Education in Mexico

By Nick Clark, Editor World Education News & Reviews, and Carlos Monroy WES Group Manager for Latin America

In this article, Mexico_infoGraphicswe offer an introduction to the education system of Mexico, with insight on how best to evaluate common academic credentials from both the secondary and tertiary levels.

As a follow-up to this profile, WES offered a free interactive webinar presented by Carlos Monroy, WES’ Group Manager for the Latin America region, with opportunities to submit Mexico-related questions at the end of the session.


System Growth

One of the defining features of Mexico’s education system over recent decades has been that of expansive enrollment growth. From 1950 to 2000, total student enrollments in the formal education system primary school through graduate studies increased more than eightfold from 3.25 million students in 1950 to 28.22 million students in 2000. According to the most recent government data, that number had risen to 34.8 million students across all education levels – or just shy of 40 percent of the total population – by the academic year 2011-12.

The gross enrollment ratio at the secondary school level has increased from just 54 percent in 1991 to 89 percent in 2010; however, the net enrollment ratio is considerably lower at 71 percent, which is suggestive of a high secondary drop-out rate. At the tertiary level, the enrollment ratio has risen significantly from 15 percent in 1991 to 32.8 percent in 2011-12. Nonetheless, it lags the regional average (46 percent in 2010) by a large margin. By comparison, Argentina enrolled the equivalent of 71 percent of its college age population in 2010 (GER), Panama 60 percent, and Chile 59 percent, according to data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics.


This large-scale growth in enrollments has placed tremendous pressure on the Mexican education system. Educational authorities and planners in Mexico are faced with two quite different and partially conflicting tasks: on the one hand, to manage and increase educational opportunities for the burgeoning population; on the other hand, to improve the quality of education at all levels in the face of this increasing demand. Beginning in the 1980’s and continuing through today, Mexico has been implementing reforms such as standardized national admissions and exit examinations at different levels of education, teacher evaluation and professional development mechanisms, institutional evaluation and accreditation, and a set of rankings for university degree programs.

As with many of its neighbors, Mexico has seen a huge increase in the number of private universities opening over the last couple of decades, with public universities simply not able to keep up with demand. Many of these private institutions are considered to be of low quality, with just a fraction having recognized accreditation and a heavy concentration offering programs in disciplines such as accounting and business, which has resulted in an over-abundance of graduates in a limited number of fields, and hence rising graduate unemployment. Nonetheless, public institutions of higher education remain the largest provider, enrolling approximately two-thirds of the over the three million students in the tertiary system.

International Mobility

Just under 26,000 Mexican students were studying abroad in 2010, according to government figures published by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). The 2010 total represents a drop of 1,000 students from 2009 when close to 27,000 students were abroad, and is a little higher than the 2008 total.

Not surprisingly, the United States is far and away the most popular international destination for Mexican students with well over 50 percent of all internationally mobile students attending a U.S. institution of education. Colonial and linguistic ties make Spain the second most popular destination, although enrollments there accounted for just 11 percent of the overseas Mexican student body in 2010.


Over the last decade, enrollments of Mexican students in the United States have held reasonably steady at between 13,000 and 15,000, making Mexico a consistent top-10 source of international students for U.S. institutions of higher education. Almost 44 percent of visa-holding Mexican students in the United States were enrolled at a Texan institution of education in 2011/12. The number of undergraduate students has consistently outnumbered graduate students by a ratio of about 2:1 over the last three years.


In comparison to the number of Mexican students traveling abroad, the number of international students coming to Mexico is relatively small. According to data from the Asociación Nacional de Universidades e Instituciones de Educación Superior en México (ANUIES), published through the Institute of International’s Project Atlas, there were 7,689 international students enrolled in Mexican institutions of higher education in academic year 2010-11, up from 2,880 in 2007-08. The top five sources of visa-holding international students were France, the United States, Spain, Germany and Colombia.


The number of short-term student visitors to Mexico is considerably higher than for those enrolled in a certificate or degree granting program. For example, the number of U.S. students engaged in a study abroad activity in Mexico in 2010-11, as communicated by U.S. institutions to the IIE’s Open Doors survey, was 4,167 – or approximately four times the number enrolled in longer programs requiring a visa. Nonetheless, the 2010-11 data represents a significant decline from the year prior when there were 7,157 U.S. students in Mexico, and an even more precipitous decline from the 2005-06 high of just over 10,000 U.S. students.

