Education in Chile

An infographic with fast facts about Chile's educational system and international student mobility landscape. [1]Recent Background

Compared to its regional neighbors, Chile has enjoyed a long period of economic growth and prosperity, which today makes it the most affluent country in Latin America by most economic measurements, even if that wealth is spread unevenly throughout society. With regards to education, this growing national prosperity has – in part – led to rapidly increasing enrollments at the tertiary level and an opening of access to all segments of society. However, this enrollment growth has almost exclusively been within the private sector and led primarily by market forces, with 80 percent of students today enrolled at a private institution of higher education. This has led to concerns over quality, affordability, and to increasingly vocal and violent calls for reform.

Beginning in 2011, student-led protests have ensured that education policy is today front and center on the political agenda. Promises of education reform have been central to the current presidential campaign of Chile’s likely next president Michelle Bachelet. Her impending return to power (formerly president from 2006 to 2010, with run-off elections set for December 15) follows four years of right wing, laissez-faire leadership that proved incredibly unpopular with student leaders.

Students are demanding an end to tuition fees, increased public funding, improvement of quality standards, and the elimination of profiteering within higher education. The student movement has become so powerful that former student leaders have been able to parlay their political capital by running for national office, none more popular than recently elected Communist Party Deputy Camila Vallejo who has lent leftist credibility to the Bachelet campaign (and perhaps herself) by aligning with Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoria (New Majority) coalition.

In 2012, 56 percent of the nation’s 620,000 university students were enrolled in the private sector, four times as many as were enrolled in any type of university program in 1994. Overall, 80 percent of students at the tertiary level are enrolled in the private sector, according to government data published by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, three decades after tuition fees were legally allowed to be levied.

In 2010, the country’s gross enrollment ratio at the tertiary level was a regionally high 59 percent, with over 50 percent of young Chileans (19-24) attending an institution of higher learning. However, the graduation ratio was a much lower 19 percent, indicative of a system that enrolls many but fails to get them through the system to graduation.

As it currently stands, Chilean universities are among the most expensive in the world when measured against per capita income, which is no doubt a factor in the nation’s high dropout rate. It is estimated that Chilean families pay more than 75 percent of the costs associated with higher education, compared to 40 percent in the United States and just 5 percent on average in Scandinavian countries.

The private sector has also been growing enrollments at the primary and secondary level, with over 55 percent of Chilean students attending private schools, most subsidized by the government through a national voucher system, and many operated by the Catholic Church. The capital Santiago has 272 Catholic schools, including some of the most expensive in the country.

Contrary to the tertiary sector, private secondary schools consistently teach to higher standard than their public counterparts, leading to a situation – not uncommon in Latin America – whereby students from rich families earn state-subsidized university places by paying for top quality private secondary schooling, while publicly educated secondary students head in much higher numbers to lesser quality private institutions of higher education.

According to a recent study by the OECD and the World Bank, public spending on higher education in Chile is the lowest as a proportion of GDP among OECD countries. On average Chilean public universities receive over 80 percent of their operating budgets from sources other than government subsidies. This comes mainly in the form of tuition payments, which means that the less affluent need to take out large loans to cover their costs. The system is one of the most privatized in the world, both in terms of funding and total enrollments.

Whether or not a (likely) new left-leaning Bachelet government can respond to calls for reform from rectors and student leaders, after two decades of neoliberal influence on the nation’s institutions of higher education, remains to be seen. During the political campaign, Bachelet has promised universal access to higher education, the abolition of tuition fees, as well as the elimination of for-profit universities. This would represent a significant about face from her previous tenure as president when she vigorously opposed student demands for free public universities.

International Student Mobility

According to the data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, the number of Chileans traveling overseas for higher education has been on the increase over the last three years. Between 2008 and 2010, overseas enrollments grew 30 percent from 6,600 to 8,800.

A table showing Chilean inbound and outbound academic mobility between 2008 and 2010.

In the United States the number of Chilean students has also been steadily increasing, according to data from the Institute of International Education, which show growth of over 50 percent since 2006 to 2,349 total students in 2012/13. The United States continues to be the preferred destination for Chilean students abroad.

Much of the recent impetus for the growth in Chileans looking to study abroad has come from a government program, introduced in 2008, to provide 30,000 mainly graduate-level scholarships by 2018 through a program known as Becas Chile [2]. The US$6 billion initiative replaced the smaller President of the Republic scholarships. It requires scholarship recipients to sign an agreement stating that they will come home after completing their studies and work “for the good of the country.”

