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Colombian Higher Education Reform: Increasing Access, Eyeing U.S. Solutions

3 years ago
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If you live in Bogotá, there are street entertainers everywhere. At traffic lights, you may find a monocyclist juggling knives. Storytellers keep people occupied on buses. Hundreds of young people in Colombia are in the streets entertaining for a couple of coins. Karen, a third year psychology student at the Javeriana University in Bogota, was recently selling homemade chocolate lollipops for one thousand Colombian pesos, or fifty cents, in order to help pay her $6,000 annual tuition and the expenses of her family.

The prices of higher education in Colombia prevent many young people from attending college or force them to work hard, like Karen, in order to pay tuition fees. Though the average Colombian university tuition fee is about $6,000 a year, and the most expensive school costs $14,000, the average per capita GDP in Colombia is only $9,200 per year (in the U.S. per capita GDP is $46,500, and though private four-year colleges average $26,000 in tuition, many students pay much less after grants and in-state reductions). In Colombia, 48 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, as as opposed to 12 percent in the U.S.), and the minimum monthly salary is $252.

According to a study by the Colombian government, only about 23 percent of young Colombians (aged 18 to 24) continue their education after high school, while in American between 62 percent to 69 percent of high schoolers enroll in college. This disparity contrasts with the countries' similar literacy rates -- of those aged 15 or older, 90 percent of the population in Colombia can read and write, and the U.S. has a rate of 99 percent. Unfortunately for its citizens, Colombia's widespread access to primary schooling does not extend to higher education.

The government has worked to improve access to education through a group of reform policies called Revolución Educativa. Yet Colombia still only spends 0.4 percent of its GDP on education, while many other Latin American countries spend three times that amount. The consequences of limited higher education opportunities are particularly apparent in economic mobility data -- of all Colombian college students, only 3 percent come from the poorest 20 percent of the population, while 52 percent come from the richest 20 percent (a 2003 report cites similar but more balanced numbers among U.S. college students, particularly for "lower and middle tier" colleges).

Colombian universities offer a variety of scholarships that consider financial need and academic merit. In their senior year, all high school students are required to take the ICFES, a standardized test similar to the SAT, to graduate and gain university admission as well as determine their chosen field of study. Contrary to the American education system, in Colombia a student has to apply to a specific university department, and changing majors is the equivalent of changing careers and starting all over again.

The University of the Andes, the most expensive and one of the best universities in Colombia, offers a variety of scholarships to help students who can't afford the high tuition fees. Since 2002 the university has helped 780 students through the financial aid plan Quiero Estudiar and other special programs, which take into consideration ICFES results and financial situations. However, only 38 of those students have graduated -- some students fell behind and are still finishing school while many others retired for personal reasons or lost the benefits due to low academic performance (the 2003 report cited above found similar trends in the U.S. among college students with lower socioeconomic status).

The struggle for young adults doesn't end with the admissions process. Regardless of their degree and career choice, it is difficult for young adults to find a job after college. Ana María Gomez described the disappointment she felt during her last semester as a student of publicity in Bogota. In one of her capstone classes, students were supposed to receive professional training from companies who had partnered with the university and would potentially offer job opportunities to graduates. But there were few total partnering companies, and those that worked with students often said that they didn't have the money to hire a publicist. "If potential clients can't even afford to pay publicity students, they won't employ new professionals who have just graduated from college and who would be more expensive to hire. It is sad and concerning that these are the conditions that define our future professional lives," Gomez told me.

My own experience studying in the U.S. has made me realize the gap between the two educational systems and, most importantly, what they offer in terms of future opportunities. While it is true that Colombia has some of the most outstanding universities in Latin America--though just a small percentage of the population can afford them--there are many aspects of education that are in need of profound change. In America, the flexibility of the academic curriculum gives students the chance to explore career paths without risking as much time or money. Moreover, study abroad programs are widely available in the U.S. Though I often find a lack of critical engagement with such opportunities at Duke, in my two years of college I have learned the most through my visits to four different countries through various academic programs.

I am part of a minority in Colombia that has had the chance to complete their entire undergraduate studies abroad. I know numerous others that have been able to stay a year or two overseas, but the truth is that most of them are from the upper-middle and upper classes. In fact, I would have never been able to pay for a university like Duke without financial aid, and once I received a generous aid package from Duke, I didn't even consider Colombian education. While money is the main reason for students not to study abroad, other reasons like the lack of a second language are also significant (for instance, only 4 percent of the population speaks English).

Given the lack of opportunities after college (unemployment today is at 12 percent), many might believe that going to school in Colombia is not worth the time or the money. After all, finding a job after college has become almost an impossible task (many in the recession-strapped U.S. are making similar claims about the college investment). Studies in fields like publicity or visual art in Colombia look particularly impractical, as 39 percent of employers in the country say that a university degree is required for only two of the ten types of positions they are most often looking to fill. Practical or not, however, the government can't deny any young adult the opportunity to study and thus, much more significant reforms must be put into action as soon as possible.

From violent conflicts to widespread poverty, Colombia faces many challenges in addition to increasing access to education -- indeed, for the first time in the country's history, the government in 2009 spent more money on defense and security than on education. While higher education does not guarantee social mobility, there is clearly untapped potential in Colombia's young people and their capacity to help the country shift away from rule by a small elite class. What students do with new opportunities, gained through hard-won reform, could create ripple effects felt far beyond the lively streets of Bogota.
Filed Under: The Cram

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