The drop off in interest in Mexico as a study abroad destination for U.S. students is closely linked to the escalation of cartel-related violence in Mexico, especially in towns close to the U.S. border, such as Monterrey, where violence related to drug-trafficking has been particularly pronounced, and travel warnings from the U.S. State Department frequent. Many U.S. institutions of higher education have suspended their study abroad programs in Mexico. Other factors impacting U.S. travel to Mexico in recent years include concerns related to the 2009 outbreak of the N1H1 flu and a general plateau’ing of study abroad numbers among U.S. students during the recent global financial crisis.


Policy, Administration, Funding and Regulation

Until the early nineties, primary schools, lower secondary schools, and teacher education were under the direct control of the federal government, specifically through the offices of the Secretaría de Educación Pública/SEP (Secretariat of Public Education) or state ministries of education.

In 1992, modifications were made to the Constitution and Federal Law of Education that transferred most of the administrative duties for these schools to the respective state ministries of education. Today, just 7 percent of students aged 13 to 15 are at schools directly regulated by the Federal Government, while a further 8 percent attend private institutions. All other students are at schools administered and regulated by local educational authorities. The SEP continues to distribute free textbooks to primary and lower secondary schools throughout the nation, and the states are obliged to teach the curriculum set out by the SEP.

Upper secondary and higher education does not, in most cases, come under the direct control of the SEP. Public autonomous universities supervise their own programs, budgets, and teaching personnel, and often supervise the studies of private institutions of higher education. Public technological institutions and teacher training institutes fall under the supervision of the SEP, other federal agencies, or state ministries of education.

Upper secondary students in a given city can attend a school affiliated to a public university (autonomous in terms of curriculum design and implementation); a public school governed by the state government; or a private school governed by the federal government, recognized by the local state authorities, or affiliated with a public university. Most students (44 percent) are enrolled in schools administered by local authorities, a quarter are enrolled in schools administered directly by the SEP, 13 percent are enrolled in university-affiliated schools (totally autonomous), and 18 percent are at private institutions.

In 2011-12, private institutions of higher education accounted for just under 32 percent of all tertiary enrollments. Private institutions are supervised by either a federal or state governmental agency or a public autonomous university, and in a few cases have received permission from the federal government to operate as a “libre” (independent) institution. Current legislation requires all programs at private institutions to have official recognition status.

Structure of the Education System


The education system in Mexico can be divided into three main categories as follows:

I. Educación Basica

I.1 Preescolar (preschool): Ages 3 – 6

I.2 Educación primaria (primary education): Grades 1 – 6

I.3 Educación secundaria (lower secondary education): Grades 7-9

II. Educación Média Superior (Upper Secondary): Grades 10-12/13

II.1 Profesional Técnico

II.2 Bachillerato

III. Educación Superior

III.1 Técnico Superior

III.2 Normal Licenciatura

III.3 Licenciatura Universitaria y Tecnológica

III.4 Posgrado

Basic Education

In 1992, the Secretariat of Public Education officially increased compulsory education from completion of primary school (grade six) to completion of lower secondary school (grade nine).

The General Law of Education states that pre-school education (preescolar) is a part of basic education, and therefore it is provided free of charge. Since 2004, one year of pre-school education has been mandatory.

Primary Education

Primary education is six years in length and runs from grade one through grade six. Instruction is offered in primary schools that are alternatively known as colegios (typically private), institutos, or escuelas.

The SEP is responsible for the content of the national curriculum while the National Institute for Assessment of Education (Instituto Nacional para la Evaluación de la Educación [INEE]) monitors standards in schools.

The national curriculum, followed in both the public and private sector, is broad based and includes: Spanish, mathematics, natural sciences, history, geography, civic education, art, and physical education.

Students are awarded the Certificate of Primary Education (Certificado de Educación Primaria) on completion of primary school.

Lower Secondary Education (Educació Secundaria)

Lower secondary education is three years in length and runs from grade seven through grade nine. Students follow either an academic track (educación secundaria general) or a technical track (educación secundaria técnica). Instruction is offered at escuelas, institutos or colegios secundaria. Graduating students are awarded the Certificate of Secondary Education (Certificado de Educación Secundaria).

General admission requirements to lower-secondary school include completion of primary education and in some cases entrance examinations. Lower-secondary schools are increasingly linked to primary education, while upper-secondary schools fall under the auspices of tertiary-level institutions or local and federal educational authorities. It should be noted that the term “secundaria” always refers to lower-secondary study and never higher-secondary study.

In addition to subjects studied at the primary level, students also take classes in: biology, chemistry, physics, a foreign language, arts, and technology. In addition, national curriculums are complemented by subjects and content relevant to the local area as decided by state governments.

