Higher educational institutions in Costa Rica fall into several categories: state universities, private universities, and parauniversities, both state and private. In the category of state institutions there are four primary universities: the University of Costa Rica, established in 1940, with its central campus in San Jose and regional campuses in Guanacaste, San Ramon, Turrialba, and Limon; the National University, established in 1973, with a central campus in Heredia and regional campuses in Perez, Zeledon, and Liberia; and the State University at Distance, distance education established in 1977 with a central campus in San Jose and 31 satellite branches. There is also the Technical Institute of San Jose, established in 1973.
Public universities were expanded in the 1970s, and private universities were increased in the 1980s. Public universities traditionally defined their role as offering liberal arts education to future professionals, while private universities emphasized technical training. The public higher education system began in 1940 with the founding of the University of Costa Rica (UCR). This marked a shift away from a monopoly by a small oligarchy of elites in higher education. The remaining three public universities were founded in the 1970s: the Instituto Tecnologico de Costa Rica in 1973, the Universidad Nacional in 1973, and the Universidad Estatal de Distancia in 1977.
The University of Costa Rica started in 1941 with 8 small schools, a few professors, and 700 students. The first public alternative to the University of Costa Rica, the Instituto Tecnologico de Costa Rica (ITCR), was opened in 1973 with an orientation in science and technology.
Applicants to the University of Costa Rica and the Technological Institute of Costa Rica are required to pass an entrance exam. Some fields have additional special requirements. The National University and the State University at Distance have an open admissions policy. The University of Costa Rica, created by law in 1940, had increases in enrollments by 58 percent from 1960 to 1966. Enrollments increased again by 109 percent from 1966 to 1969. The university system grew from a population of 12,913 students in 1970 to 44,818 students in 1979. In the 1970s, the expansion of higher education in Costa Rica increased student populations from 9 out of 100 age-appropriate students in 1970 to 25 out of 100 by 1980. The student population grew three times as rapidly as the total population.
More than 50 percent of high school graduates, particularly from rural areas, cannot enter the university. The University of Costa Rica limited its student population to 18,000. Only 8 percent of the students at the University of Costa Rica come from working class and peasant backgrounds. The University of Costa Rica has more upper-class students than the university system as a whole. The University of Costa Rica is 29 percent upper class, 54 percent middle class, and 17 percent lower class. At the ITCR, 8 percent of students are higher class, 63 percent middle class, and 29 percent lower class.
The University of Costa Rica went from a single campus in San Jose to a multi-campus system. Distance learning, using the British Open University model, was instituted. The teacher-training college, normal superior located in Heredia, was upgraded to the Universidad Nacional. The National Library was established in 1888.
Ninety-three percent of the students at the University of Costa Rica come from Central America and 77 percent of university students are male. The University of Costa Rica is the newest national university in Central America. It opened with eight schools: agriculture, fine arts, sciences, law, pharmacology, philosophy, engineering, and education. The School of Dentistry opened in 1942, the School of Economics in 1943, and the School of Medicine in 1960. In the last two decades, a school of sciences and letters, a laboratory, and library facilities have been added. The central campus is located in San Jose. Students are graded on a scale of 0 to 10 with a minimum of 7 on the scale being the requirement to pass a course.
A rector presides over the university. Rectors are elected every three years and may be reelected by the University Assembly, which is comprised of directors of departments, as well as professors and members of national professional and student associations. The governing board of the university is the University Council, which consists of the rector and vice rectors, the minister of education, the deans, and two student representatives. This group approves curriculum, budgets, and university policies. Professors within the school, as well as the student representatives, elect the deans.
Academic rank is divided into five categories. The lowest rank is instructor, followed by assistant professors (profesor adjunto), associate professors (profesor asociade), and full professors (catedratico). Promotion through the ranks is based on degrees, publications, and length of service. Tenure can be earned after three years; fifteen years of employment are required to meet the rank of full professor. Not all faculty members have earned doctoral or terminal degrees and hiring part-time faculty is common. Most faculty research is conducted only when funds are acquired from international organizations.
Many students leave the university before acquiring their degrees, most often citing the need to gain employment. Only 5 percent of the students earn their degrees after the required five or six years of study. Current student enrollment exceeds 30,000 enrollees. Some students have trouble registering for required classes. In 1967, the university student association demonstrated for a larger school budget in front of the presidential palace and the legislative assembly.