A table showing the number of Chilean students in the U.S. in select years between 1974/75 and 2012/13.

With regards to Chile as an education destination, the top five sources of international students enrolled in full degree programs in 2010 were: Peru (2,097), Colombia (757), Ecuador (487), Argentina (487), Bolivia (440), according to figures from the Ministry of Education’s Higher Education Division. While most U.S. students in Chile are there on short-term programs, a total of just over 3,000 engaged in some kind of educational activity there in the 2010/11 academic year, according to IIE data.

System of Education


In May 2003, reform to the Chilean Constitution established and guaranteed 12 years of free, mandatory education assuring access to high school for all students under the age of 21. The four-year secondary level follows eight years of primary education.


General secondary education lasts four years and is designed to prepare students for tertiary education. It is offered by science and humanities schools (liceos humanista-científicos).

In the first two years of secondary education, the curriculum is fairly broad-based and prescribed with no streams, although there are elective choices. Students must undertake a minimum of 33 hours of instruction per week. They are required to take: Spanish, history & geography, a foreign language, philosophy/psychology, mathematics, natural science (biology, physics or chemistry), art, and physical education.

In the final two years, students can choose up to 15 hours of elective components in humanities, sciences or technical subjects. Specific curriculum details in Spanish are available from the Consejo Nacional de Educación website [3].

Graduating students are awarded the Licencia de Educación Media Humanístico-Científica (Certificate of Secondary Education).

Students wishing to attend a government-funded university, and some private universities, must sit for the Prueba de Selección Universitaria (PSU) examination. However, the secondary graduation certificate is adequate for entry into many private universities.

Chilean students scored the highest of all the Latin American countries on the 2009 PISA test, although below the OECD average and below the United States.

Technical & Vocational

In the technical sector, students follow a four-year program which leads to the Licencia de Educación Media Técnico-Profesional (Certificate of Technical-Vocational Secondary Education).

Technical and vocational schools teach under five broad categories: agricultural, commercial, industrial, maritime, and technical. There is a core curriculum consisting of: Spanish, mathematics, history and geography. This is complemented by courses in the student’s area of specialization, in addition to elective subjects and work experience (480 hours).

After earning the Licencia, students can complete an optional fifth year of training in their technical field to earn the professional qualification of Título de Técnico Medio (Title of Secondary-Level Technician).

Holders of the Licencia de Educación Media Técnico-Profesional can apply for admission to all types of tertiary institutions, including universities.

University Admission

All universities require that students hold the Licencia de Educación Media, awarded after successful completion of the secondary cycle.

Most universities also require that students sit for the Prueba de Selección Universitaria (PSU).The test was originally designed and required by Chile’s so-called ‘traditional universities,’ all of which are members of the Consejo de Rectores de las Universidades Chilenas [4] (CRUCH). The PSU is centrally administered by the Universidad de Chile (the country’s oldest university). It tests competencies and knowledge based on the nationally mandated secondary school curriculum. Subject areas include:

All test-takers receive a combined score based on their PSU results and their performance during secondary school. A minimum of 450 out of 850 is required to qualify for admission to one of the traditional universities.

Some, but not all, private universities use the PSU to select students, especially those with high demand and an eye on improving their academic reputation. Not all private universities that use the PSU for admissions require the minimum score required for entry to traditional universities. Those institutions that do not use the PSU rely mostly on secondary school results and personal interviews.

Admission to non-university higher education is based on completion of 12 years of schooling and the Licencia de Educación Media.

Higher Education

A table showing the classification of higher education institutions in Chile. [5]

There are three main types of institution in the Chilean higher education sector: universities, professional institutes (instituto professional – IP) and technical training centers (centro de formación técnica – CFT). There are currently 69 CFTs, 45 IPs, and 60 universities operating under license in Chile. Twenty-five universities receive direct government funding, while all professional institutes and technical training centers are private.

In 2012, roughly 60 percent of tertiary students were enrolled in universities versus 71 percent in 2003. A total of 619,681 students were enrolled in universities, with 282,436 in IPs and 131,769 in CFTs.


The eight ‘traditional’ universities established before legislative reforms in 1981 are generally considered the most prestigious in Chile. They receive direct government funding. Also receiving direct government funding are the 17 ‘derived universities,’ established after 1981. The term ‘derived’ refers to the process whereby certain academic faculties (e.g. education) and regional units of the existing eight universities were converted into independent institutions. There are currently a total of 25 traditional universities in Chile, consisting of the original eight traditional universities and the 17 derived universities.