Upon completion of the three-year escuela secundaria, students receive a comprehensive transcript that allows them to apply to upper-secondary education.

Upper Secondary Education (Educación Média Superior)

Upper secondary education is a further three years in length, after three years of lower secondary, and runs from grade 10 to grade 12.

Admission to upper-secondary school depends on institutional policies. Standardized examinations have been developed by CENEVAL/Centro Nacional de Evaluación (National Center for Evaluation) for lower secondary school leavers and are used as an admissions criterion for some upper-secondary schools.

There are a range of different schooling options, which include: SEP-controlled colegios, state-controlled colegios, private schools, preparatory schools (escuelas preparatorias) affiliated with public autonomous universities, and private schools recognized by the state governments. Certificates are endorsed by the affiliating university or the relevant government oversight body.

Students follow one of two tracks:

I. Academic University-Preparatory (Bachillerato General) programs lead to the award of the bachillerato / preparatorio and a certifocado de etsudios (transcript) attesting to completion of the program. The transcript is issued or endorsed by the higher education institution with which the higher secondary school is affiliated or the supervising governmental agency. Graduates do not always receive a diploma or degree certificate indicating conferral of the title of bachiller (bachelor), as is usually the case in other Latin American countries. In general, after completion of academic university-preparatory programs as well as technical programs incorporating university preparatory studies, the transcript will somewhere state that the student has finished the study of the “bachillerato” or the “preparatoria.”

Academic programs are offered at escuelas preparatorias (preparatory schools) or colegios (high schools), and technical university preparatory programs at various types of technical schools and institutes. All bachillerato awards grant access to further studies.

Higher secondary university preparatory programs traditionally have prepared students by discipline streaming in such areas as pre-engineering, pre-medicine, or the humanities among others. More recently, however, the trend has been towards a more general academic curriculum during the first two years, followed by specialization in the third year. A foreign language, typically English, is compulsory.

Graduates (bachilleres) from upper secondary programs attached to universities and other higher education institutions have traditionally been granted automatic admission (pase automático) to their institution’s programs, whereas students applying from elsewhere must sit admissions examinations.



II. Professional Technical Education (educación profesional técnica) leads to the title título de técnico profesional (title of professional technician).This sector of upper-secondary study was formerly classified as terminal vocational study, but in 1997 the SEP designated it as “preparatory.” Holders of the título de técnico profesional are now officially eligible for admission to licenciado degree programs. Students take general education classes (mathematics, English, sciences, etc) in addition to professional classes in their field of specialization. There is also a period of practical training and community service embedded in the programs.




Higher Education

Like that of many of its neighbors, Mexico’s system of higher education has seen dramatic growth over the last 30 years. In the period 1971 to 2000, total enrollment increased more than six-fold from 290,000 to 1,962,000, rising to just shy of 3.5 million in the current academic year. This growth has come in response to demand for access to tertiary studies, as the size of the middle class has increased with the country’s rapid economic development.

Much of the growth has come in the private sector, which now enrolls just over one million students, up dramatically from 400,000 in 2006. Demand for private university places is particularly strong among students from poorer backgrounds, as fees tend to be quite low.

Admission to Higher Education

Completion of an academic or technical upper-secondary program (bachillerato or profesional técnico) is ordinarily required for admission to tertiary level institutions. Certain university departments require that incoming students complete higher-secondary programs in a track relevant to their prospective major field of study.

Selection procedures to different institutions vary greatly depending on demand. Typically, entrance examinations and bachillerato grade point averages are used to filter students.

Mexico, until recently, had no national standardized examination to indicate the academic performance of upper secondary graduates. Since 1994, higher secondary exit examinations designed by CENEVAL have been used increasingly for the admissions process to higher education. Some universities use a Spanish version of secondary school examinations designed by the College Board in the United States as an admissions examination.

Types of Institutions

According to government data, there were more than 2,500 institutions of higher education in Mexico in 2012. Institution types include the following:

