a month off for Christmas in December and January.

Private Schools

The private primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools run the gambit in both cost and quality.  Prior to enrolling your children into a private school you need to thoroughly research the schools available in the area you where may choose to relocate your family.  Living outside the Central Valley will exponentially decrease your chances of finding a school that will suit your long-term goals.  It is essential to contact not only school principals and directors, but try to make contact with other parents whose children are currently enrolled in, or have graduated from, the schools you are considering.  It is also important to verify the accrediting agency for that school.  Though the private schools are regulated, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their practices and claims are monitored.  Accreditation of the institute is critical as it determines the overall value of the diploma when continuing your children’s education. 

The Central Valley hosts some excellent private schools teaching everything from primary level Montessori education, to privately American owned, managed, and accredited high schools, to private Universities with Harvard and Yale affiliations.  Many of the programs are bilingual and a high percentage of the faculties are qualified North American and European teachers.  These instructors are often well-paid, strongly encouraged to participate in modernizing curriculum, and are heavily engaged in the development of their students.  Parent-teacher contact is high and the students enjoy a multinational, multicultural learning environment, better preparing them for a continued education abroad or a position working in a global organization.  Private schools are the clear choice for the vast majority of expatriate parents, and are increasingly the choice made by more affluent Costa Ricans. 


Costa Rican Universities are a different ball of wax.  Both the private and public Universities here are generally excellent.  Both are offered at surprisingly low cost and are an obvious career path for most Costa Ricans.  Many twenty-something Ticos are currently working on their Bachelor’s Degree, and often times they are en route to a Master’s.  Expatriate parents thinking that these schools will offer programs in English, however, should think twice.  These are Latin Universities with Spanish text books and Latin professors.  The entire curriculum is in Spanish.  Many expat parents who have had their adolescent’s education take place in Costa Rica find that their ambition is to have their younglings return to North America for college regardless.  That is why ensuring the accreditation of the private high school is recognized at your target institutes states-side long before paying your first matriculation check.

At the end of the day, it comes down to the same two required factors when making such a big move – patience and research.  Talking to parents in similar situations, building networks of trusted resources, and using common sense can ultimately set your children on the right path to what can be a remarkable, academically valuable, culturally enriching, and fulfilling global education experience.  As with any education process, parent involvement in their children’s academic lives beyond packing their lunch and making sure they’re one the bus on time is essential.

This Week in Costa Rica is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, expressed or implied.  This Week in Costa Rica is produced by Podfly Productions, LLC and broadcast with permission by the Overseas Radio Network.