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Wealth Disparities Cause Inequality in Education Access in Colombia

Photo Credit: Fernando Vergara

Education funding and enrollment

Credit: Global Education Monitoring Report

As a reflection of Colombia only reaching the half-way mark of its 2030 Target for wealth parity in upper secondary school completion, protests erupted in November 2019 in response to the inequality felt by many denizens of the country and to cuts in public education (Grattan, 2019).  The protests were originally sparked by students contesting government corruption and education cuts, made despite the need for increased education funding.  The need is clear as disparities in education funding are preventing many from obtaining higher education who would otherwise pursue it if higher education were more accessible.  Currently, only 7% of the poorest students get the opportunity to receive post-secondary education in contrast to 64% of the students from the richest households (Equity, 2020). 

Although a huge gap in post-secondary education attendance continues to exist, these education cuts are not representative of previous efforts to improve educational outcomes.  The issues that Colombia now faces overshadow the gains that have been made in education since the 1960s.  Greater government investment in education quintupled from 1966 to 1986 which in turn assisted in doubling primary school enrollment.  In addition, enrollment at the university-level multiplied fifteen times (Immerstein, 2015).

Nonetheless, Colombia’s recent cuts to public education, which helped spur the protests, are the antithesis of the 2002 education initiative called Revolución Educativa whose goals were to increase access to education and to improve its quality.  After this educational program was implemented, free public primary education was introduced in 2010.  In 2012, free public education was extended to secondary schools.  In accordance to the goal of then President Juan Manuel Santos of assuring that Colombia becomes Latin America’s most educated country by 2025, the budget for education was increased by 5.75% in 2015 (Immerstein, 2015).

In contrast, the proposed legislation of current President Duque would generate more inequality among Colombians.  This, along with government corruption, was the impetus that drove the students to protest and encouraged more of its citizens to gather in the streets.  Protesters were seeking better healthcare, more economic stability, more education funding, an end to violence, higher wages, and higher pensions (Grattan, 2019).

The inequality that is experienced by the average Colombian is reflected in the educational system and in how increased governmental funds were and are dispersed.  So, in considering the increased enrollment in the past, most students who enjoyed this access were in urban areas.  Rural areas consistently received a fraction of the percentage of the GDP towards education allotted to urban areas. 

Rural and at-risk students

Credit: Colombia Reports

Students in rural areas and at-risk children experience more obstacles attending school as they must navigate through precarious and dangerous environments.  In general, students from rural areas must travel long distances to reach their educational destination, and their routes often lack development and infrastructure.  Many at-risk students tend to be affected by family breakdown, the need to care for siblings or work, and the inability to cover the costs of uniforms and books.  A larger portion is faced with gang violence in their neighborhoods as these activities have lingered from decades of violence in Colombia.  Further, gangs target schools for recruitment of its members and to sexually exploit young people (Exclusion from Education, n.d.).   

For these reasons, more government funds are required to fill the gap in poor and rural communities to help confront these issues.  There is a need to address access to early childhood education, which will help to decrease the dropout rate among Colombian students, as early childhood development is paramount to success in secondary and post-secondary education (Colombian should improve equity and quality of education, 2016).


With improved education funding and better measures in assisting at-risk and rural students to receive quality education, Colombia could find itself closer to its 2030 Target for upper secondary school completion. In order to reach this goal, students should be supported throughout their educational journey in whatever area required for their success. This includes access to early childhood development, improved transportation in rural areas, and financial assistance for tuition, uniforms, and books. Once students receive the financial support and quality education required for success and completion of upper secondary school, more candidates for post secondary education will emerge regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.


Colombia should improve equity and quality of education. (2016, April). Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). http://www.oecd.org/education/colombia-should-improve-equity-and-quality-of-education.htm

Equity. (2020). Global Education Monitoring Report. UNESCO. https://www.education-progress.org/en/articles/equity/

Exclusion from Education. (n.d.) Children Change Colombia. https://www.childrenchangecolombia.org/en/what-we-do/exclusion-from-education

Grattan, S. (2019, November). Colombia protests: What prompted them and where are they headed? Colombia News. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/colombia-protests-prompted-headed-191126163204600.html

Immerstein, S. (2015, December). Education in Colombia. World Education Services. https://wenr.wes.org/2015/12/education-in-colombia

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