  • Subsistema de Universidades Públicas (Public University Subsystem): includes 61 federal and state universities, many of which have been awarded the status of “autonomous.” These institutions have a large degree of autonomy over management, budgeting, and curricular content. They may also incorporate, and therefore bestow official validity on programs offered at private institutions. Universities with this status have the word Autónoma in their name. The largest such university, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico [UNAM] enrolls over 200,000 students.Degree titles and transcripts from state universities are issued, or endorsed by state authorities. Non-autonomous federal institutions under the purview of the SEP or other ministries must follow study requirements determined by the state. Titles and transcripts are issued, or endorsed by the controlling governmental body.
  • Subsistema de Educación Tecnológica (Technological Education Subsystem): Research-based science and technology institutions comprising 39 polytechnic universities and 218 technological institutes offering university degrees in engineering and applied sciences. These institutions tend to be very specialized, offering programs in just a few fields of study.
  • Subsistema de Universidades Tecnológicas (Technological University Subsystem): 61 institutions administered by state authorities but authorized by guidelines established by the SEP that offer two-year técnico degree programs incorporating on-the-job training in applied disciplines.
  • Subsistema de Educación Normal (Teacher Training Subsystem): offering licenciado degree programs for all types and levels of teacher training.
  • Subsistema de Otras Instituciones Públicas (Other Public Institutions Subsystem): 116 “other” specialized institutions of higher education including the Instituto de Antropología e Historia, schools belonging to the umbrella institution of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes and institutions of the armed forces.
  • Subsistema de Instituciones Particulares (Private Institution Subsystem): Nearly 2,000 private higher education institutions whose programs of study are supervised by either federal or state ministries, or by public autonomous universities. Private institutions of higher education offer all types of degrees in all disciplines. Programs with official validity at private institutions of higher education are incorporated under a public autonomous university or are recognized by the SEP (or other ministry). Degrees from incorporated programs are issued by the incorporating autonomous university; however, transcripts may be issued by the private institution.

Institutions of higher education may also be categorized according to their official institutional and program recognition. According to this schema, there are six types of institutions: public autonomous universities, public state institutions, institutions dependent on the federal government, private independent (libre) institutions, private institutions with official validity, and institutions without official validity.

Recognition, Validation and Accreditation

In Mexico, the basic stamp of official approval for higher education studies is known as validez oficial de estudios (Official Validity of Studies). This classification serves as the basic indicator of governmental and professional approval of higher education programs, and in this sense represents the closest equivalent to regional accreditation in the United States. All programs offered at the three different types of public institution outlined above inherently enjoy the status of official validity as a matter of legal definition. A few prestigious private institutions have been proclaimed “libre” (independent) by presidential decree. Current legislation requires private higher education institutions to be officially recognized by the state educational authorities and their programs to be approved either by the local or national educational authorities (RVOE).

The federal or state ministries of education or other agencies may bestow official validity upon all or a portion of a private institution’s programs through “reconocimiento” (recognition). Private academic institutions must submit to the federal SEP or a state ministry of education an application detailing study plans and teaching personnel in order to have their degree programs considered for official approval. Programs that are granted approval receive the legal classification reconocimiento de validez oficial de estudios/RVOE (recognition of official validity of studies). Private institutions with recognized programs issue their own degree certificates and academic transcripts, although authorities of the recognizing governmental agency often also sign these.

El Consejo para la Acreditación de la Educación Superior, A.C. — COPAES (Higher Education Accreditation Council) is a non-profit civic organization that since 2000 has been charged by the SEP to recognize official accrediting bodies in different fields of study that in turn accredit undergraduate degree programs (licenciado, técnico superior, profesional asociado), designating them to be of “good quality” (buena calidad) if successful.

The accrediting bodies must renew their recognition status with COPAES every five years, and institutions must also submit accredited degree programs to a re-evaluation every five years. Accredited programs will enjoy higher academic prestige both nationally and internationally and will be eligible for additional governmental financial support and grants. It should be noted that accreditation of university degree programs through COPAES is voluntary.

As of February 2013, COPAES has recognized 28 accrediting bodies. A total of 2,506 programs have been accredited, with 648 programs among private institutions.

The National Council for Science and Technology (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología–CONACYT) evaluates graduate programs at public and private higher education institutions for designation as ‘graduate programs of excellence’ (programas de posgrado de excelencia). It evaluates especialista, maestría and doctorado programs, and those that meet the minimum standard are listed on the National Registry of Graduate Studies (Padrón Nacional de Posgrados de Calidad or PNPC). Programs are classified as either High Level (Alto Nivel) or Competent on an International Level (Competencia Internacional).

In the private sector, where very few institutions submit their programs to quality assurance audits, the Secretariat of Education is currently planning new measures aimed at improving standards in the private tertiary sector, according to a recent article in University World News, which reports:

“The incoming system would see government-approved inspectors assessing private providers’ services and defining their strengths and potential. If problems are highlighted, institutions will be required to take action to improve courses, signing a commitment to the education authorities.”