The bachillerato (bachelor's degree) takes four years of study. The school semester lasts 16 weeks. Oral public defense of studies is required for graduation. Graduate studies leading to master and doctoral degrees are available at the University of Costa Rica in a variety of fields, including biology, microbiology, philosophy, law, medicine, public administration, and education. Required standards are comparable to those in North American universities regarding requisite credits, length of study, and other requirements for graduation. Higher education is free for nearly 50 percent of the enrolled students.
The University of Costa Rica's Carolost Monge Alfare Library is the best university library in Central America. The University of Costa Rica also has the best teaching conditions, followed by the Technological Institute and the Open University.
The Universidad Nacional (UNA) was created in 1973 with a curriculum similar to the University of Costa Rica but a normal school legacy. In 1977, the Universidad Estatal a Distancia was established, a university without walls. Parauniversity colleges, legalized in 1980, offered short programs. Three parauniversties were created in Cartago, Alajuela, and Puntarenas. Until the end of the 1960s, the University of Costa Rica was the only university and remained the premier university of the country. Today it offers 72 programs and has the largest enrollment of any institution of higher education.
In 1973, a new university, Universidad Nacional Autonoma was established in Heredia, which is about 15 minutes from San Jose. The University of Costa Rica is still considered a most prestigious college and the first choice for secondary school graduates. Degrees earned at foreign universities have more prestige, as well.
The Federation of Costa Rican Students (FECR) is the largest student organization. After two additional years of schooling beyond the bachillerato, students write a thesis and can then write "Lic" (licenciade) before their names. The general studies programs (estudios generales) of public universities have been criticized in light of the shorter period in which private universities, which forgo liberal arts education, are able to train managers for industry.
In the 1990s, a requirement of trabajo comunal universitario (TCU) was implemented. TCU required students to complete 150 to 300 hours of community service. This program gave students an opportunity to apply professional knowledge to national problems. In 1987, an Interdisciplinary Gender Studies Program (Programa Interdisiplinario de Estudios de Genero (PRIEG) was created in the Division of Social Sciences. In 1987, Cora Fiero, dean of the school of philosophy, founded El programa Interdisciplinario de Estudios de la Mujer (The Interdisciplinary Women Studies Program) at La Universidad Autonoma de Costa Rica. It has focused, thus far, on training human service providers for marginalized women. The program used visiting Fulbright scholars on several occasions. The program was an immediate success and each course had more than 40 students enrolled with a waiting lists of many more interested students. The program now includes three full-time faculty members and other related faculty throughout the university.
The first private university, the Universidad Autonoma de Centro America, was founded in 1975. A few international universities, established by governments or businesses outside Costa Rica, have been established as well. Executive decree number 5622-EO202 called for the opening of the first private university, the Universidad Autonoma de Centro America, in December 1975. By 1990, seven private universities existed and, by 1992, seven more had been opened.
In 2001, about 10 private universities and 14 parauniversities (technical schools) existed. Private and parauniversities enroll approximately 35,000 students—about half the number of the four public universities. Thirty-one parauniversities, similar to community and junior colleges in the United States, exist in Costa Rica. Today Costa Rica has 22 private universities, but most of them have small enrollments. As the family income level rises, students are more likely to seek private educations. In 2001, 13 private noninternational universities exist. The Universidad InterAmericana de Costa Rica, which began offering an MBA program in 1985, enrolls around 90 students. The institution appeals to working people who want to upgrade their skills.
The Costa Rican private sector of higher education lacks prestige. It was created primarily to meet higher education needs at lower costs. The parauniversity offers short study courses that take two or three years. This course of study, which is public or private, prepares students for a technical or administrative position. It grants diplomas but not university level degrees. The total public sector enrollments consisted of 28,336 students in 1974, or 100 percent of total enrollments. By 1992, this share had dropped to 68 percent of total enrollments or 60,892 students.
Private Universities include the Universidad Autonoma de Centro America, established in 1975; Universidad Internacional de Las Americas, established in 1985; the Universidad Adventista de Centro America, established in 1986; the Universidad Latin Americana de Ciencia y Technologia, established in 1987; the Universidad PanaAmericana, established in 1988; Universidad Latina de Costa Rica, established in 1990; the Universidad InterAmericana de Costa Rica, established in 1990; the Universidad Central Costarricense, established in 1990; the Universidad Hispano Americana, established in 1992; the Universidad de San Jose, established in 1992; Universidad Nazarena, established in 1992; Universidad Libre de Costa Rica, established in 1993; Universidad Anselmo Llorente y Lafuente, established in 1993; and the Universidad del Diseno, established in 1993.
Private sector enrollments were first measured in 1977 when they constituted 1 percent of total enrollments. By 1992, that percentage had risen to 32 percent of total enrollments.
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