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Education in The Republic of Panama

1. Overview

The Republic of Panama is a small country of approximately 30,000 square miles and 3 million
inhabitants, bordered by Costa Rica and Colombia, that forms a bridge between Central and South
America and is home to the Panama Canal. The history of education in Panama is considered to have
progressed through three distinct periods, as has the history of the republic itself: 1) the Colonial Era
(1501-1821), 2) the Colombian Era (1821-1903), and 3) the Era of the Republic (1903 to the present).

Education in Panama began with the arrival of the Jesuit priests in 1519, the year the city of Panama was
founded. The Jesuits established various primary schools over the years, followed by a high school in
1744 and the Universidad de San Javier (University of St. Javier) in 1750. This period came to an abrupt
end, however, in 1767 when the Jesuits were expelled from the country by order of King Carlos III of
Spain.

The second noteworthy period of education development in Panama began in 1821 with Colombia’s
independence from Spain, while Panama still formed part of Colombia. In 1841, the Universidad del
Istmo (University of the Isthmus - this institution bears no relation to present day Universidad del Istmo)
was established to provide studies in Spanish and Latin grammar, rhetoric, theology and law and maintained
operations until 1852, after which there was no formal higher education in Panama until the beginning of the
next century.

Education as a national endeavor revived after Panama’s separation from Colombia in 1903. The
constitution mandates obligatory public primary education and pledges support for secondary and
professional education; thus, education at all levels began to flourish during the 1900s and by the late
1990s the literacy rate had grown to over 90 percent. According to the constitution, higher education
falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education but authority for curricular oversight resides
with the University of Panama by law.

The University of Panama was established in 1935. Predating this, the first higher education institution
in the Republic of Panama was actually the Panama Canal Junior College (aka Panama Canal College)
founded in 1933 by the United States to offer classes to the military and civilian personnel of the U.S.
Canal Zone (Chronicle of Higher Education 1997), but not to the general public of Panama. When the
Panama Canal reverted to Panama in 1999, Florida State University - Panama was allowed the use of
the PCC campus and currently awards a few undergraduate degrees to students of all nationalities.
Additionally, with the reversion of the Canal Zone territory, the “City of Knowledge” was founded.
Governed by a private non-profit organization, the City of Knowledge is an international complex for
education, research and innovation that was developed to promote and facilitate synergies between
universities, scientific research centers, businesses, and international organizations.

It is important to note that throughout the tenure of the U.S. construction and administration of the Panama
Canal, two different socioeconomic systems existed within the country: one for the U.S. inside the Canal Zone
and one for Panama in the rest of the country. This duality extended to the educational facilities. The Panama
Canal Company and later the U.S. Department of Defense operated a network of primary and secondary schools
separate from the Panamanian system (known in Panama as the ‘regimen expecial/special system) that catered
selectively to Canal Zone personnel, with some Panamanians accepted as “paying” students. Only with the
reversion of the Canal territory in 1999 was a single, integrated system formed that conformed to Panama’s

In 1965 the Catholic Church founded Panama’s second university, the Universidad Católica Santa María
la Antigua (USMA), through a law passed by the government, making it the only private university in
the country established in this manner. This has meant that the USMA holds quasi-official status and is
listed in Panama’s official NGO registry for international technical aid programs.

Panama continued with two universities in its higher education system until 1981, after which four more
public universities were established: the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá (Panama University
of Technology, usually called UTP) in 1981, which evolved from the School of Engineering of the University of Panama;
the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí (the Autonomous University of Chiriqui) in 1994; the
Universidad Especializada de Las Américas (the Specialized University of the Americas), concentrating
in special education, in 1997; and most recently, the Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá (the
International Maritime University of Panama) in 2007, which evolved from the original Escuela Nautica
de Panamá.

The last two decades have witnessed an explosion of private universities in Panama—of both domestic
and international origin—many of which operate as for-profit entities. Currently, the Ministry of
Education recognizes a total of 36 universities operating in the country. The Public Registry, however,
lists over 80 universities currently operating in Panama. In response to this growth, Panama is now
beginning to create structures related to quality assurance; the Consejo de Rectores de Panamá (Council
of Rectors) was established in 1995 and the Consejo Nacional de Evaluación y Acreditación
Universitaria de Panamá (National Council of University Evaluation and Accreditation - CONEAUPA)
was formally established at the end of 2006, but its secretariat is still in the preparatory stages of
organization.

