Here’s All You Need to Know About Costa Rica’s Educational System

    Learn how it is structured and how it came to be

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    According to various reports, Costa Rica is in fourth place among 94 countries with the most accessibility to education. These studies show that education in the country covers most of the population since the rate of people who can read and write is 90.27% and the illiteracy is just 9.73%.

    Through constant attention to education, Costa Rica has reached the highest percentage of literacy in Central America, which competes with the largest and most industrialized nations in the world. Since 1970 Costa Rica has invested 28% of the national budget in education and this would not have been achieved if armed forces still existed in the country.

    The educational system in Costa Rica is divided into four levels -pre-school, primary, secondary and higher educations.  Article 78 of the Country’s Constitution creates the Ministry of Public Education, it is the governing body of the entire Educational System; which is responsible for promoting the development and consolidation of an educational system of excellence, that allows the access of the entire population to a quality education, focused on the integral development of people and the promotion of a Costa Rican society integrated by opportunities and social equity.

    The institutional vision is characterized by an efficient, timely and transparent administrative coordination, which promotes the integral development of the human being in his capacities, necessary to live and integrate into a global society, based on ingenuity, knowledge, and abilities.  A Ministry that contributes to discover, understand, express and rebuilds us as citizens of the world capable of being guided in the permanent and critical search of what is fair and right.

    Among some of the many features of the Costa Rican educational system, are:

    Public education:  organized as an integral process correlated in its various cycles, from pre-school to university.

    Preschool and general basic education are compulsory and free. These and the diversified education in the public system are free and paid for by the Nation.

    In-state sponsored education, including higher education, public spending will not be less than six percent (6%) of the annual gross domestic product, according to the law.

    The Costa Rican education system is recognized as one of the best in the Americas, being Costa Rica the holder of one of the highest rates of literacy, educational coverage and public spending in education in Latin America and the best in the Central American region. Likewise, in the country, there has been a consolidated public higher education system since the 20th century, which has been characterized by its excellence.

    As of the year 2018, there were about 900,000 students in the 1st., 2nd., and 3rd. cycles of diversified education, as well as 50,000 teachers. With regards to physical space there exists around 5000 schools and colleges.


    Since colonial times, education in Costa Rica consisted mainly of religious and political aspects, however, the ideas of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Positivism and the French Revolution changed the course of Costa Rican education. In the beginning, education was not accessible to creoles and aborigines, only whites of Spanish descent.

    The first teacher in the history of Costa Rican education was Father Diego Aguilar, who ran the first elementary school and worked in it for more than 40 years. The Spanish Crown ordered in the seventeenth century the creation of schools in each province of the then Central American Republic, for “the literacy of the children of the settlers
    the Spanish language and Christian doctrine”.

    A century later, the Municipalities of Cartago, San José and Heredia complied, with the provisions of the Spanish crown, and hired, dozens of professors who were often Catholic priests. At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, education was limited to teaching the most basic aspects and there was no secondary school or university. Therefore, students had to travel to the Universities of León, Nicaragua or San Carlos Borromeo in Guatemala.

    Dr. Florencio del Castillo, representative of Costa Rica in the Cortes of Cádiz, played a key role in Costa Rican education since one of his achievements was the creation of schools to teach reading, writing and counting to indigenous children in the colonized areas. As a consequence of the achievement of Dr. Castillo, the “House of Teaching of Santo Tomás” was created in 1814, teaching Philosophy, Sacred Canons and Moral Theology.

    This is how the Costa Rican education system kept evolving constantly throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with successive reforms such as: the right to education for women in an education system before strongly focused on males, the declaration in 1844 that education is a right of Costa Ricans and the State will guarantee it in all concepts by means of legal provisions and the creation of the Secretariat of Public Instruction in 1869, which was the first educational regulator in the country.


    Education in Costa Rica is generally among the best in America. The country – with an educational investment of close to 8% of its GDP and the US $ 800 per student –  is one of the few nations that has managed to universalize primary education, practically eradicate illiteracy and have broad coverage for secondary and higher education.

