Educational Challenges in the Republic of Colombia: Great Access, Little Quality

A ‘Silent Revolution’ in Education

When one thinks about Colombia today, what may first come to mind is the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar due to the hit Netflix series Narcos or the decades-long civil conflict waged between the Colombian Government and left-wing guerrilla groups, namely the National Liberation Army (ELN) or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the latter of whom recently signed a peace agreement with the Government in mid-2016. Despite this, Colombia is home to the second-largest amount of people in Latin America and has experienced a period of major economic growth that decreased the rate of poverty. Hailed as the ‘Colombian Miracle’, and more so a ‘silent revolution’ in education, Colombia has achieved this by expanding the learning outcomes of students, raising the bar in equal and equitable opportunities in schools, utilising the collection and analysis of data to make informed decisions and create policies, and focusing an increased amount of funding on seeing education reforms bear fruit.[i]

(Source: Education in Colombia: Highlights, OECD, 2016)

These educational achievements are primarily due to a firmer control over the consequences of Colombia’s troubled history of violent socio-political unrest since 1948 after the political assassination of Jorge Eliecer, resulting in the internal displacement of millions.[ii] Such control allowed the Colombian government to introduce reformed policies like ‘From Zero to Forever’ in 2010, which is now the common structure of handling the development and well-being of children through holistic measures; its 2014 ‘New School’ model to expand education to rural and poorer regions of Colombia by making it affordable and focusing on training teachers to create an environment that encourages a stimulating yet tailored education; and the ‘40 by 40 Program’ implemented by the former Education Secretary of Bogotá, Óscar Sánchez, that increased the number of hours in school to 40 hours per week for 40 weeks per year so that children can participate in extra-curricular activities like sports and art.[iii] These policies indeed raised the level and quality of education that each student received, as noted by the OECD, with participation in early childhood education and care (ECEC) and tertiary education increasing to 40% and 50% respectively, the rate of enrolment for 0-to-5 year olds went from 16% to 41% between 2007-2013, and increasing the gross enrolment from 57% to 76% between 2002-2012.[iv] This has been the case especially for girls, who between 1900 and 2000 saw their average years of completed education grow by 23% from 3 to 3.7 years, their completion of lower-secondary education increase from 37% in 1989 to 94% by 2011, and their representation in the labour market rise from 30% to 43% between 1990 and 2012.[v]

An Unequal Education System

Despite these positive actions, it is also true that there is still a long way to go for Colombia to establish an education system that is genuinely equal between private and public schools in urban and rural regions, which provide the same quality education, and both increase the net enrolment into education and retain attendance throughout the lifecycle of children’s education. In 2017, Children Beyond Our Borders, an organization working towards equal empowerment in education, reported that 37.2% of Colombian students did not continue their education past upper-secondary education. This has resulted in a significant gap for those who have attained a PhD degree, standing at a ratio of 7 per one million Colombians; 45.4% of students had dropped out of university since 2010 in contrast to the approximately 75% of students who dropped out of education by age 17; an estimated 37% of students started their education at a later period; and 41% repeated at least one grade by the age of 15.[vi] With regards to universities, this high dropout rate is mainly due to the overall system being overloaded and fragmented by lacking a standard curriculum for schools and the insufficient salaries paid to teachers that have led to a high rate of absenteeism. Still, because of the total 4.6% of GDP invested into education, only 0.5% went to rural areas, which might explain why two out of ten students from rural areas still cannot afford to access education, reproducing a vicious cycle of poverty, unemployment, and violence.[vii]

The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) noted that over 70% of upper-secondary students lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills, creating a major barrier to enter public universities that require passing the standardized entrance exam called the SABER 11 (ICFES) that measures the level of performance in English, mathematics, natural sciences, social science, and civics across grades 3, 5, 9, and 11, and policy-makers have so far failed to respond to the higher rate of failure in public schools in comparison to private schools when taking the exam(s).[viii] In connection to this, there was significant tension since the early 2010s due to the Ser Pilo Paga initiative intentionally diverting funds to private institutions and subsidized approximately 32% of top-performing students to enter accredited, private universities through grants and financial loans, and was only suspended in 2018 when large numbers of students protested against this unjust inequality and demanded that President Ivan Duque Marquez increase expenditure for public universities whose tuition fees remained a barrier for many.[ix]

There remains an apparent mismatch of supply, in the sense that more Colombian students aspire to attain higher education (reportedly growing from 3,600 in 2001 to 6,276 by 2011), in parallel to a stagnant level of quality sometimes referred to as ‘garage universities’ running alongside the top-tier institutions ranking relatively high in regional and global rankings.[x] This is further illustrated in the sphere of inbound and outbound education opportunities, whereby although Colombians are the 7th largest population deciding to study English or enter vocational training abroad, the country remains an undesirable destination for foreign students, except for Venezuelans who face significant barriers.[xi]