The Panamanian government spends a total of 5.7 percent of GDP on education of all levels (UNESCO
2003). Nearly all Panamanians (94 percent) of primary school age are enrolled and 92.5 percent of the
age group completes primary school. At the secondary level, 57.8 percent of those in the corresponding
age group are enrolled and of those, only half complete their studies. University level study has
progressed from the 7 percent enrollment rate prevalent in the 1950s to a current rate of 25 percent.
Nevertheless, there are still significant socioeconomic discrepancies as only 3 percent of the poor attend
university compared to 31 percent of the non-poor (PREAL-COSPAE 2002).

The Panamanian school year runs from March to December and classes are generally given in Spanish.
Exceptions to both academic calendar and language are found in several private international primary
and secondary schools and Florida State University, which operate on the U.S. system educational regulations.
During the U.S. period, four US universities also offered courses and degrees within the Canal Zone territory:
Nova Southeastern University, Central Texas College, University of Oklahoma, and Florida State University.
Alter the reversión of the Canal, FSU chose to continue its presence in Panama. To this effect, a Panamanian
permit to operate was obtained and subsequently FSU-Panama became affiliated with the City of Knowledge.

2. Educational Ladder

The following model presents the educational ladder of Panama. It is a graphical representation of the
different levels of the educational system, which generally correspond to 6 years of primary education
(primaria), 3 years of junior high school (premedia), 3 years of high school (educación media), 4 to 6
years for undergraduate studies (estudios post-secundarios; post-media; estudios de pre-grado; estudios
de licenciatura) and 1 or more years for graduate level studies (estudios de postgrado; estudios de
maestría; estudios de doctorado).


Educational Ladder of The Republic of Panama

Panama Educational Ladder

Source: Ministry of Education of the Republic of Panama.

3. Grading System

Secondary school grading in public and private Panamanian schools operates on 5-point letter grade
system; public and private universities operate on a 3-point letter grade system. Both are similar to the
U.S. system but with different assigned grade points, which affect the calculation of averages. The two
systems are depicted in the tables below. Exceptions to the Panamanian grading system are found in the
international secondary schools that use U.S. or European grading scales and the U.S. affiliated
universities such as Florida State University.

4 Grading System – Secondary Education

Letter grade Performance equivalent Percentage Grade points
A Outstanding 91 – 100 5
B Good 81 – 90 4
C Average 71 – 80 3
D Minimum to pass 61 – 70 2
F Fail 0 - 60 1

Source: IAU, World Higher Education Database (WHED), from the Ministry of Education, Panama
2006.

Grading System – University Education

Letter grade Performance Score Grade points
A Outstanding 91 – 100 3
B Good 81 – 90 2
C Average 71 – 80 1
D Minimum to pass 61 – 70 0
F Fail 60 o less 0
I Incomplete No points assigned 0
P Pass - -
N Fail - -

Source: Office of the Registrar, Universidad Católica Santa María la Antigua, 2007

At the university level, specific honors are awarded for higher grade point averages, though these differ
between the public and private institutions.

The tables that follow indicate the required grade point average for each type of distinction

5 University Honors Grade Point Averages
Private Universities
Honors title Graduate Studies Grade Point Average Undergraduate Grade Point Average
Summa *** Laude 3.00 2.90 – 3.00
Magna *** Laude 2.90 – 2.99 2.70 – 2.89
*** Laude 2.80 – 2.89 2.50 – 2.69

Public Universities
Honors title Grade Point Average
Sigma Lambda 2.50 or above

Source: Office of the Registrar, Universidad Católica Santa María la Antigua, 2007

6. Institutions of HIgher Education

The Ministry of Education’s list of approved institutions is the list of public and private universities
registered at the Ministry and granted permission to operate in Panama, though there are two other
listings that are frequently cited as well. The University of Panama (UP) has a list of all private
universities that registered with the Ministry and have had the required curricular and institutional
documentation submitted for UP revision and approval. The Council of University Presidents (CRP)
also lists the public and private institutions that are members of the Council.

The Ministry of Education list appears on the Ministry website (December 2007), http://www.meduca.gob.pa/.

The UP list of reviewed and approved institutions is listed below. This list includes universities that the
UP has reviewed (or that are in the process of being reviewed) and, as of December 2007, it showed a
total of 11 institutions that do not appear, as yet, on the Ministry of Education list, eight of which it indicates
are pending approval:

1. Delphi University (not currently functioning in Panama)
2. Universidad de Santander (not currently functioning in Panama)
3. Universidad de Técnicas de la Comunicación (UTC)
4. Escuela de Arquitectura y Diseño de América Latina y el Caribe Isthmus (pending approval)
5. Universidad de Los Llanos del Pacífico (pending approval)
6. Universidad Particular en Ciencias de Mercado (UCM) (pending approval)
7. Universidad Internacional de América Latina (pending approval)
8. Universidad Ngabe Buklé (pending approval)
9. Universidad Nuestra Señora del Carmen (pending approval)
10. Universidad del Caribe (pending approval)
11. Universidad Virtual - Centro de Estudios Regionales de Panamá (CERPA) (pending approval)

7. Institutions members of the Council of Rectors of Panama (CRP), http://www.pa/consejo/universidades.htm
are shown in their official list.

