Colombia is making great strides in education; progress which looks likely to continue given the prospects for continued peace and the strong political commitment to sustained learning.

The education system in Colombia has been changing over recent years under the Santos administration, most notably with free primary and secondary education being instituted in 2012. Attempts to reach students in the poorer parts of the country were also begun in that year, but recent studies claim that more needs to be done. The newly-elected administration in July 2014 proposed an education budget that will surpass that of defense, indicating that the sector will grow under the new Santos mandate.

Regarding the strength of the education sector in Colombia and its contribution to GDP, the budget offers a clear growth perspective, with spending up 4% to $15.3 billion to represent 4% of GDP, compared to an average of 6.1% in countries in the OECD. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics rates Colombia's public expenditure per primary school pupil as 15.4% of GDP per capita in 2012, the last year measured, versus an average of 11.6% for all developing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The agency notes that public expenditure includes government spending on educational institutions, both public and private, education administration as well as subsidies for private entities. Colombia's public expenditure per secondary pupil was 15.2% of GDP per capita, and 23.5% for tertiary students.


In an overview of education levels in the Colombian population across all demographics, UNESCO reports 96.9% of girls and 97.4% of boys go on to secondary school. Colombia's adult literacy rate is 93.6%, but that figure climbs to near 100% for young adults aged 15-24, with 98.7% for females and 97.8% for males. The agency reports 39% of eligible young adults pursuing tertiary education — and the government aims to boost this figure to 50% as soon as possible. Young Colombians enjoy diverse options, from technical training to a private or public university. Unfortunately, the tertiary dropout rate is high — 45% — which has been attributed to Colombian students finishing secondary school earlier, at age 16, than their counterparts in other countries and by definition receiving less preparation for university. The government is encouraging students who might otherwise give up school to take vocational training. The renewed push for improved primary and secondary schooling has yet to work through the population. The OECD in July 2014 released results of a study that ranked Colombia last in a test of 15-year-old students' ability to understand basic financial topics and everyday money management skills. The study included 29,000 students in 18 countries, part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).


The government in July 2014 launched a program to encourage the study of English as a second language and also subsidizes student loans and grants. A comprehensive study of Colombia's tertiary education system by the OECD in 2012 lauded Colombia's “world-class student loan institution," the Colombian Institute of Educational Credit and Technical Studies Abroad (ICETEX). The study noted that the Regional Centers of Higher Education (CERES) could help broaden public access to higher education, but cautioned on the need for rigorous quality control. Tuition costs vary widely, from about $100 per semester for law school at the public Universidad del Atlántico to $46,000 for a two-year MBA program at INALDE Business School. Luis H. Pérez, President of Universidad Autónoma de Occidente, spoke to TBY about government policies to democratize access to higher education over the past decade, as a result of which, 13% of students at the university benefit from state subsidies and credit lines for students coming from low-income families. “In this way, many academic capable students coming from very poor families have the chance to study in high quality universities. In this task, universities assume up to 25%, while the government provides 75% of the total value of these credits," said Mr. Pérez.

The Instituto Colombiano para la Evaluación de la Educación (ICFES) runs an examination system that measures students' capacities both upon matriculating and graduating tertiary education. The OECD study said that ICFES places Colombia as a global leader in assessing value practices in tertiary education and taking steps to improve quality. “Therefore, investments in improving and expanding the technical quality of the ICFES system are eminently worthwhile," stated the report.

President Santos' 2014-2018 education plan aims to make Colombia into the most educated country in Latin America by 2025. The Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Patricia Martinez, in July 2014 participated in a program at the Pilot Colombia University to achieve a broad consensus on a framework for national qualifications. The Ministry of Education is accepting input from the Colombian Association of Universities (ASCUN), the Colombian Association of Institutions of Higher Education and Technical Vocational Training (ACIET) and the National Association of Institutions for Work Education Sector Human Development (ASENOF).


In addressing the balance between public and private schools, the major trend is toward greater private involvement in the sector, but against a social backdrop of a cultural aversion to the idea of running any school for profit. With President Santos re-elected there are no imminent legislative changes for the sector as his program is more one of developing within the status quo.

Private universities and institutions of higher learning outnumber public ones in varying degrees throughout the country. For example, the Capital District has 31 private schools to seven public universities, while in Antioquia the ratio is 16 to 6 and in Atlántico 5-1. Sucre, on the other hand, has only one tertiary institution, the public University of Sucre. Colombia has a total of 286 tertiary schools, of which 41 are public institutions.

One key area for transforming Colombia's education system and society is innovation and R&D initiatives, both state-funded and private. Luis Fernando Jaramillo Carling, Dean of INALDE Business School, told TBY that, “Educational institutions and authorities have lately strengthened research, making it compulsory at many levels, and that has provided a very important boost to academic research nationwide. For us, it is definitely very important; we allocate 10% of our budget to R&D."

An OECD study in 2014 on intellectual property in Colombia cited strengths that included strong economic growth, political commitment to education, and some research institutions with strong capacities. “A small number of well-known universities produce qualified scientists and conduct research in an expanding higher education sector, while in the private sector a small cadre of innovation-oriented companies have grown to appreciate the benefits of innovation," said the report. Public sector officials are legally prohibited from running commercial spin-offs, which hampers the capacity of public universities to profit from their research. Researchers do not receive cash rewards for obtaining a patent or commercializing a project.

The OECD report said that in 2013, Colciencias, Colombia's science institute; the Universidad de Antioquia; and the Colombian Association for the Progress of Science (ACAC) explored a legal alternative, “that would allow researchers to engage in such ventures. Possible approaches include more flexible work contracts providing researchers with the option to take leave if they wish to create a spin-off."


Aside from the recent push for secondary students to study English as a second language, Colombia's tertiary schools have long been linking themselves with the larger world, both outside the ivory tower and outside the country. John Jairo Morales Alzate, Dean, School of Law, Universidad Santo Tomás, told TBY that, “Right now, we already have partnerships with universities in the US, Europe, and Asia. All in all, the internationalization of our university has been an essential part of our success, as our close ties with international partners and our excellent research work have enabled us to develop common research projects and publications in several languages."

In a comparative analysis of available university programs and fields of study in which the country excels, the Los Andes School of Management Master's in Environmental Management quickly comes up, recognized in Eduniversal's university ranking as the best in Latin America. The department's close ties with the Yale School of Forestry provides a strong lift to Colombia's human resources for forestry — a boon indeed in a country half-covered with forest and known for its biodiversity. Professor Javier Yáñez, Dean of Universidad de Los Andes School of Management, spoke to TBY on how business and government are tied to the school in several ways, such as through a program of senior managers and state officials visiting as guest speakers. “We offer a learning experience called Consultandes, a consultancy through which business firms come to Los Andes, tell us about a particular problem, where we assign teams of students to act as consultants to those firms during a full semester, recommending a solution. Students gain practical experience, the school learns of current issues of concern to business, and the firms get valuable solutions and/or alternatives," said Professor Yáñez.