Barriers to Venezuelan Refugees

The cross-sectional crisis in Venezuela since 2015 has caused millions of people to flee from societal collapse. By November 2020, 1.7 million Venezuelans were living in Colombia, out of which approximately 460,000 were school-aged children.[xii] Colombia’s government and civil society once again outshined most in granting Venezuelans access to healthcare and placed nearly 200,000 school-aged Venezuelans in education, primarily due to the cultural and linguistic similarities between the two populations.[xiii] However, barriers are still evident in cities like Cucuta, which have struggled with a high rate of out of school (OOS) children and unemployment. It was estimated that there would be 22,350 Venezuelan OOS from the 93,000 Venezuelans living in Cucuta by early 2020, compared to the 361,433 OOS Colombians nationwide.[xiv] Venezuelans and Colombians in schools are struggling to attain basic literacy and numeracy skills, with 69% and 65%, 61% and 64%, 70% and 68%, and 93% and 94% respectively falling below the benchmarks for oral reading fluency, reading comprehension capability, simple addition, and subtraction problems.[xv]

Another worrying issue is the fact that Venezuelan OOS children show higher signs of social and emotional learning (SEL) than their in-school peers, with 66% of Venezuelan and 63% of Colombian children respectively showing empathy in imagined negative scenarios in comparison to 76% of Venezuelan OOS, and young or disabled students become victims of bullying.[xvi] UNESCO acknowledged that other barriers are the indirect costs of transportation, uniforms, food, and school materials, as well as the fact that Venezuelan teachers have struggled to have their credentials recognized by Colombia, which could potentially reduce the lack of human resources and overcrowding in schools.[xvii] According to the International Rescue Committee, these barriers are a result of the overburdened educational system in Colombia, applauding access as the first step but calling for more focus on absorbing OOS children, combining academic and SEL tools, increasing teacher training, and adhering to the 2013 ‘Ley de Convivencia’, a provision that seeks to implement co-existence committees for all stakeholders of education.[xviii]

The COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 outbreak amplified the socio-economic and educational challenges across the board in Colombia, leaving many at risk of dropping out of education to enter the labour market.[xix] In a New York Times article, Gloria Vasquez explains how graduating in Colombia is a major achievement since, in the past, Colombians did not have the same opportunities for education, aptly explaining that ‘violence and crime are as common here as the ice cream cart that circles the block each afternoon’, and many parents in the past worked as ‘recyclers’ who roamed the streets to collect anything of value in order to attempt selling it.[xx] The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing fear that many children will drop out of education, especially since 50% of households cannot afford an internet connection and children did not have the digital means to follow their classes or complete their assignments, nor remain in contact with their teachers when schools closed, often burdening uneducated parents in ensuring the education of their offspring.[xxi]

Due to the financial fallout of the pandemic, an estimated 100,000 children dropped out of school in 2020.[xxii] In his interview with Peoples Dispatch, Harold Garcia, a Colombian popular educator and a secondary-school teacher, explained that cities and private schools were better equipped to handle the outbreak and doubled the work of teachers who raced to complete the curriculum whilst learning how to use and incorporate digital methods of teaching.[xxiii] Garcia further expressed the dissatisfaction with the administration of President Marquez during the outbreak, who diverted public spending critically needed by education towards national security measures and assisting banks.[xxiv] The 1.5 million indigenous peoples living in Colombia, on the other hand, gained attention during this time. The largest indigenous group, the Wayuu people, who predominantly inhabit the La Guajira region, were severely impacted by the closure of the tourism sector since 90% of them worked informally in it, and only 10% had sufficient internet access to work or learn remotely.[xxv] Initiatives by Fundación El Origen increased indigenous children’s access to virtual education in terms of language, through the use of applications, and through proving 260 Wayuu children with tablets, which both support the steps to expand the language of instruction to the 64 languages that are spoken outside of the official Spanish and aid indigenous peoples break the cycle of poverty.[xxvi]

Lastly, COVID-19 put children at significant risk of being recruited by the remaining guerrilla groups as child soldiers, rolling back the efforts achieved through the 2019 national plan and Case No. 7 of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace that aims to prevent the recruitment of and sexual violence against children, as well as the positive work being done by civil society organizations like the Misiones Salesians and Missioni Don Bosco Onlus to ensure access to education.[xxvii] It is a known strategy for these groups to target children who live in rural regions and come from a poor socio-economic background and are thus easier to coerce due to their lack of access to education and vocational training, but often become human shields, porters, spies, child brides, sex slaves, or used for labour activities in the ongoing civil conflict with the Colombian government.[xxviii] To address this persistent issue, the Borgen Project has recently called on both the Colombian government to implement stricter policies and measures that discourage recruitment, and demand that the international community adopts more substantial foreign aid plans that aims more towards holistic, collective progress.[xxix]