Consejo de Rectores de Panamá/Council of Rectors of Panama: Universities of Panama
Private universities: Name - url - email address
1 Universidad Católica Santa María La Antigua http://www.usma.ac.pa rectoria@usma.ac.pa
2 Universidad Interamericana de Educación a Distancia de Panamá http://www.uniedpa.com uniedpa@cwp.net.pa
3 Universidad del Istmo http://www.udi.edu/ rectoria@udi.edu
4 Universidad Latinoamericana de Ciencia y Tecnología http://www.ulacit.ac.pa/ rectoria@ulacit.ac.pa
5 Universidad Latina de Panamá http://www.ulat.ac.pa rectoria@ulatina.ac.pa
6 Columbus University http://www.columbus.edu columbus@columbus.edu
7 Universidad de La Paz upaz_1994@hotmail.com
8 Universidad Abierta y a Distancia de Panamá http://unadp.ac.pa/ generalunadp@cwpanama.net
9 Universidad Interamericana de Panamá http://www.uip.edu.pa rectoria@uip.edu.pa
10 Florida State University http://www.fsu.edu rectoria@mailer.fsu.edu
11 UniversidadLatinoamericana de Comercio Exterior http://www.ulacex.com rectoria@ulacex.com
12 ISAE Universidad http://www.isaeuniversid ad.com isaeuniv@cwpanama.net
13 Universidad Americana http://www.uam.ac.pa/ rectoria@uam.ac.pa
14 Universidad Panamaericana http://www.upam.ac.pa/ academia@upam.ac.pa

Public universities: Name - url - email address
1 Universidad de Panamá http://www.up.ac.pa rectoria@ancon.up.ac.pa
2 Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá http://www.utp.ac.pa/ rectoria@utp.ac.pa
3 Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí http://www.unachi.ac.pa/ rectoria@unachi.ac.pa unachi@chiriqui.com
4 Universidad Especializada de las Américas http://www.udelas.ac.pa/ rectoria@udelas.ac.pa
5 Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá http://www.umip.ac.pa rectoria@umip.ac.pa

8. In addition to these lists, the Public Registry identifies a growing number of institutions of higher
education legally registered in Panama that do not appear on either the Ministry of Education or the
University of Panama list:

1. Universidad Scholarship Foundation
2. Universidad de Delaware
3. Universidad de Kabbalah
4. Universidad del Pacífico
5. Universidad del Pacífico (UDEP)
6. Universidad para la Familia
7. Universidad para la Paz
8. Universidad Particular de Ciencias del Mercado
9. Universidad Barú
10. Universidad Bolivariana Internacional de Panamá
11. Universidad Central de Panamá
12. Universidad Centroamericana de Panamá
13. Universidad Iberoamericana (UNIBE)
14. Universidad de las Américas (UIAMERICA)
15. Universidad Iberoamericana de Panamá
16. Universidad del Área Andina Panamá
17. Universidad Internacional de Panamá
18. Universidad Internacional de las Américas
19. Universidad Internacional del Pacífico
20. Universidad Internacional de San Isidro Labrador
21. Universidad Internacional en Español
22. Universidad internacional de América Latina
23. Universidad Libre de Costa Rica
24. Universidad Libre de Panamá
25. Universidad Paulo Freire de Panamá
26. Universidad Planalto de las Américas
27. Universidad Politécnica de Centroamérica
28. Universidad Príncipe José
29. Universidad Técnica de la Comunicación (UTC)
30. Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores Monterrey
31. Instituto Superior de Administración y Tecnología
32. Instituto Técnico de Aviación
33. Instituto Uraba
34. Instituto Técnico, Computacional y Turismo
35. Instituto Superior Latinoamericano de Administración y Tecnología Naval
36. Centro de Estudio Superior Oxford University de Panamá

8 Resources

Bernal, Juan Bosco. 2001. "La educacion superior en Panama: Situacion, problemas y desafios." San Salvador:
Universidad Francisco Gavidia.

Ceville, Oscar. 2005. “Evolución del Régimen Jurídico de la Educación Superior en la Republica de Panamá”
(Evolution of the Legal Framework for Higher Education in the Republic of Panama). Panama:
Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá.

