Education in Colombia

In this article we will provide an overview of the Colombian education system, highlighting its history development, structure and grading scales. We also take a look at current and future trends in international academic mobility from the country. WES recently presented a webinar on the education system in Colombia as well; you can access the archive here.

The education sector in Colombia has grown exponentially since the 1960s. Between 1966 and 1986 government funding to the sector increased five-fold. As a result, primary school enrollment more than doubled, secondary school enrollment grew six-fold and university enrollment increased fifteen times.

Despite this progress, equal access to education and education quality differed significantly across regions and social classes, particularly beyond the primary level. New initiatives have been launched in the past two decades to address these issues. In 2002, the government launched a comprehensive education improvement program called Revolución Educativa. This reform called for a complete transformation of the education system with an emphasis on improving quality and increasing coverage. Additional efforts include the 2010 mandate by the Colombian Constitutional Court that all public primary schools should be free of charge. In 2012 the mandate was extended to public secondary schools.  In 2015, Colombia’s education budget increased by 5.75%, reflecting President Juan Manuel Santos’ goal to make Colombia Latin America’s most educated country by 2025. Recent data show an overall increase in educational access and attainment, especially in low-income populations, indicating that students from all economic backgrounds are benefitting from increased education opportunities.

With its 1,138,910 sq km, Colombia is the fifth largest country in Latin America – almost twice the size of Texas. It shares borders with Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Panama, and has a population of over 46 million. The country’s official language is Spanish, and 90% of the population is Roman Catholic. Administratively, it is divided into 32 states (departamentos) plus the capital district of Bogota.

Student Mobility

According to UNESCO data, there were approximately 23,600 Colombian students studying abroad in 2012. During the school year 2014-2015 there were 7,169 Colombian students studying at U.S. institutions of higher education – an increase of 1.2% from the previous academic year. Other favored study destinations for Colombian students are Spain, France and Canada. The distribution of undergraduate (40.9%) and graduate students (39.2%) is relatively evenly divided, and the top three most popular fields of study for Colombian students are Business Management (20.2%), Engineering (14.4%), and Social Sciences (10.8%).

The mobility of Colombian students to the U.S. more than doubled from 1997/98 to 2001/02 reaching a record high of 8,068. A ten-year decline followed with the exception of the academic year 2008/09 when mobility again increased. Colombian mobility seems to be recovering with student numbers having increased in the past three years. Colombia is now the twenty-fourth leading place of origin for students coming to the U.S., and it is the fourth largest sending market in Latin America after Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela.

Only 2% of Colombian tertiary students are enrolled abroad, but U.S. universities can expect a continued growth in Colombian student mobility to the U.S. as the Colombian government has made academic mobility central to its overall education plan. An example of this is the government’s commitment to the 100,000 Strong in the Americas project. This initiative by President Obama aims to increase the number of U.S. students studying in the Western Hemisphere, and the number of Western Hemisphere students studying in the United States to 100,000 by 2020. With support from Colombia’s National Training Service (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje – SENA), the program will provide grants to stimulate institutional partnerships and increase academic mobility between U.S. and Colombia. Colombia is the first Latin American country to commit to this initiative. Colombia is also eager to expand its internationalization efforts through exchange programs. The country can be expected to be a central player in the international education landscape in the future.

Education System

Colombia has an eleven-year system of elementary and secondary education, consisting of five years of elementary education, four years of lower secondary education and two years of upper secondary education. There are three levels of university studies: profesional (professional/undergraduate), maestría/magister (master’s degree), and doctor (doctoral/PhD). There are also non-university higher education degrees, técnico (technician) and tecnólogo (technologist), offered at technical institutions as well as university level institutions.

The Ministry of Education (The Ministerio de Educación Nacional) regulates all levels of education. The 32 states (departamentos) in Colombia are charged with administering education in accordance with the ministry’s regulations and guidelines. The state authority of education is the Secretariat of Education (Secretaría de Educación). The Ministry of Education outlines the learning objectives and subject areas for each grade level, but schools are allowed to organize their own specific study plans in accordance with community and regional needs.

The basic education cycle is free and compulsory for all Colombian children between the ages of five and 15. On the university level, fees are decided according to the socioeconomic background of each student. Public universities fees usually amount to around US$970 per semester and private universities typically charge between $970-5,330 per semester.

Language of instruction is Spanish, but bilingualism is starting to take on a new role in Colombia. In 2004, the Ministry of Education launched the National Bilingual Program, adding English as a foreign language to the overall education agenda. Through increased English language skills, Colombia aims to increase academic and labor mobility of its people and it is also believed to be key to improving the country’s global competitiveness. English is now part of the state curriculum and bilingualism is a criteria for accreditation of higher education programs.

The National Ministry of Education offers two options for the school calendar: “A” and “B.” Most departments use calendar A, which consists of two semesters that runs from February until November. Calendar B is also divided into two semesters but runs from September to June. Both calendars follow a 198-day school year.

Primary Education

Primary education (Educación Primaria) in Colombia is five years in length, and runs from grade one through five, with most children starting at age 6.