Newer private universities do not receive any direct government funding and are generally quite small, both in enrollment and program offerings, compared to traditional universities.

Only universities have the right to award the degrees of Licenciado (undergraduate) and the graduate degrees of Magister, Postítulo and Doctor. Título Profesionales in certain restricted fields of study may also only by offered by universities. Universities may also offer the degrees offered at Intitutos Profesionales (non-university Títulos Profesionales) and at Centros de Formación Técnica (Técnico Superior).

Professional Institutes

Professional institutes were first established in 1981. They are all private and many have campuses across different cities and regions, but they tend to be small and specialized.

Degree offerings are limited to programs leading to Títulos Profesionales (professional titles), which are not restricted to universities. There are 18 types of “protected” Títulos Profesionales that can only be awarded by universities (see below). Títulos Profesionales in other fields of study may be awarded by Institutos Profesionales. These institutions can also award the degree Técnico Superior (Higher Technician), offered at the CFTs.

Technical Training Centers

Centros de Formación Técnico are small institutions that do not receive direct funding from the government. They offer two- to three-year Técnico Superior (Higher Technician) programs, mainly in business administration and technology fields.

Accreditation and Recognition

All higher education institutions must be approved by the Ministry of Education [6] to operate. This is done through the Consejo Nacional de Educación [7], an arm of the Ministry. The Consejo must certify the HEI’s mission, academic programs, resources and finances. It is then responsible for the supervision and monitoring of the HEI’s institutional development and progress.

All new private universities and professional institutes must participate in the quality assurance process administered by the Council. The Council monitors the institution and its programs for a period of six years and if the institution’s performance is satisfactory it is granted autonomy (institución autónoma). If performance is unsatisfactory, the institution may be given a five-year probationary period or be forced to close.

The Consejo does not have responsibility for the administration of vocational education, which continues to be monitored by the Ministry of Education. All Centros de Formación Técnica are private and follow a similar process to the one described above for private universities under the Consejo.

Developed in 1997 by the government, the Program of Improvement of the Quality and Fairness Of Higher Education (MECESUP) has overseen the creation of two national accreditation commissions to establish a system of institutional and program accreditation: The Comisión Nacional de Acreditación (CNA [8]) at the undergraduate level and the Comisión Nacional de Acreditación de la Calidad de Programas de Postgrado (CONAP) at the graduate level. These two commissions have existed under the single umbrella of the CNA since 2006.

Programmatic and institutional accreditation is voluntary (except in medicine and teacher training) and designed to enhance the official status of Reconocimiento Oficial (Official Recognition). Institutional accreditation was started in 2003 to complement program accreditation. Institutions must complete the six-year supervisory period before they can begin the accreditation process. As in the United States, students attending accredited institutions are eligible for government-backed grants and loans

Of the 61 CFTs currently operating in Chile, 10 are licensed, 15 are ‘under supervision,’ and 36 are considered autonomous; 16 have institutional accreditation. Of 44 IPs, 33 are autonomous, 3 under supervision, and 8 licensed; 20 are accredited. Of the 60 universities in the country, all but two are autonomous, and 49 have accreditation including all 25 traditional universities.

A list of all recognized institutions of higher education with their accreditation status is available through the Ministry of Education website.

Following bribery accusations within the accreditation process in late 2012, there is currently a great deal of political pressure calling for the overhaul of the accreditation system.

Undergraduate Degree Programs

Técnico (Technician)

In the technical and vocational sector, two- to three-year programs at the undergraduate level lead to the award of TítuloTécnico de Nivel Superior or Técnico Superior (Higher Technician). These are mainly offered at CFTs, but also at some IPs. Two- to three-and-a-half-year university programs lead to the award of Técnico Universitario (University-level Technician). It should also be noted that the Técnico Medio is awarded at the secondary level (Secondary-Level Technician).

Entry to all programs is based on the Licencia de Educación Media and in some cases an entry examination.