Colombia’s educational system has taken positive steps that have borne great results in access to education. Still, it underscores the quality that is both affordable and valuable in the outcomes that education ought to prepare students to attain higher levels of education or enter the labour market. Globally, education is an important asset which shows that the benefits outweigh the costs of injecting time and funding to boost the access, quality, outcomes, and value that each child receives through their education, serving as crucial defining moments in their future and of their countries. In this way, Colombia would not only address the other half of Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals concerning quality but also bolster its progress to reduce poverty, establish lasting mechanisms of peaceful and just resolution, streamline economic growth, achieve more robust levels of health and wellbeing, and closing the remaining inequality gaps.

Written by Karl Baldacchino

Edited by Olga Ruiz Pilato


[i] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2016) ‘Education in Colombia: Highlights’, pp. 2-3; see also Trines, S. (2020) ‘Education in Colombia’. World Education News + Reviews. Available online from: [Accessed on 27/03/2022[.

[ii] Ventura, R. C. (2018) ‘Girls’ Education in Colombia Continues to on the Path of Progress’. The Borgen Project. Available online from: [Accessed 27/03/2022]; see also Gozzo, F. (2022) ‘The Struggle of Child Soldiers in Colombia’. The Borgen Project. Available online from: [Accessed on 27/03/2022].

[iii] Ibid.; see also ‘Education in Colombia’; see also Solivan, M. (2014) ‘A City’s Push for Access and Quality Education for All: Report on a Recent Visit to Bogota’. Brookings. Available online from: A City’s Push for Access and Quality Education for All: Report on a Recent Visit to Bogotá ( [Accessed on 27/03/2022]; see also ‘Education in Colombia: Highlights’, pp. 6 & 8.

[iv] ‘Education in Colombia: Highlights’, pp. 4, 6 & 10.

[v]  ‘Girls’ Education in Colombia Continues to on the Path of Progress’.

[vi] Moutter, C. (2017) ‘Colombia’s Education System’. Children Beyond Our Borders. Available online from: [Accessed on 27/03/2022]; see also ‘Education in Colombia’; see also Education in Colombia: Highlights’, pp. 6-7, 8 & 10.

[vii] Ibid.; see also ‘Education in Colombia’.

[viii] ‘Education in Colombia’; ‘Education in Colombia: Highlights’, p. 10

[ix] Ibid.; see also Alexandra, Z. (2020) ‘In Colombia, the Pandemic is Widening Inequality in Access to Education’. Peoples Dispatch. Available online from: [Accessed 27/03/2022].

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] International Rescue Committee (2020) ‘Colombia’s Education Crisis: Results from a Learning Assessment of Colombian and Venezuelan Children’, p. 2.

[xiii] Ibid.; see also ‘Education in Colombia’; see also United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (2020) ‘Significant Efforts by Colombia Ensure that Nearly 200,000 Children and Youth Have access to the Education System’. Available online from: [Accessed on 28/03/2022].

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid., pp. 3 & 4; see also ‘Significant Efforts by Colombia Ensure that Nearly 200,000 Children and Youth Have access to the Education System’.

[xvi] Ibid., p.5.

[xvii] ‘Significant Efforts by Colombia Ensure that Nearly 200,000 Children and Youth Have access to the Education System’.

[xviii] Ibid., pp. 5 & 6.

[xix] ‘Education in Colombia’; see also Turkewitz, J. (2021) ‘1+1 = 4? Latin American Confronts a Pandemic Education Crisis’. The New York Times. Available online from: [Accessed 28/03/2022]; see also ‘In Colombia, the Pandemic is Widening Inequality in Access to Education’.

[xx] 1+1 = 4? Latin American Confronts a Pandemic Education Crisis’.

[xxi] Ibid.; see also ‘In Colombia, the Pandemic is Widening Inequality in Access to Education’.

[xxii] Pope, L. (2021) ‘Virtual Learning for Colombia’s Indigenous People’. The Borgen Project. Available online from: [Accessed on 28/03/2022].

[xxiii] ‘In Colombia, the Pandemic is Widening Inequality in Access to Education’.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] ‘Virtual Learning for Colombia’s Indigenous People’.

[xxvi] Ibid.; see also ‘Education in Colombia’.

[xxvii] ‘The Struggle of Child Soldiers in Colombia’.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid.

Cover Image by Rafael Socarras from Pixabay

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