Ciudad del Saber (City of Knowledge). 2007. Historical background. Panama City, Panama. Retrieved on July
20, 2007, http://www.cdspanama.org.

Consejo de Rectores de Panamá (Council of University Presidents, CRP). 2007. Retrieved on December 4,
2005, http://www.pa/consejo/index.htm.

Inter-American Development Bank. 2003. "Enfrentando el Futuro. La Educación Terciaria en Panamá: Desafíos
y Oportunidades " Inter-American Development Bank, Washington DC.

International Association of Universities (IAU). World Higher Education Database (WHED) 2005-2006.
Panama Education System. Retrieved on November 30, 2007,
http://www.unesco.org/iau/onlinedatabases/systems_data/pa.rtf.

Library of Congress. Federal Research Division, Country Studies – Panama. Retrieved on December 4, 2007,
http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/patoc.html.

Ministerio de Educación de la Republica de Panamá (Ministry of Education). 2007. Education Statistics.
Retrieved on December 6, 2007, http://www.meduca.gob.pa/.

Programa de Promoción de la Reforma Educativa en América Latina y el Caribe (Program for the Promotion of
Education Reform in Latin America and the Caribbean, PREAL) and Consejo del Sector Privado para la
Asistencia Educacional (Private Sector Council for Educational Assistance, COSPAE). 2002. “Informe
de Progreso Educativo – Panama.” (“Report on Progress in Education”). Panama City, Panama:
COSPAE.

UNESCO-IESALC (Instituto Internacional para la Educación Superior en América Latina y el Caribe). 2003.
"Informe Nacional de Educacion Superior de Panama." Caracas, Venezuela: UNESCO-IESALC.

9 Credentials

Credential
Spanish/
English Description
Advice to Admissions
Officers
Entry level
requirements/
Options upon
completion
B.1. Diploma
de Pre-media/
Middle school
diploma

This qualification
signifies graduation
from middle school (9th
grade or pre-media),
the first cycle of high
school and the end of
compulsory education.
This qualification is
comparable to a U.S.
middle school diploma.
Students must complete
primary education
(primaria) in order to
pass to the secondary
level. Middle school
represents (pre-media)
the end of compulsory
education, though
students may opt to
continue and finish high
school (educación
media).
B.2. Diploma
de Educación
Media
(Bachiller)/
High school
diploma
This diploma
represents completion
of both cycles of
secondary school
through 12th grade and
usually contains a
specialization, the
Bachiller (e.g. business,
agriculture, sciences,
letters).
This diploma is
comparable to a U.S.
high school diploma.
Students must complete
middle school (pre-
media) in order to pass
to the high school
(educación media) level.
Upon completion of
high school, students
may opt to continue
with additional technical
or university education.
C. Técnico/
Post-
secondary
technical
certification
Higher technical and
vocational studies are
offered in special high
schools or post-
secondary centers and
institutes, which offer
two to three-year
courses leading to the
technical qualification
of Técnico. The
Universidad
Tecnológica confers a
title of Técnico after
three years of
university study.
This qualification
represents additional
technical study
following high school,
which may or may not
be comparable to the
same number of years of
university study.
A Bachiller is generally
required for technical
training. Qualification
as a Técnico leads to
employment or further
study at university level.
10

D.
Licenciatura/
Licentiate
The Licenciatura is
generally conferred
after studies lasting 4-5
years. Students must
submit a thesis or other
graduation project.
Terminal professional
titles are conferred in
several fields, generally
after five years (three
in Nursing and six in
Medicine).
This qualification is
roughly comparable to a
U.S. Bachelor’s degree.
A high school diploma
(bachiller) is required
for university admission
along with an entrance
examination for some
public universities. The
terminal Licentiate
leads to a professional
licensure. Further
university study at the
graduate level (estudios
de postgrado)follows
the Licentiate degree.
E1.
Diplomado/
Graduate –
level
Certificate
This graduate-level
certificate is awarded
for study in a specific
area beyond the level
of Licenciatura
(Licentiate) but below
the level of Certificado
de Postgrado/
Graduate-level
Certificate
This qualification
represents specialized
university study beyond
the Licentiate level but
below the level of the
Master’s.
The Diplomado leads to
employment or to
further graduate-level
study.
E2.
Certificado de
Postgrado/
Graduate-
level
specialization
The certificate of
Postgrado represents 1
or more years of
additional study in a
particular area of
specialization
following the
Licentiate degree.
This qualification
represents specialized
graduate-level study
beyond the Licentiate
level but below the level
of the Master’s.
A Licenciatura/licentiate
is required for further
study at the graduate
level. The Postgrado
qualification (graduate-
level certificate) leads to
further graduate study.
F. Maestría/
Master’s
The Maestría is
conferred after 1-2
years' graduate-level
study beyond the
Licenciatura/licentiate.
Students must submit a
thesis or other
graduation project.
This degree is roughly
comparable to the U.S.
Master’s.
A Licenciatura is
required for further
study at the Master’s
level. The Master’s
qualification leads to
further study at the
doctoral level.
G. Doctorado/
Doctorate
This qualification is
usually conferred after
additional years of
study beyond the
Maestría.
This degree is roughly
comparable to a
doctorate.
11