Títulos Profesionales (Professional Titles)

Título Profesional degrees are awarded in a broad array of undergraduate fields at both IP’s and universities. The degree certificate may reference the title awarded as in, Título Profesional de Ingeniero de Ejecución en Informática (professional title of production engineer in computer science). Only universities can award professional titles in 18 ‘protected’ areas of study. In these study programs students must also earn a Licenciado degree. Typically the Título Profesional is earned after the Licenciado following additional program requirements such as a thesis, professional training or a professional examination. In some cases, the Título Profesional and the Licenciado are awarded concurrently. The 18 protected fields include:

  1. Law: Abogado (Licenciado en Ciencias Jurídicas)
  2. Architecture: Arquitecto (Licenciado en Arquitectura)
  3. Biochemistry: Bioquímico (Licenciado en Bioquímica)
  4. Dentistry: Cirujano Dentista (Licenciado en Odontología)
  5. Agronomy: Ingeniero Agrónomo (Licenciado en Agronomía)
  6. Engineering: Ingeniero Civil (Licenciado en Ciencias de la Ingeniería)
  7. Economic Sciences: Ingeniero Comercial (Licenciado en Ciencias Económicas o Licenciado en Ciencias en la Administración de Empresas)
  8. Forestry: Ingeniero Forestal (Licenciado en Ingeniería Forestal)
  9. Medicine: Médico Cirujano (Licenciado en Medicina)
  10. Veterinary Science: Médico Veterinario (Licenciado en Medicina Veterinaria)
  11. Psychology: Psicólogo (Licenciado en Psicología)
  12. Pharmacy: Químico Farmacéutico (Licenciado en Farmacia)
  13. Education: Profesor de Educación Básica (Licenciado en Educación)
  14. Education: Profesor de Educación Media en las asignaturas científico-humanísticas (Licenciado en Educación)
  15. Education: Profesor de Educación Diferencial (Licenciado en Educación), Educador de Párvulos (Licenciado en Educación)
  16. Journalism: Periodista (Licenciado en Comunicación Social)
  17. Social Work: Trabajador Social o Asistente Social (Licenciado en Trabajo Social o Servicio Social)

Admission is based on the Licencia de Educación Media and in some cases an entry examination.

In occupationally oriented fields that do not require the Licenciado degree, most commonly Ingeniero de Ejecución (production engineer), programs are usually four or five years in length. They are offered at professional institutes and universities, and tend to have a more practical focus. In addition to engineering fields, programs are commonly offered in agriculture; business, finance and marketing; and information technology.

Entry is based mainly on the Licencia de Educación Media. In addition to academic requirements, students must often complete a project or thesis and undertake a period of practical training.


Universities may also offer two-year intermediate programs leading to the Bachiller (Bachelor) qualification. These foundation programs are typically two years in duration and designed to prepare students for further university study at the Licenciado or professional title level.


The four- to five-year Licenciado is the main academic degree at the undergraduate level.

Admission is based on Licencia de Educación Media and the centralized Prueba de Seleccion Universitaria admissions examination.

In some professional fields such as medicine, dentistry and engineering, the Licenciado constitutes the academic component of study, and can be followed by one to two years of further study for the professional title Titulo Profesional, which is required to practice the profession. These degrees are controlled by law, and both the Licenciado and Título Profesional will be awarded.

Programs normally include compulsory units related to the major and a number of elective courses in the specialization of choice, typically taken in the final two years of the program.

Graduate Degree Programs

Magister degrees require a Licenciado for admission and are offered at universities only, typically traditional universities but also some private universities, in a wide range of fields. Length of study is between one and three years depending on the program and field of study. Some programs require completion of a thesis.

Postitulo programs, which vary in length from one semester to two years, are aimed at professionals looking to upgrade skills. These degrees are considered graduate level, but a rung lower than Magister degrees. Admission is based on the Licenciado and programs are offered at universities only.

Doctorado degrees are awarded by universities in a wide range of disciplines. They represent the highest academic award and typically require three to four years of study. Admission is based on the Licenciado. Programs include completion of coursework and the submission of a dissertation based on original research. Holders of the Magister degree may be exempted from some of the coursework portion of the program.

Grading Scale

A table showing the Chilean higher education grading scale and suggested WES U.S. equivalency. Note that all higher education institutions in Chile use a seven-point grading scale.

WES Document Requirements

A table showing WES documentation requirements for Chilean secondary education credentials.

A table showing WES documentation requirements for Chilean higher education credentials.

Sample Documents

This file of Sample Documents (pdf) [9] shows a set of annotated credentials from the Chilean education system, beginning with secondary documents, and followed by undergraduate credentials from the university sector.