Colombian education addresses geographical differences and workplace needs


As Colombia’s government implements various measures to help drive the acceleration of development across all economic sectors, education remains an important area of policy execution.

In light of the goal of transforming the country into the best educated in Latin America by 2025, structural improvements in primary, secondary and tertiary education have gained new momentum.

The 2014-18 National Development Plan (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo, PND), which covers President Juan Manuel Santos’ second term in office, highlighted education as a key pillar of economic development in Colombia, and the authorities have strived to strengthen links between education, training and labour market demand.

Considerable improvement has been achieved in school enrolment rates, though provision is still impacted by socio-economic and geographical divisions. Income plays a role in determining accessibility and successful completion of education goals.

Another issue has been the differing conditions in rural versus urban schools. Government efforts have focused on reducing this gap by creating new means of delivery of education services for geographically isolated schools, and by guiding both public and private investment into the renovation of schools across the country.

Report Card

Some of these difficulties were underlined in the World Economic Forum “Global Competitiveness Report 2016-17”. The study ranked Colombia’s primary education sector 101st and its enrolment percentage 104th out of 140 countries. However, secondary and tertiary education enrolment rates were much better, both placing 56th, and science and mathematics teaching was ranked 112th, up from 117th the previous year.

Nonetheless, key challenges continue to affect delivery of education services and attainment levels by Colombian students. Gaps in the system along socio-economic lines persist. According to “Education in Colombia”, a report published by the OECD, Colombia’s poorest students spend an average of six years in school, compared to 12 years for children from affluent backgrounds. The differences extend into tertiary education, which is attended by 53% of high-income Colombians but only 9% of low-income students, the report states.


The Colombian education system is divided into four levels. Pre-school lasts for three years for children under six years of age, though only one year is obligatory in the public school system.

The second level is made up of basic primary education from grades one to five, and lower-secondary schooling, which takes students from grade six to grade nine. The third tier is upper-secondary school, which runs from grade 10 to grade 11.

Tertiary education, the fourth level, can last for between one and seven years, and the options include university as well as a wide range of technical and vocational training programmes.

There are 10 years of compulsory education, normally engaging students from the age of five up to 15. This is set to change in the medium term, as the PND aims to make education compulsory all the way up to upper-secondary school by 2030. The goal is to reduce the number of young people who do not finish their secondary education, as this is seen as an important tool for reducing poverty rates.

Recent History

Setting the stage for such improvements, education was made a right of every Colombian in the 1991 constitution. The sector is managed by the Ministry of National Education ( Ministerio de Educación Nacional, MEN), which allocates funds, and structures quality standards to guide both public and private institutions.

The decentralisation of education in the 1990s put the system under the management of Colombia’s regional authorities, overseen by the central government. Despite the fiscal restrictions that reduced oil export revenues – the result of the international downturn in prices – have placed on the country in recent years, education has been one of the few sectors to avoid stringent budget cuts.

Government Expenditure

The education budget rose to COP31trn ($9.3bn) in 2016, up from COP29.3trn ($8.8bn) in 2015.

Investment in primary and secondary education in Colombia totals 3.6% of GDP on average, according to a 2016 OECD report, above the organisation’s average of 2.5%. The country also spends a greater proportion of public money on tertiary education, at 2% of GDP, than the OECD average of 1.6%.

However, the report points out that Colombia could benefit from revising how it allocates funding by phase, and channel more resources to early education to improve results in primary and secondary schools, as well as raise the number of students who make it to university. This is especially relevant because of the large number of young children living in poverty, at around 60%, according to the OECD. “Both international evidence and national research from Colombia indicate that investment in quality early years yields high rates of return in terms of student performance in school and across a range of outcomes in adulthood, and that these rates of return are highest from those of the most marginalised groups,” the report stated.