Higher Education Programs and Qualifications


Associate Degree (Técnico Superior Universitario / Profesional Asociado)

The Técnico Superior Universitario (University Higher Technician) or Profesional Asociado (Professional Associate) programs are generally two years in length and undertaken in specialized fields. The degrees are either a terminal award or offer advanced placement into liceciatura or titulo professional programs.

These programs are offered at universidads tecnológicas and consist of six 15-week semesters with 30 percent of the curriculum being theoretical instruction and 70 percent practical instruction and projects. Until the founding of these institutions, almost all technological studies were offered either at the upper-secondary level or in four- or five-year university degree programs. This relatively new system is still quite small in terms of enrollment, comprising about 3.5 percent of the total higher education student body in 2009.

Other short, applied programs include a certifcado or diploma in a specialized field. Carreras cortas run from one to three semesters, while salida lateral programs last up to four years and sometimes account for the first one or two years of a licenciatura or titulo profesional program.

Licenciado (Licentiate) and Titulo Profesional (Professional Title)

Both the liceciatura and titulo professional (used interchangeably) are first-degree programs lasting between four and six years. Programs usually include both coursework and the submission of a thesis. They tend to be specialized programs focused on professional training. Examples of five-year programs are: accounting, architecture, dentistry, economics, engineering, law, and veterinary science. Medicine is a six-year program.

Currently, the escuelas normales superiores offer licentiate degree programs for preschool, primary school, secondary school, special education, and physical education teachers.

The Carta de Pasante

Students who have completed all their coursework for a particular program, but have not completed a thesis or other graduation requirements such as the public service component, may receive a certificate called the carta de pasante (leaving certificate) and attain the status of an egresado pasante. Students who obtain this status do not have a degree, and they do not have the professional privileges in their field of study accorded to licenciado degree holders. Although students who earn the classification of egresado pasante cannot be licensed in their respective profession or practice it as a fully recognized profession, they do often find employment in their field of study, often in an auxiliary capacity for the more regulated professions. For example, a student who has obtained the carta de pasante,
but not the licenciado degree, in a law program cannot practice as a licensed lawyer, but might be able to work as a paralegal. In other industries that are less regulated than law, for example, business administration or engineering, an egresado pasante might well find a very desirable position without the benefit of the final licenciado degree.


Many institutions of higher education issue students a “diploma” following completion of coursework in a program, but before completion of the graduation requirements, and thus before the licenciado degree has been officially awarded. Students may also receive a “diploma para pertenecer a la generación de XXXX” (“diploma for belonging to the class of XXXX”). If the diploma does not state that the student has completed all required coursework, and if the transcript does not clearly demonstrate degree completion, further investigation is required to verify that the student has actually completed all coursework in the certificate program.


Especialista (Specialist)

Usually one year in length (but up to four in medicine), cursos de especialización programs build on the licentiate degree, and are typically a more applied graduate curriculum than a full-fledged Maestría (master’s degree) program; some may constitute the first year of a Maestría. Completion of coursework is required; a thesis is generally not.

Maestría (Master’s degree)

Two to four years in length, the maestría requires the completion of coursework and typically a thesis. The licentiate degree is usually required for admission.

Doctorado (Doctorate)

At least two years of study, including completion of coursework, original research and a dissertation.

Credit System

Not all institutions of higher education employ a system of course credits to measure in a quantitative manner the amount of study completed in a program, and not all institutions employing credits use the same definition.

The National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions/ANUIES (Asociación de Universidades e Instituciones de Educación Superior) has recommended the following schema for credit allocation:  two credits for each hour of theoretical instruction and one credit for each hour of practical instruction. The Universidad Nacional Autónoma/UNAM uses the ANUIES definition. This credit system may also be used in upper secondary programs. Licenciado degree students ordinarily accumulate a minimum of 300 credits during a four-year program.

Assessment and Grading

A range of grading scales are used in Mexico, the following table provides the WES suggested equivalency for the three most common grading scales.


*On many 10/100-point scales, 7/70 is the lowest passing score. A failing grade of  “no acreditado” can in some instances mean “examination not sat.” The same scales are used for graduate studies, but often one bracket higher (“Good”) is needed for passing.

WES Document Requirements

  • Official Spanish language academic transcript (Certificado de Estudios / Calificaciones) issued and sent to WES by the awarding institution.
  • Photocopy of Spanish language degree certificate (Título Profesional)
  • English translation of Spanish language documents


Sample Documents

This file of Sample Documents (pdf) shows a set of annotated credentials from the Mexican education system, beginning with public high school documents, and followed by public and private undergraduate credentials, and master’s credentials. For a more in-depth discussion of the documents seen here, view WES’ archived interactive webinar presented by Carlos Monroy.

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