    Costa Rica has the best enrollment rates in the region, so at least 90% of its population have completed the EGB and between 30 and 40% have entered the Diversified Education level and obtained a high school diploma. In terms of success in pursuing higher education, the national average is the highest in Latin America, with 23% of the adult population being professional graduates.

    The Costa Rican educational system has been repeatedly recognized as one of the best in the region: according to the Global Competitiveness Index, ethics education is among the most outstanding in the area, with notable strengths in tertiary educational quality. The University of Costa Rica is the main center of higher education of all Central America and the Caribbean, and located eighteenth in the Ibero-American position.

    Besides, in the standardized tests of the International Program for the Evaluation of Students, Costa Rica is in the third position of the subcontinent only behind Chile and Uruguay.

    However, decades have lagged, in the quality and competitiveness of some aspects of Costa Rican education, ranging from severe infrastructural deficiencies in many institutions to the disparity of opportunities that may exist between private educational centers and those of the state-sponsored system.

    The latter has marked deficiencies in its instructional model related to the update of its contents and methodologies, having intense debates about the implementation of deep reforms in topics such as the National Standardized High School Test, its usefulness and the form of application.

    Educational Levels

    Preschool (1st. cycle)

    It is the initial part of the formal system of education. It includes at least one year and the entry age is 5 years and 6 months completed at the end of February, with a lower margin of 5 years and 3 months completed on the same date. In general terms, Preschool Education has the purpose of providing the bases for the integral development of the child.

    Basic general education (2nd. cycle)

    Primary (06 to 12 years of age). It is the one that ensures the correct literacy, that is, the one that teaches reading, writing, basic calculation and some of the cultural concepts considered essential. Its purpose is to provide all students with a common formation that makes possible the development of individual motor skills, personal balance, relationship and social performance with the acquisition of cultural elements.

    Secondary Education (3rd. Cycle, 13 to 17 years of age, last compulsory level)

    It is the one that aims to train the student to pursue higher education. At the end of secondary education, it is intended that the student develops sufficient skills, values, and attitudes for achieving a good development in society. These are the Diurnal and Nocturnal Academic High Schools (III Cycle and Diversified Education).

    To enter this Cycle, it is required to have approved the 1st. and 2nd. Cycle. These centers meet the educational needs of students in those institutions called Liceos (High Schools) with the fundamental purpose of providing students the basic knowledge necessary to interpret, understand and manage the socio-economic and cultural reality of the country.

    Diversified education (4th. Cycle)

    As its name suggests, seeks to offer students various options that tend to meet their needs and interests in education. Specifically, Diversified Education is divided into three major branches, namely: Academic Education, Technical Education, and Art Education, which in turn are subdivided into modalities and these into specialties.

    The Academic Branch concludes with the granting of the High School Diploma (called Bachelor’s degree in Spanish), as long as the student passes the final exams of the three annual exams. This Diploma entitles the person the right to opt for entering higher (college) education. The Academic Branch comprises only two years (tenth and eleventh). As for the curriculum of the Academic Diversified Education, it includes the subjects of Spanish, Social Studies, Civic Education, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Foreign Language (English or French), Plastic Arts, Physical Education, Religious Education, Psychology, Philosophy, and Technology.

    Higher (University) Education

    The objective is to train each person in the different branches in which they can work. The idea is to create true professionals, people who adapt to the social needs of the country and with the knowledge learned, help in the professional, intellectual and economic growth of the country;  as well as developing the capacity of each person to aspire a superior quality of life.

    Rating system

    The Ministry of Public Education qualifies on a scale of 1 to 100, with one being the lowest grade and one hundred the highest. In the same way, the evaluation system varies, depending on whether the institution is public or private. The student is quantitatively tested from the second grade of primary school up, and throughout the General Basic Education, the minimum qualification to pass will be 65. From the Diversified Education up, the minimum allowed grade for passing is 70. Regarding Higher Education, the scale of evaluation and its application varies depending on the Institution.

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