Colombia 2020 | EDUCATION | FOCUS

Colombia's schools have experienced great gains over the last few decades. The government must now focus on earlier education to guarantee better returns, economically and socially, for the future.

Colombia's recent economic growth has been a welcome surprise to everyone. It should come as no surprise that other areas, such as education, have also seen growth as well. Between 2005 and 2018, net coverage in secondary education went from 62% to 72%. Meanwhile, in higher education, the gains were even more impressive, with net coverage leaping from 34% to 52% in the same time period (though unfortunately, only 32% of students were enrolled in technical or technologically related programs.) From the raw data, it is obvious that schooling levels in the country have been growing over the last 35 years. Indeed, average years of education in the population over the age of 25 in seven of the main cities reached 10.4 years in 2018. In 1984, this number was seven.

Part of this change has to do with several important government initiatives carried out at a national level: conditional transfers to “Families in Action," which helps school attendance and “permanence;" provision of education by private schools in place of insufficient public schools and regulations regarding free schooling for students at the pre-school, primary, and middle school levels; and the recently canceled Ser Pilo Paga loan scheme program that increased access to superior education for those at the bottom of Colombia's economic ladder.
Ser Pilo Paga was the most ambitious of government plans to reduce the country's high rates of inequality. The plan benefited 40,000 students in 2014-2018 and will benefit a further 352,000 between 2019 and 2022. Students on the program could apply to private universities without having to pay for admission exams and fees, and participants received funds to cover academic expenses and transportation. And while it may seem a shame that the government has decided to close the program, perhaps the public budget on education (which increased to 4.5% of the country GDP 2018-2019) might be better spent on programs focused on increasing those enrolled in early childhood education.
While investment in education generally yields a positive private rate of ROI around 10% (a figure usually higher in low-income and middle-income countries), the question becomes about where this investment is best put. While this private return from higher education was about 20% in Colombia in 2012, that has not necessarily led to large-scale dissolution of economic inequality in the country. This may have to do with quality of education: the 2018 results of the International Program for the Evaluation of Students (PISA) show that Colombia's average score (406) ranked lower than most OECD countries (488) and Latin American countries (Mexico's being 416 and Chile's being 438). This average score is even less for “low achievers." By providing students with better teachers and focusing on increasing attendance in earlier education through implementation of full day schooling, as opposed to morning and afternoon shifts currently in place in a majority of schools (only 10-15% of schools implement full days), the government could see even greater returns on investment.
Luckily, the government has prioritized this last initiative through its Full-Day Schooling program, through which it aims to enroll 20% of public-school students in full days. The program has since been investing in infrastructure, school meals, education materials, and technical assistance. By investing earlier in schools and students, the government's return can also be seen socially. Early childhood development (ECD) actually may be the most cost-effective way to reduce future public expenditure on welfare programs. ECD has also been shown to improve education test scores, reduce grade retention and dropouts, increase high school graduation rates, and, most interestingly, lead to better employment and higher wages.
Though unemployment still plagues Colombia, ECD investment could be a way to further propel and grow Colombia's middle class by reducing inequality and poverty. It may even lead to greater entrepreneurship in society, as more highly educated people are more likely to start their own businesses. With higher school attendance earlier, students would be better prepared for university life and may choose harder subjects that could guarantee them higher wages in the future. Furthermore, better education could help to boost the country's orange sector, something President Iván Duque has pledged to increase to 5% of the country's GDP.