There have been improvements in recent years. Schooling coverage for children under five rose from 16% to 41% between 2007 and 2013. Furthermore, the authorities launched the De Cero a Siempre (From Zero to Forever) strategy in 2011. The plan aims to increase the percentage of children with access to pre-school education and care to 100%, with a focus on disadvantaged children. Between 2011 and early 2016 some $3.2bn had been spent.

In 2016 President Santos signed From Zero to Forever into law in an effort to expand its coverage, as well as to secure long-term financing and continuity for the initiative. By reaching more rural areas, the country will be able to better develop its youth, and bridge the gap between urban and rural students. JORNADA ÚNICA: Improving schooling also rests on a long-standing goal of successive governments: the establishment of Jornada Única (Full Class Day) for all primary and secondary students. More than 80% of students in Colombian public schools currently attend a half-day or five-hour school cycle. However, it has been established that having students in classes for eight-hour days facilitates learning and improves completion rates. Standardising full class days will be essential to improve equity by allowing students from divergent economic backgrounds and geographical areas to access the same amount of teaching time. Authorities aim to establish Jornada Única across all schools by 2025.

Successful implementation of Jornada Única will depend on the provision of physical infrastructure and additional human resources, both of which are expected to have a visible fiscal impact through higher government expenditure.

First, the country’s school infrastructure needs to be expanded, an undertaking the government has organised through the National Educational Infrastructure Plan. For the medium term the plan includes the opening of 30,000 additional classrooms by 2019 via the construction of new rooms along with the revamping of existing ones. Construction work will take place in 1500 schools, addressing 60% of the existing classroom deficit. According to the OECD, the building of new classrooms will cost COP4.5bn ($1.4m) through to 2018.

Second, implementing Jornada Única across the country will require a considerable expansion of the 350,000 teachers employed by official schools in 2015, according to BBVA Research.


According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística, DANE), as of 2015 there were a total of 10.23m students attending 57,100 schools and learning institutions in Colombia, of which more than 80% were public schools.

Of the total students enrolled, over 1m were at the pre-school level, 3.6m were in basic primary school, and more than 3.9m students were in basic secondary or middle school.

A total of 553,683 students were part of so-called special integrated learning cycles, which provide schooling for adults and young adults, and more than 27,000 students were enrolled in the accelerated learning model, which gives students aged 10 to 17 who did not have the opportunity to enrol in basic education access to schooling.

Investment has allowed the improvement of coverage at all levels of schooling. This helped reduce illiteracy rates for Colombians aged 15 and over from 7.2% in 2002 to 5.8% in 2014. Lower-secondary enrolment expanded from 62.3% in 2005 to 71.9% in 2014, and further up the chain, upper-secondary schooling coverage rose from around 34% to 40.5% over the same time period.


Reform in higher education was under debate in early 2017, after the government announced plans to organise tertiary education under a broader system. However, plans to use the fast-track system to approve legislation has attracted opposition from universities.

“The government wants to set up a stronger tertiary education system, which would have some impact in terms of coverage, because a lot of tertiary education provision would be formalised,” Juan Manuel Tejeiro Sarmiento, vice-chancellor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, told OBG. “However, this is a reform with a lot of moving pieces, it can’t be rushed through a fast-track system.” An earlier attempt at higher education reform led to nationwide protests in 2011.

As of early 2017 the country’s tertiary education system comprised 288 institutions, divided into four types of establishment. Universities offer undergraduate degrees, master’s degrees and doctoral programmes, and cater to technological and scientific research. These amounted to 28% of higher education institutions (HEIs) in 2016, according to the OECD. A second type, accounting for 42% of tertiary establishments, is university institutions, which provide specialisation courses and undergraduate programmes equated with professional titles. One of the main differences from other universities is that university institutions in Colombia generally do not develop research activities.

A third group, technological institutions, offer highly technical and specialised programmes in various subjects. The fourth, technical professional establishments, provide professional training programmes focusing on skills development for human resources in an array of professions. At the end of 2015 there were 2.1m students enrolled in HEIs, according to the Foundation for Higher Education and Development (Fundación para la Educación Superior y el Desarrollo, Fedesarrollo).

