Jumping Through The Hoops in Panama

The educational terms used in Panama are often confusing to expats.

Escuela primaria is what we would call in the US primary school or grades 1 to 6 and junior high school or middle school, usually grades 7 and 8.

Colegio, although it sounds like our English “college” just means school although in Panama it is frequently also used to refer to the US equivalent of high school, or more correctly escuela secundaria.

In the US a university is “an institution of higher education and research which grants academic degrees in various subjects and provides both undergraduate education and postgraduate education.” Usually a university is a collection of colleges. A college per se is usually an institution of higher education that grants degrees, but frequently not advanced degrees. In Panama a universidad is a school beyond secondary school that must be approved and liscenced by the Universidad de Panama to grant what would be the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree in the US, or in some cases just certificate of expertise. The term universidad is used for academic institutions as well as technical schools.

Here’s where it gets a little confusing. What we could call just a high school diploma in Panama is called a bachiller which is not the same as a Bachelor’s degree that you get after four years of college. After four years of college/university in Panama you get what is called a Licenciado degree which is often shown as a title in a person’s name, kind of like bragging that you have a Bachelor’s degree in the US, but who would really DO that?

Once you’ve completed your Licenciado degree then you would go on to get a professional degree, equivalent to a Master’s or Doctoral degree, such as in medicine or law. The law part is tricky for expats because many of the lawyers in Panama can practice law with only a Licenciado (equivalent to a four-year college degree), and they don’t actually have a doctorate in law. which is what you’d expect of a lawyer in the US. This isn’t like the US where, even if you have the degree, you still have to pass a comprehensive and arduous bar exam in order to actually practice law. Here you can practice law with only a Licenciado degree. So if you’re looking for a lawyer in Panama, it’s a good idea to ask what degree they possess.

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