Health & Education

Learning Curve


Progress continues in Colombia's education sector as a budget allotment boon paves the way for increased access and improved programs, while the country looks towards post-conflict stability and growth.

In 2014 the administration proposed an education budget exceeding the defense budget for the first time. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) numbers, Colombia spent 6.7% of GDP from public and private sources on education, above the OECD average of 6.1% in 2011. Spending in the country as a percentage of GDP exceeds the OECD average in primary, secondary, and post-secondary combined (4.2% compared to 3.8% OECD), although percentages in pre-primary education remain below average (0.5% compared to 0.6% OECD).

In 2012 Colombia public expenditure per primary school student was at 15.4% of GDP per capita; the average for developing Latin America and Caribbean countries is 11.6%. Expenditure for secondary students was at 15.2%, and for tertiary students, at 23.5%. Private funding on educational institutions is one the three largest observed at 35%, compared with the OECD average of 16%.

Latest figures show Colombia’s adult literacy rate at 93.6%, at 93.7% for females and 93.5% for males. Enrolment numbers in all levels of education remain lower than OECD averages. Despite the fact that free primary and secondary education was instituted in 2012, the country awaits improvement in early and secondary enrolment especially. Support has primarily been allotted to tertiary education with increased access to grants and student loans, in addition to an increase in international connections between universities and efforts put forth towards preparation of the population for a post-conflict period.


President Santos’ 2014-18 National Development Plan aims first and foremost to reduce poverty in Colombia. In February 2015 congress began debating the Plan, which would aim to keep economic growth around 4.5% annually, continue to reduce unemployment to below 8%, and invest 29% of annual GDP towards the Development Plan until 2018. The Plan also has a large focus on improving education in Colombia.
Within the 2015 budget proposal, the government plans to decrease the defense budget from $15 billion to $14.9 billion, and increase funding for education from $14.5 billion to $15.3 billion. President Santos’ 2014-18 education plan aims to make Colombia the most educated country in Latin America by 2025. Starting in January 2015, 10,000 scholarships were made available to gifted and lower-strata students across the country. In addition, the administration has plans to open six agriculture schools in rural areas, to increase vocational training and provide opportunities for young people to assist in rural development.

Critics of Santos’ plan point out that most funding will be directed towards tertiary education, primarily university financing and grants for higher education, which will leave efforts to improve lower level education on the wayside.


According to OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 results, student improvement in reading, math, and science has steadily continued since 2006. Over time, enrollment has increased in Colombia at pre-primary, secondary, and tertiary levels, yet fewer young children (under age 6) are attending school and dropout rates remain high for students over 15. As mandated by Colombia’s Constitution of 1991, school is compulsory from age five until 15.

Stark variation in early education enrolment seems to be based on age group. According to the OECD’s 2012 statistics, pre-primary enrolment was at 50%, well below the average of 90% for OECD countries. The percentage of 3 year-olds enrolled was only at 48% (compared to 70%), though the percentage jumps to 75% for 4 year-olds (compared to 82%), and 65% for 5 year-olds (compared to the 81% average). Most children do not attend school until age 7. In Colombia, 5 year-olds can expect to receive an average of 13.5 years of schooling before the age of 40, compared with the average 17.6 years in OECD countries. According to PISA, based on these results, “students in Colombia who had attended one year or less of pre-primary school scored at least 16 points (equivalent to almost half a school year) higher than those who did not.” Social and conditional cash transfer programs like the Estrategia de Cero a Siempre and Familias en Accion have been created to increase enrolment and improve early education. Santos’ “Zero to Always” program was introduced in 2013 with the aim to develop early education and child services; the program hopes to reach 2 million children by 2018.
Enrolment rates drop again as students progress through their secondary education in Colombia, particularly for those in a lower socio-economic class. Overall, according to 2014 numbers, enrolment for 15-19 year-olds is 43%, compared to the OECD average of 84%, and there is a noticeable disparity between enrolment at ages 15 (79%) and 16 (67%) compared with 17 year-old students (37%). About half of 17-19 year-old secondary graduates go on to tertiary education.

To address enrolment, student dropout, and teacher absenteeism, as well as improve performance across the socioeconomic strata, the country is devoting effort to increase the quality of its secondary education. Colombia will participate in the 2018 OECD Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS), which, according to the OECD, “will help Colombia, like many other countries around the world, to address three key areas of teacher policy: how to prepare teachers ready to develop 21st-century learners; how to create school and classroom environments that foster more effective teaching and learning; and how to ensure that the most efficient and equitable distribution of resources both within schools and across education systems is made.”


In 2012, 20% of adults were deemed qualified for tertiary education. Despite not reaching the OECD average (32%), Colombia’s rate ranks above that of the other three countries in Latin America with available data (Argentina, Brazil, and Chile), and a quarter of other OECD countries with available data show lower percentages. Enrolment in tertiary institutions stands at 40% (OECD’s average is close to 70%), and the government has expressed a continued commitment to increase this percentage to at least 50% as soon as possible.

The Santos’ administration has instituted policies to democratize and increase tertiary access to lower-income students. Currently 13% of university students benefit from state subsidies and credit lines. Student loans, such as those from the Colombian Institute of Educational Credit and Technical Studies (ICETEX), have contributed to equalizing access, specifically for students classified as poor and vulnerable. According to the World Bank, who finances ICETEX loans, between 2008 and 2012, the number of indigenous and Afro-Colombia students receiving these loans increased from 2.7% to 9.1%, respectively. About 166,000 low-income students received a low-interest ICETEX loan called ACCES in the same time period.

Alongside the 2015 education budget increase, President Santos launched “Colombia Very Well” in July 2014, a program to promote bilingualism in the country. The program will focus on the teaching of English as a second language, and engage immersion programs in English-speaking locations in Colombia, such as the island of San Andres. An Office of the Presidency press release announcing the program stated: “Today, only 9,000 high school graduates have an intermediate level of English. Our goal is to increase that number to 185,000 in 10 years.”

Luis Felipe Gómez Restrepo, Rector of Universidad Javeriana of Cali (UJC), an accredited private university, spoke with TBY regarding a “favorable period” for growth in the higher education sector and described government initiatives to strengthen scholarship programs as “nothing short of revolutionary.” “We, as universities,” he said, “have also mobilized ourselves to offer scholarships and reduced fees. Now that we can benefit from economies of scale with the rise in student intake, we can achieve growth through scholarships and long-term loans. These scholarships have given students the freedom of choice among different universities, be they public or private, which for private universities is a boon.”

Many Colombian universities have invested in establishing dialogues with foreign universities. Universidad Libre, for example, offers dual degree programs in collaboration with universities in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and France. TBY spoke with Rector Dr. Nicolas Zuleta, who said, “[…] We are bolstering the mobility of our students, particularly researchers, and encouraging our students to obtain double qualifications and international internships.” At the Universidad de La Sabana, Rector Obdulio Velásquez Posada, told TBY that the university hosts over 350 international students and sends about 300 students per year abroad for internships, summer courses, or to earn joint degrees.

A major focus in higher education will be the tailoring of programs to meet the needs of Colombia’s labor market. Though university graduates earn on average six times more than secondary school graduates, there remains a great need for increased collaboration between educational institutions and the job market. According to the OECD, 45% of formal firms in the country identified an inadequately skilled workforce as a major constraint. Yet Colombia is one of only a few countries in the world offering pre-vocational courses at the upper secondary level.

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