National Learning Service

A critical role is also played by the National Learning Service ( Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje, SENA), which is managed by the Ministry of Employment. Financed by employers’ contributions, SENA was established in 1957 as the backbone of Colombia’s public technical and technological education provision. It has an annual budget of COP3.4trn ($1bn), more than the COP3trn ($900m) of public financing that is given to the country’s 32 public universities, according to the Colombian Association of Universities (Asociación Colombiana de Universidades, ASCUN).

Offering free programmes, SENA has centres across the country tailoring teaching and training towards each region’s specific economic activities. “Colombia has made great progress through improving professionalisation in training schemes,” Fernando Dávila, chancellor at university institution Politécnico Grancolombiano, told OBG. “Technicians or technologists from SENA may aspire to be professionals in many different areas, such as marketing, psychology and business administration.”

“Educational centres are becoming more aware of the continuing needs of top executives,” said Luís Fernando Jaramillo, director-general of Inalde Business School. “The most demanded fields of study include soft skills training, company culture and ethics, and we are offering new training areas to respond to the changing market requirements.”

Enrolment Drive

The number of students enrolling in tertiary education has been gradually increasing, though it fell short of the government objective of 50% coverage by 2014. Enrolment rates progressed from 31.6% in 2007 to 49.4% in 2015, according to MEN. Under the PND the authorities expect to increase the level of tertiary education enrolment to as high as 67% by 2025.

University-level education received the majority of student enrolments in 2015, at 62.4%, followed by technological education at 27.2% and technical professional education at 4.1%, with smaller percentages for specialisation studies, as well as doctorate and master’s-level programmes.

MEN figures show a marked drop in enrolment in technical professional-level education, from 15.2% of all enrolments in 2007 to 4.1% in 2015. Over the same period, however, there was a significant rise in participation in technological studies, from 13.8% of total enrolments to 27.2%.

This was led by government plans to boost human resources in support of the expansion of IT, which has translated into non-refundable financial support for students wanting to join careers linked to the IT and telecoms sector (see ICT chapter).

Demand for tertiary education programmes in Colombia began to rise rapidly from the mid-1990s, with MEN opening the door for private universities in 1992. Since then a large number of private institutions have been created, supporting the expansion of coverage. Between 2007 and 2015 the level of coverage accounted for by private tertiary institutions rose from around 45.7% of enrolments to 49.1%, while university coverage secured by public institutions fell from 54.3% to 50.9%.

Of the 600,000 Colombians who graduate from high school each year, around 60% enrol at university. However, after five years only half of them will have completed their programme. “There is a lot of desertion, especially during the first and second years,” Carlos Hernando Forero Robayo, executive director at ASCUN, told OBG. “One reason for this is that the students arrive with some deficiencies in education, in reading comprehension or maths, for example.” University desertion rates rose from 10.7% in 2007 to as high as 12.9% in 2010, though this eased to around 9.3% by 2015.

In other cases, insufficient pre-university professional orientation has an impact. “Many students pick programmes someone has suggested and then don’t like them, so the mechanism to guide students into tertiary education is not very good,” said Forero Robayo. “This often happens because the people that do orientations in high schools are not properly trained or prepared,” he added.

Socio-economic factors can also push up desertion rates at the higher-education level, and sector authorities have therefore been enhancing financing mechanisms to allow more students from low-income families to receive support.


As in many other markets, the cost of higher education acts as a barrier, with private universities generally more expensive than public ones. To reduce the impact of economic conditions on tertiary education success, sector authorities have long promoted financing support for students with lower means. This type of mechanism is essential. According to a report by Fedesarrollo, students in the poorest 20% of the population have a 10.2% chance of enrolling in university, compared with 17.8% in Mexico and 27.4% in Chile. “The gap in prices should not exist,” said Forero Robayo. “One person might have paid COP500,000 ($150) in fees at a low-quality university, while another has paid four times that amount for the same qualification.”

