In the past two decades, Colombia’s educational system has grown in importance for the country’s policy-makers. This has translated into a stronger link between education and human resources development, as well as a gradual rise in overall expenditure. Increasing coverage has been a priority since the early 2000s, with the implementation of the Education Revolution (Revolución Educativa) in 2002, a reform programme aimed at making education more inclusive, and a basis for social and economic progression across Colombia.

Despite positive developments in terms of school enrolment rates, the country’s educational system remains split on several fronts. Rural and urban schooling rates can differ. More importantly, economic background is still a key element in determining school success as well as access to tertiary education programmes. The educational system is also facing inherent geographic challenges, which have typically meant that the teaching conditions in rural and urban schools have in some cases varied considerably.

Even with these challenges, authorities have a stated goal of turning Colombia into the most educated country in Latin America by 2025. The current drive to develop internet access is helping to overturn these discrepancies, and a series of innovative programmes have strengthened educational practices in the more isolated regions of the country. Furthermore, the divide between rural and urban communities is expected to be reduced further through a school infrastructure renovation programme.

System Structure

The education system is made up of four echelons. The first level of education is preschool, and focuses on children under six years of age. Although it is made up of three years of instruction, only one year of pre-schooling is mandatory in the public system. The second level is basic education which is made up of basic primary, which consisting of grades one through five, and lower secondary schooling, covering grades six through nine. The third level is the upper secondary level, with grades 10 and 11. Tertiary education includes university education, as well as technical and vocational training, and has a duration of between one and seven years.

The sector is overseen by the Ministry of National Education (Ministerio de Educación Nacional, MEN), in charge of channelling public funds as well as establishing quality standards for both public and private education institutions. Education has grown in importance over recent decades, and was entrenched as a right for all Colombians in the 1991 constitution. This also outlined the decentralisation of the education system, which is now administered by regional authorities under central government oversight. The total sector budget for 2015 reached COP29trn ($10.7bn), according to figures from MEN.

Better Access

The country has made improvements in terms of coverage at all levels of schooling, prompting illiteracy rates for Colombians aged 15 and older to decrease from 7.2% in 2002 to 5.8% in 2014. Lower secondary school enrolment rates in Colombia rose from 62.3% in 2005 to 71.9% in 2014. Upper secondary coverage has also expanded over the same period, from just under 34% to 40.5%, although it remains low, mainly due to limited enrolment in parts of rural Colombia. For example, upper secondary school enrolment in the Choco region was 18.4% in 2014, compared to 23% in the Amazonas region, 41.8% in Antioquia and just under 50% in Bogotá, according to MEN.

Gross coverage rates, on the other hand, have largely surpassed 100% for primary and lower secondary education institutions, and although this underlines a high degree of yearly repetition, as well as late entrance into the school system, these rates have likely been decreasing. Countrywide gross coverage rates for primary school have gone down significantly from 118% in 2005 to 106% in 2014.

A reduction was also seen in school drop-out rates at the national level, which declined from 6.1% in 2005 to 3.1% in 2014. However, the transition to significantly lower drop-out rates remains to be achieved in most rural areas of the country.

According to figures by Colombia’s National Administrative Department for Statistics (Departmento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística, DANE), in 2013 a majority of students (77.1%) went to public schools, while a minority of 22.9% attended private institutions. Furthermore, 76% of students were in urban settings, compared to 24% in rural areas.

Overall the increase in coverage has improved the total number of schooling years for Colombians aged 15 to 24, which rose from an average of 8.5 years in 2002 to 9.8 years by 2014, according to MEN figures. Despite improvements in coverage, Colombia’s education system still compares poorly internationally for its quality. The 2015-16 “Global Competitiveness” report, published by the World Economic Forum, ranked Colombia’s primary overall education system 105th out of 140 countries, with math and science teaching ranking particularly low, at 117th.


According to figures by MEN, between 2002 and 2014 total average annual expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP ranged between 7.3% and 7.9%, with public expenditure alone reaching 4.6% of GDP in 2014. Despite overall improvements, the country still needs to increase expenditure per student in order to achieve its goal of developing the best education system in Latin America by 2025. In a recent interview, Gina Parody, the minister of education, said that Colombia spends around $800 per student per year, compared to the $4000 spent per student in Chile.

Basic and secondary education in Colombia is financed by central government monetary transfers to the regional authorities tasked with managing education in their specific departments and municipalities. According to figures by MEN, the combined budget for basic and secondary education in 2015 was COP17.3trn ($6.4bn). In addition, public tertiary education was expected to receive 0.9% of national GDP in 2015, through transfers from the central government to public institutions across Colombia.

