Courtesy of Texas Tech University
Compared to countries in Asia and the Gulf that host the majority of American universities' overseas branch campuses, Costa Rica has some advantages. It's closer to home, in the same time zone as Texas for about half the year (Costa Rica doesn't observe Daylight Saving Time). It's a popular destination for American students studying abroad. It's a stable democracy. And, unlike China, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- all places with significant numbers of American branch campuses -- it has a democratic government.
Texas Tech University is opening a new branch campus in Costa Rica this fall. The project is a collaboration with a for-profit company that paid to develop the campus and is bearing the full capital and operational costs (and risks) of running it. The company, EDULINK -- a subsidiary of the Promerica Group, a multinational conglomerate of companies involved in banking, hotels and real estate -- collects tuition and pays Texas Tech for the academic and student services it provides according to an agreed-upon budget.
Under the terms of the agreement, signed in 2016, Texas Tech has "full authority" over all academic and student services and will "make final determinations relating to all academic and research programs, educational requirements, and pedagogical content … including student body and faculty size, curriculum design and development, faculty rights, selection and appointment, student admissions, student affairs, and the conferring of degrees."
EDULINK built the campus in the capital city of San José at its expense and is responsible for operating the campus and providing specific administrative and management services. EDULINK will also recruit students, although the contract notes that Texas Tech has "sole authority" over all admission decisions and policies.
"What made this acceptable to our board was the financial commitment by Promerica," said Lawrence Schovanec, Texas Tech's president. "They wanted us to be sure that tuition dollars provided by students at Texas Tech would not be subsidizing this endeavor. Promerica and our group down there called EDULINK has made an extraordinary commitment: they cover all the costs, they built the facilities, but we have full academic control. We have to demonstrate that to our accreditor."
The university had a target of enrolling 200 students in the first year, but just 40 students are enrolled for the fall. The traditional academic year in Costa Rica starts in the winter/spring, so Texas Tech's is an off-cycle start.
Tuition is $600 per credit hour, which would amount to $18,000 for a 30-credit-hour academic year. That's not a whole lot less than the $23,496 undergraduate out-of-state tuition rate for Texas Tech's main campus in Lubbock, but the cost of living in Costa Rica is lower. And students from the San José area can study at a U.S. institution while staying at home.
"It's a new university," Schovanec said about the lower-than-expected enrollment. "The cost is more than some of the privates, and for the public institutions in Costa Rica, college is free. That's undoubtedly an issue; yet the cost is much, much less than sending a student to the United States. I think it's going to take some time to market the programs. I think it's going to be very important that we provide an experience that students feel is an equal of what they would have received in the United States."
"The concept has been well received in the country," Schovanec continued. "When we had the inauguration of the campus last spring, the vice president of Costa Rica came and spoke and expressed great enthusiasm for our campus. Members of the cabinet were there; members of industry were there. I'm very pleased by the reception we've received and I think it's just going to take some time to develop our recruitment."
The new campus is part of what John Keith, the executive president of Banco Promerica, described as "one of the jewels" of a large mixed-use development project known as Avenida Escazú. The development includes offices for multinational companies, residential housing, parking, retail stores, restaurants and entertainment venues.
"Having a U.S. university with all these multinationals investing in Costa Rica will generate a lot of real estate opportunities," Keith said. "That's the economic motivation on our side."
Keith said that in developing the model, Promerica pursued what he likened to the Marriott hotel chain's practice of entering into management contracts with local property owners. "We took the idea of the management contracts of the hotels, and we used those same principles to turn it into an education agreement with TTU. So the same way Marriott has grown all over the world with their concept of a management agreement and the estate owned by local people, U.S. universities can do the same. In every city that there is a Marriott, there can be a U.S. university."
The agreement between Texas Tech and Promerica envisions that, at full capacity, the Costa Rica campus will enroll 1,300 students, including visiting study abroad students from the Lubbock campus. A six-member steering committee made up of half Texas Tech appointees and half EDULINK appointees sets the annual budget for the campus and provides strategic oversight. In the event of a deadlock, the agreement between Texas Tech and EDULINK stipulates that Texas Tech's president has final determination over any matters related to "academic affairs, student support services, minimum types and amounts of insurance coverage, or any material deviation from the general principles of TTU-CR as outlined in this agreement," while the CEO of EDULINK would have final say in all other matters.
The campus is starting with five undergraduate degree programs in computer science, electrical engineering, industrial engineering, mathematics and restaurant, hotel and institutional management. Instruction is in English and faculty at the campus are a mix of Texas Tech faculty visiting from the home campus in Lubbock and locally hired adjunct professors.
The campus is seeking approval from Costa Rica's National Council of Private University Higher Education (known by the Spanish acronym CONESUP), which would allow its degrees to be recognized for certain government jobs. Texas Tech's provost, Michael Galyean, said CONESUP approval is an “ongoing process” and that Texas Tech has a letter from the council "acknowledging our presence in Costa Rica and our ability to grant U.S. degrees."
Texas Tech is one of a handful of American universities with campuses in Latin America. Other public universities with campuses in the region are Arkansas State University, which has a campus in Mexico that opened last year, and Florida State University, which has a long-standing campus in Panama.
Latin America, unlike parts of Asia and the Gulf, has not traditionally been a hot spot for international branch campus development. Indeed, a database maintained by the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany lists just one international branch campus in Costa Rica: Texas Tech's.
Jason Lane, the director of the cross-border research team and interim dean of Albany's School of Education, said the relatively small numbers of international branch campuses in Latin America might be due partly to language issues and to the low levels of internationalization of many universities in that part of the world. And, until recently, institutions in the U.S. weren't as interested in reaching out.
"For whatever reason, Latin America has not historically been a major player for U.S. institutions in internationalization efforts relative to Europe or Asia or the Middle East even," Lane said. "That is beginning to change. Particularly Southern states see more connection between their changing populations and Latin America, and it increasingly makes sense to look at moving south of the border."
Schovanec, Texas Tech's president, said that about half the students starting at the Costa Rica campus this fall come from outside the country, from elsewhere in Central and South America.
"We truly have a commitment to expanding our access in the southern half of the Western Hemisphere, and we were fortunate to enter into this partnership in Costa Rica that allows us to do just that," he said. "We really do want to be serving that part of the world."