Tertiary education has a marked impact on employment prospects and income. According to DANE, in 2014, 84% of Colombians aged 25 to 64 who had a university degree were employed, versus 75% of those in the same age bracket who had not completed a university degree.

The successful completion of a degree also impacts pay. The average starting salary for a university graduate was COP1.8m ($540) per month in 2016, compared to COP724,000 ($217) for a high school graduate, according to Fedesarrollo.


The government helps low-income students access to higher education through student loans. This is carried out via the Colombian Institute of Educational Credit and Technical Studies Abroad (Instituto Colombiano de Crédito Educativo y Estudios Técnicos en el Exterior, ICETEX), which was created in 1950 under MEN.

ICETEX has focused on allocating different types of loans at lower interest rates than those offered by the private sector. The percentage of students enrolled in HEIs receiving ICETEX financing rose from 5.2% in 2000 to 20.8% by 2015, according to Fedesarrollo, with the number of credits rising from 38,000 to 635,000. The bulk of support has been channelled towards lower-income students, who received 88% of the COP3.9trn ($1.2bn) in financing that had been allocated as of May 2016. However, ICETEX is funded via the national budget, making it vulnerable to fiscal restraints. Financial support from ICETEX has focused on accredited programmes, which has helped with overall quality but has also limited the scope. From 2018 all ICETEX financial support will be limited to accredited universities.

Ser Pilo Paga

Established in 2014 by MEN, the Ser Pilo Paga (It Pays to Be Smart) scholarship programme offers financial support for students from low-income backgrounds. Support can cover up to 100% of tuition fees, and those who graduate according to the programme’s completion timescales need not repay the loan.

“The Ser Pilo Paga scheme ensures that, out of the 600,000 students who come out of high school every year in Colombia, around 10,000 from low-income families with good academic results can go on to university,” Forero Robayo told OBG.

However, the programme’s cost versus the number of people it benefits is increasingly being questioned. The first two rounds supported 22,126 students, but costs have increased quickly because students are allowed to choose between private and public universities, which has channelled financing into the more expensive private programmes.

Ensuring that quality standards are met among higher education providers remains a challenge. In 1992 the National Accreditation System for HEIs and the National Council for Higher Education were created to guide government policy on accreditation programmes and the quality of higher education.

Accreditation processes remain voluntary; however, studies have shown that in Colombia, official approval of tertiary programmes goes hand-in-hand with successful outcomes after their completion. According to a report by Fedesarrollo, the social return of programmes in non-accredited institutions is 19%, versus 37% in accredited ones. Accreditation of teaching institutions has progressed slowly, however, which has allowed accredited entities to charge a premium for their programmes.


Despite fiscal restraints, the government’s budget for education has stayed at consistent levels. This points to the country’s commitment to the sector and the importance placed on it. However, with coverage expansion at all levels of education remaining a high priority, expenditure efficiency will be of the utmost importance.

By strengthening financing mechanisms and access to early education, with a focus on rural areas and those most affected by the country’s civil conflict, the authorities aim to improve the chances of lower-income Colombians not only making it through primary school and high school, but also reaching tertiary education. Support for low-income Colombians to enrol and complete higher-education programmes has been a key aspect of government policy, and is especially important in reducing income disparities and social inequality.

However, the programmes will need to be improved to reach a larger number of disadvantaged Colombians and to be financially sustainable over the long term. Continued accreditation efforts to improve standards in universities will be a critical aspect in ensuring the provision of high-quality education that can be relevant in the job market and contribute to the country’s ongoing development.


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The Report: Colombia 2017

Education chapter from The Report: Colombia 2017

Cover of The Report: Colombia 2017

The Report

This article is from the Education chapter of The Report: Colombia 2017. Explore other chapters from this report.

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