The primary education curriculum is set by The Ministry of Education, and comprises nine educational areas:

  • Natural sciences and environmental education
  • Social sciences, history, geography, political constitution and democracy
  • Art education
  • Ethics and human values
  • Physical education, recreation and sport
  • Religious education
  • Humanities, Spanish and foreign languages
  • Mathematics
  • Technology and information technology

Students receive the certificate Certificado de Educación Primaria upon completion.

Secondary Education

Secondary education lasts 6 years and is divided into two cycles; lower secondary school (Educación Secundaria Básica) and upper secondary school (Educación Media).

Lower Secondary Education

Lower secondary school (Educación Básica Secundaria), is 4 years in length and runs from grade six through nine. Most students start at age 11.

All students receive the same fundamental academic instruction in lower secondary school, and the curriculum is similar to that in primary school, with additional technical subjects and a foreign language.

Completion of this cycle leads to a Certificate of Basic Baccalaureate Studies (Certificado de Estudios de Bachillerato Básico or Certificado de Conclusión del Ciclo Básico).

Upper Secondary Education

Upper Secondary Education (Educación Media) lasts two years, runs from grades 10 through 11, and is intended for students between the ages of 15-16.

At this level, students choose between different specialized programs or “tracks.” There are two different tracks: Academic (Bachillerato Académico) and technical (Bachillerato en Tecnología o Aplicado). The academic track provides students with a general education in arts, sciences and humanities. The technical track is more vocational in nature and aims to prepare students to enter the work force. The technical track is further divided into:

  • Technical Track (Bachiller en Tecnología o Aplicado)
  • Industrial track (Bachillerato Industrial)
  • Business track (Bachillerato Comercial)
  • Pedagogical Track (Bachillerato Pedagógico)
  • Agricultural Track (Bachillerato Agropecuario)
  • Social Promotion Track (Bachillerato de Promoción Social)

Upon completion of secondary school, students are awarded the title of Baccalaureate (Título de Bachiller), which gives access to higher education.  This credential is equivalent to a U.S. high school diploma.

Depending on the track followed, the name of the credential will vary:

To qualify for higher education studies, all students, regardless of chosen track, need to pass a state exam (Examen de Estado), an achievement and competency test that is administered by the Instituto Colombiano para la Evaluación de la Educación (ICFES). The exam is administered twice a year. Similar to the U.S., the results required for admission to higher education vary from institution to institution.

Higher Education

Higher education is available from both private and public institutions. Higher education in Colombia is slightly more privatized than U.S. higher education:

Higher education (educación superior) in Colombia follows a three-tier degree structure – undergraduate, graduate and doctoral level.

There are three types of undergraduate (pregrado) degrees:

There are also three types of graduate (posgrado) degrees:

There are four types of higher education institutions in Colombia:

Most of Colombia’s tertiary student population is enrolled in undergraduate programs and there are more students who earn especialista degrees than master’s degrees:


Students must receive a bachiller credential and pass the national entrance examination (Examen del Estado) in order to be granted admission to an institution of higher education. Similar to the U.S., there is no national body coordinating the higher education admissions process. Each institution has its own criteria and processes; some have their own tests, interview candidates; many have minimum test requirements, or require students to have studied specific subjects. Often, institutions will use a combination of these assessment methods.


All higher education institutions and programs must be registered with the Ministry of Education. Institutions that are registered and have been given permission to offer study programs and award degrees receive the official recognition status ‘Registro Calificado’, which means they have been quality controlled to ensure that they meet specified minimum quality requirements. A list of registered institutions can be found here.

Accreditation in Colombia is voluntary and only enhances the recognition status. Accreditation is seen as an opportunity for higher education institutions to pursue the highest level of quality, and serves as an indication of the quality of the institution. A list of accredited institutions can be found here. Currently, 34 out of a total of 384 registered higher education institutions are accredited (less than 10%).

WES considers the status of Registro Calificado to be comparable to regional accreditation, since higher education institutions with this status have undergone inspections and quality assurance procedures and have earned the basic benchmark of academic legitimacy.

Grading Scales

Upper Secondary Education – Grading Scale (before 2009):

Upper Secondary Education – Grading Scale (from 2009):

Higher Education Grading Scale – All higher education institutions use a nationally mandated 5 point grading scale:

WES Document Requirements

  • Clear and legible photocopies of all graduation certificates or diplomas
    • g. Título de Técnico Superior/ Tecnólogo, Profesional/ Licenciado, Maestro/ Magister, Doctor.
    • Submitted by Applicant
  • Academic transcripts that list all subjects taken and grades earned for each year of study
    • Certificado de estudios /calificaciones
    • Sent directly to WES by the institutions attended
  • Translations of all foreign language academic documents
    • Sent by Applicant

bigSample Documents: Colombia

This file of Sample Documents (pdf) shows the following set of annotated credentials from the Colombian education system:

  1. High school diploma
  2. High school degree certificate
  3. High school transcript
  4. Translation
  5. Bachelor’s diploma
  6. Bachelor’s degree certificate
  7. Transcript request form
  8. Translation
Tagged with:
Posted in Americas, Americas, Education System Profiles