Besides rising investment levels, ensuring that educations remains widely affordable is also important. In an ongoing taxation reform effort, the Ministry of Finance has proposed adding a 5% value-added tax on school books, notebooks and other schooling materials, as well as a 4% increase in enrolment fees and school uniform prices. The proposal has received widespread criticism, even inside the government, with the minister of education publicly repudiating the proposed measure. In January 2016 a social movement called Todos por Educación (All for Education) started to collect signatures against the cost-adding measures, stating that the measure would negatively impact about 9m school children across Colombia.


The government is also increasingly focused on improving language teaching – especially English – in Colombia’s public school system. Critically important will be reducing differences between private and public institutions in order to increase the number of bilingual students in Colombia. “Historically, it has been the private elite schools and not the public ones that have had success in educating bilingual students, so we need to improve the conditions for public students to access a second language,” Luis Enrique García De Brigard, former vice-minister for preschool, basic and primary education, told OBG.

This will be partly implemented through a programme to integrate foreign native English teachers within public schools. In January 2016 education authorities announced the arrival of 400 volunteer English teachers from the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and Australia, and the total number is expected to reach 600 during the first quarter of 2016. The foreign teachers are set to work with 1300 Colombian English teachers to improve results for students in grades nine, 10 and 11. According to MEN estimates, a total of 176,000 students in 350 public schools will benefit from the measure.

Tertiary Education

According to figures from MEN, in the first half of 2015 there were a total of 288 institutions offering tertiary education in the country. These are classified into four types of establishments. Universities provide academic teaching programmes that range from undergraduate degrees to masters and doctoral degrees, as well as opportunities for scientific and technological research.

A second group is made up of what are known in Colombia as university institutions, which offer undergraduate programmes equated with professional level degrees, as well as specialisation courses. These institutions differ from universities in that they generally do not engage in research activities. According to the first half of 2015 figures from MEN, the number of university institutions in the country reached 120. A third type of tertiary establishment – technological institutions – focuses on providing programmes offering technology degrees The fourth group includes technical professional institutions, which offer job training programmes. Costs for higher education have been rising, and according to the OECD, the share of private investment going into tertiary education in Colombia reached 57% in 2012, compared to an average of 30% in OECD countries. According to the 2015 OECD’s “Education at a Glance” report, part of this larger weight of private funding, is related to tuition fees that need to be covered by students. In 2014 the cost of a bachelor degree in Colombia reached $574 for a public institution, compared to $3082 for a private institution, according to OECD figures. Doctoral degrees can range from $3667 in public institutions to $9885 in private ones.

Improving Enrolment

Enrolment figures have, nonetheless, increased. Although the government aimed to reach a 50% enrolment rate in tertiary education by 2014, this benchmark was not met, although the figure did improve from 30% gross coverage in 2006 to 46.1% by 2014, according to MEN figures. That same year, universities accounted for the majority of tertiary students, at 61.7%; followed by technological institutions; at 28.1%; and technical professional institutions; at 4.2%.

In 1992 MEN authorised the creation of private tertiary education institutions, which started to grow in number over the 1990s in response to growing demand for tertiary education programmes, eventually surpassing enrolment in public institutions. However, public efforts to strengthen the tertiary sector allowed for Colombia’s public universities to regain a leading role in terms of coverage. By 2006 public tertiary institutions accounted for 51.4% of enrolment, and the figure climbed slightly to 52.1% by 2014.

As a result of the expansion of the offer at the tertiary level, educational options for executives are also improving. “Educational centres are becoming more and more aware of the continuing education needs of top executives. The most demanded fields of study in Colombia include soft skills training, company culture and ethics. New training areas are being developed in response to the changing market requirements,” Luís Fernando Jaramillo, director-general at Inalde Business School, told OBG. Despite visible improvements, tertiary-level enrolment rates in the country remain low compared to some of its regional neighbours. In 2013 tertiary coverage in Colombia reached 45.5%, well below Argentina’s 76%, Chile’s 74% and Uruguay’s 73%. Colombia’s coverage rate was just short of the Latin America and Caribbean average of 46% in 2013, according to MEN figures. Furthermore, drop-out rates for tertiary students in Colombia have gone down from 12.6% in 2006 to 10.3% in 2014.

Vocational Training

Vocational training has been expanding in Colombia, and is increasingly an option for students wanting to continue to study after high-school. A technical programme generally takes two to three years, as opposed to the average five years it takes to complete a university degree.

