Lifestyle & Belief

In Costa Rica, it pays to go to school


Photo caption: Students carry national flags, as they take part of a parade to commemorate Costa Rica's independence day in San Jose, Sept. 15, 2004. (Roger Benavidez JC/Reuters)

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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Costa Rica seems to have found the key to getting kids to stay in school: their parents’ wallets.

The government’s monthly stipends to at-risk families if their children attend classes are helping Costa Rica keep its dropout rate in check.

Five years ago authorities became alarmed over a spike in the number of students abandoning school. The high-school dropout rate in 2005 nearly reached 13 percent among boys and tipped just over 9 percent among girls.

The problem was particularly bad in rural areas.

“The kids would go right from elementary school graduation to the potato farm,” teacher Ana Cristina Madrigal said, describing the situation at a one-room schoolhouse on the slopes of Costa Rica’s Irazu volcano where she taught in the early 2000s.

In 2006, officials in the administration of then-President Oscar Arias introduced an initiative called “Avancemos,” or Let’s Get Ahead, to counter the trend.

The program consists of high school scholarships that increase year to year, from about $30 to $90 a month per pupil. “There’s just one condition: they have to remain in school,” said Juan Carlos Dengo, assistant director of social development at IMAS, the government’s social welfare institute.

In fact, there’s one other big condition. The students must come from families classified as poor by the welfare agency to be eligible. Dengo said the agency is strict about this part, and conducts interviews with the families and gauges their economic situation not just by income but through a variety of household factors.

Since the program’s inception, the national high-school dropout rate has fallen each year. Last year’s rate hit 10.6 percent of boys, 8.3 percent of girls, almost reaching 2003 levels before the spike occurred. These figures come from the “Estado de la Nacion” (State of the Nation), an annual report by an independent think tank of the same name.

Dengo said Avancemos costs more than $110 million a year — about 1 percent of this year’s proposed public budget. He said the scholarships this year have gone to 185,000 students. That’s tens of thousands more than previous years. The increase was among Arias’ measures to cushion the blow of the Great Recession on Costa Rica.

In some poorer areas, Dengo added, up to 98 percent of the school’s students are on government handouts just for going to class.

At first glance, perhaps, this type of program may seem uniquely Costa Rican, born in a developing country that prides itself on a broad safety net that its leaders say helps the country grow toward its goal of developed status.

But “conditional cash transfer” programs, as they’re commonly called, have taken shape in other Latin American countries too, including Brazil and Mexico.

They may also seem a result of the kind of social democratic thinking that veers far from U.S. attitudes. Not so.

Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s mayor, introduced a pilot scheme in April 2007 called Opportunity NYC, which pays handouts conditioned on good parenting.

In Costa Rica, the effect of conditional cash transfers is palpable, say educators in the public school system.

At Colegio Academico de Jimenez, a high school in the Guapiles region, the dropout rate is high at about 20 percent, according to Laura Hernandez, a teacher and member of the school’s scholarship committee. However, she said, that number is a few percentage points lower than previous years thanks to Avancemos. Some 200 of the 620 students receive the grants.

“Without these scholarships, many of them simply would not continue to study,” Hernandez said, explaining that transportation and food costs would rise above their family’s meager budget.

While the program had the primary goal of getting ahead in school attendance, it has brought additional benefits.

Avancemos is making a dent in poverty as well. Costa Rica’s poverty rate in 2009 was 18.5 percent and extreme poverty was 4.2 percent. The Estado de la Nacion collected data from nationwide household surveys and analyzed the economic level of the poor families on Avancemos compared with those in a similar economic situation not receiving the assistance. If not for Avancemos, estimated Natalia Morales, one of the study’s researchers, poverty would have climbed 0.4 percent and extreme poverty would have increased 0.2 percent in 2009.

It has also garnered high praise from the United Nations International Labor Organization for deterring child labor and helping ensure a quality workforce.

But unlike Bloomberg’s plan, which is privately funded, Costa Rica’s scholarships come straight from public coffers.

When asked if Costa Ricans mind the government handout, the welfate official explained Avancemos is an accepted integral part of the system, just like the country’s nationalized health care.

Dengo said, “We all pay into a single fund for social development, it’s part of our solidarity.”