I1. Bachiller
Pedagógico/
Primary
School
Teacher
Certification
Primary school
teachers are trained at
Escuelas Normales
(Normal high schools).
Students enter after
completing the first
cycle of secondary
education. The three-
year course leads to the
Bachiller Pedagógico,
equivalent to the
regular Bachiller (high
school diploma).
Secondary school
teachers are required to
have a
Licenciatura/licentiate
plus a Profesorado de
Educación
Diversificada
(additional year for a
teaching certificate)
This qualification is
roughly comparable to a
U.S. high school
diploma.
Completion of the first
cycle of secondary
school (middle school)
is required for entrance
to the Escuela Normal.
This
Bachiller/baccalaureate
degree leads to
employment in primary
school education or
further study at the
university level.
I2.
Profesorado
de Educación
Diversificada/
Teacher
Certification
This graduate
certificate is granted
after an additional year
of study following the
Licenciatura/licentiate
and is the required
teaching credential for
secondary school
employment

This qualification is
comparable to a U.S.
teaching credential.
This certification leads
to employment as a
secondary school
teacher or further study
at the university level.

Source: IAU, World Higher Education Database (WHED), Panama 2006; Ministry of Education,
Panama 2007.


7. Sample Documents

The Ministry of Education regulates the content of diplomas to a certain extent, but each individual
institution designs its own format and presentation of credentials. The “cédula” is the official
Panamanian personal identification number and appears on credentials along with a person’s name for
more accurate tracking and identification. See attached documents for samples of diplomas and
credentials from a variety of Panamanian high schools and universities.



12

Spanish names
Official documents in Panama will use the formal, official name of the recipient and follow the Spanish
tradition of identifying: Given Name, Middle Name, Paternal Last Name, Maternal Last Name, as
follows:
Example: Etilvia María Arjona Chang, cédula de identidad personal: 8-88-875
Given Name: Etilvia
Middle Name: María
Paternal Last Name: Arjona
Maternal Last Name: Chang
Personal identification number: 8-88-875

9. Glossary

1. Bachiller: High school diploma
2. Bachiller Pedagógico: High school diploma that serves as a qualification for teaching primary
school
3. Catedrático: University professor, a title which denotes tenure and full-time employment.
4. Cédula (de identidad personal): personal ID number given every Panamanian when the birth or
nationalization certificate is issued. Used in all official documents to identify the person.
5. Diplomado: Graduate certificate below the level of “postgrado”
6. Doctorado: Doctorate level degree
7. Educación Media: The second cycle of secondary education, high school (grades 10-12)
8. Escuela Normal: Normal high school
9. Escuela Primaria: Primary or elementary education (grades 1-6)
10. La Casa de Mendez Pereira: The name given to the University of Panama that may appear in
certain official documentation. Dr. Octavio Mendez Pereira was the first president of the
university.
11. Licenciatura: licentiate, undergraduate degree roughly equivalent to a US bachellor’s degree.
Also terminal professional degree granted by Panamanian universities.
12. Maestria: Master’s level degree
13. Maestro: Elementary school teacher.
14. Magister: graduate level degree and title given at the master’s level.
15. MEDUCA: The acronym for the Panamanian Ministry of Education
16. Postgrado: Postgrado (also posgrado) is the term used to designate post-undergraduate studies or
graduate level education. Grado is the Spanish term for title. After a semester or two of study,
students are granted a certificado de postgrado (graduate-level certificate).
17. Pre-escolar; Maternal: Pre-K education
18. Pre-media: The first cycle of secondary education, middle school (grades 7-9), the final portion
of compulsory education
19. Profesor: High school or university instructor
20. Profesorado de Educación Diversificada: Undergraduate-level certificate that is the equivalent
of a teaching credential which is granted after the licentiate degree.
21. Rector Magnífico: title given to the president of a university.
22. Regimen especial/special system: The terminology used to refer to the U.S. based and U.S.
regulated education system that existed in the U.S. Canal Zone
23. Secretaria/o General: Registrar
24. Técnico: Post-secondary –level technical qualification.



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