Furthermore, technical programmes have become an effective way for the system to strengthen the link between educational offer and labour market needs, with the government striving to implement a policy of localisation when it comes to technical educational programmes. “These programmes have contributed to the pertinence of tertiary education, because they have been designed according to regional economic and social needs, so the specific gaps can be addressed and graduates can became agents of change in their regions once they join the job market,” Garcia told OBG. Vocational education institutions have also played an important role in developing human resources for sectors such as mining and agriculture.

Salary Impact

Technical and vocation programmes have also been proven to improve the living conditions of graduates over the long term. This has been galvanised by Colombia’s economic development over recent years, which has put a bigger emphasis on economic diversification and increased the need for human resources in a variety of sectors, such as agriculture, agro-industry, industrial engineering or mining. A 2013 study by Colombia’s Labour Observatory found that the average starting monthly salary for a graduate coming out of a professional technical programme is 52% higher than that of a worker with a high school diploma; that is COP996,559 ($366.73) versus COP657,213 ($241.85), according to figures by MEN . Average starting salaries were even higher for graduates with a technological degree or university degree, rising by 63% and 150%, respectively. “Although the initial salary level of university graduates is higher than those that attended technical training programmes, if you take into consideration the time and costs between university and technical programmes, vocational and technical students will get a better return on investment in the Colombian economy,” Garcia told OBG.

Beating Geography

Colombia’s challenging topography, marked by mountainous and jungle areas, has sometimes made it hard to deploy adequate resources to ensure access to schooling in the most remote villages and towns. But the development of internet access across the country has made e-learning a viable option. The deployment of fibre optics across Colombia has allowed for improved connectivity, and 80% of the country’s schools were scheduled to be connected to the internet by the end of 2015, according to government figures. The MEN has established its own technological innovation office, with four technology centres, where digital content is produced to be distributed across the country. These centres have produced over 40,000 units of free-access educational content for students from grade one to grade 11. Under the Colegios 10 TIC Programme, which aims to improve learning of maths, sciences and language through the use of technology and digital content, the MEN signed a deal with Universidad EAFIT, a private university, to assist authorities in the implementation of IT use in 500 schools around the country. Another deal was signed between pay television provider Direct TV and the Association of Bilingual Schools of Bogotá in order to record maths and language classes, which will then be broadcast in underprivileged areas of the country.


In addition to ongoing improvements in education planning and delivery policies, the sector is also set to benefit from an overall development programme that aims to accelerate economic growth rates in several categories. The Plan to Stimulate Production and Employment (Plan de Impulso a la Producción y el Empleo, PIPE 2.0) envisages several measures, including the allocation of financing programmes for the construction sector, as a vehicle to promote growth in the overall economy. PIPE 2.0 features a specific measure to renovate existing school infrastructure, by building 30,680 new classrooms for the public school system over the coming four years. The plan is expected to inject just under COP5trn ($1.8bn) into educational infrastructure through a series of mechanisms.

According to a BBVA Research document published about PIPE 2.0, as much as COP2trn ($736m) of the total amount channelled to new school development will be allocated by the central government in Bogotá. An additional COP1.25trn ($460m) of financing will come from the General Royalties System (Sistema General de Regalías), which manages Colombia’s earnings from non-renewable resources such as mining and oil, and an additional COP0.7trn ($257.6m) will be financed by local authorities. Furthermore, the government expects that an additional COP1trn ($368m) will come from public-private partnership (PPP) deals that the government is promoting for school building. The building and renovation of schools and classrooms is expected to significantly help reduce an existing deficit of 51,000 classrooms, according to MEN figures.

Establishing new infrastructure in rural regions of the country will support one key goal of the current government’s education strategy, which is the establishment of the jornada única (full class day) across the country, by ensuring that all students are able to attend a full day of classes (eight hours), as opposed to the five hours (or half day) that part of the student population currently attends. “The current school infrastructure is insufficient to guarantee the jornada única in the country. There are currently over 2m school children that only study in the afternoon, so we’ve established this goal of building and renovating schools to change this,” Garcia told OBG.


The education system has progressed over the past decade and a half, and much of this improvement has been based on stronger coverage rates for primary, secondary and tertiary education. However, the quality of education still needs to be improved, as evidenced by international comparisons. Especially critical will be the effort to reduce and eventually eliminate the significant differences in school coverage and completion rates for secondary schooling in rural areas. It will also be critical to keep primary and secondary education costs affordable for families, in order to make the education system a truly equitable mechanism for economic advancement.