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Colombia: Historical Background
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Education > Historical Background


Until well after the achievement of independence early in the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church remained the principal authority in the sphere of education. The first schools were established by the church during the sixteenth century, and in the seventeenth century the sons of Spanish settlers received schooling in the first seminaries. Two universities were founded by the church before 1700, and, although the eighteenth century saw the emergence of some secular influence in education, an effort to found a public university was abandoned because of clerical opposition.

After the achievement of independence, the government's control over the school system increased progressively, and ever-larger numbers of students attended public schools. Nevertheless, the traditionally dominant role played by the church in education profoundly influenced the role played by education in society and probably contributed to a reluctance to change educational institutions. Observers of Colombian education repeatedly pointed out that far from furthering social mobility, the system reinforced social stratification.

Primary education served as an instrument of mobility to some extent because it raised the level of literacy and thus enabled many people to enter the mainstream of national life. In urban localities, it also enabled workers to find better-paying jobs and thus to raise their standard of living, if not their social status. In the countryside, however, schooling was of little value. In general, a vicious circle existed in which a low technological level in agriculture and a low educational level mutually reinforced each other.

In the past, education above the primary level perpetuated the class system because of the near absence of schools of any kind in rural localities, the unavailability of enough secondary schools to accommodate many of the qualified applicants, and the disproportionate acceptance of students from the more prosperous upper-class families. In addition, above the primary level, tuition was charged in public as well as in private schools. This cost, plus the cost of books, supplies, and school uniforms, placed secondary schooling beyond the means of most working-class families. Rural and small-city parents also had to bear the frequently prohibitive costs of transportation and room and board. Private secondary education prospered through its ability to cater to the needs of the elite. The Ministry of Education in a 1966 report criticized the secondary schools for accentuating social differences rather than encouraging vertical social mobility. The children of the poor were unable to enter the best schools offering an academic education, and the few secondary agricultural and other vocational schools available to them tended to discourage upward mobility. The ministry's report added that for most students the principal reason for completing secondary or higher studies was the social status conferred.

In Colombia, as in most other Latin American countries, a distinction was drawn between the academic and the vocational secondary school, and working-class as well as elite families much preferred the former. The distinction was so sharp that, although it was possible in some instances for vocational graduates to go on to universities, the term secondary was customarily applied only to the academic schools. The faster growth of the already much larger academic school enrollment during the 1960s and 1970s reflected a continued disregard for manual labor and a continued tendency to attach little social value even to the highest of manual skills. The largest vocational enrollments were in the commercial institutions teaching white-collar skills.

Until after World War II, a university education was the exclusive province of the country's elite. But after many new universities were established and their enrollment growth exceeded that at other levels of education, the universities lost something of their exclusive character.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Colombia was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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