Education is free and compulsory for five years in Colombia. Illiteracy is declining, having dropped from an estimated 90% at the end of the 19th century to an estimated 8.2% in 2000 (males, 8.2%; females, 8.2%). The constitution provides that public education shall not conflict with the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church; courses in the Roman Catholic religion are compulsory, and the Church is in virtual control of the public schools. Private schools have freedom of instruction, and there are a number of Protestant schools, principally in Bogotá. The national government supports secondary as well as university education and maintains a number of primary schools throughout the country.
By law, Colombia must spend at least 10% of its annual budget on education. In 1996, the education budget was 19.0% of total government expenditure. As of 1995, public expenditure on education was estimated at 3.1% of GDP. Financing and supervision of public education is the joint responsibility of the Ministry of Education, the departments, and the municipalities. Secondary and technical education and universities are administered by the Ministry of Education. The central government also pays teachers' salaries.
In 1996 there were 4,916,934 students enrolled in 48,933 primary schools, with 193,911 teachers. Secondary schools had 3,317,782 students and 169,816 teachers in the same year. The pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was 24 to 1 in 1999. In the same year, 88% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school, while 54% of those eligible attended secondary school. Although schooling is compulsory for children in the 6-12 age group, dropout rates are high at the primary level, particularly in rural areas, where the students frequently live at considerable distances from their schools. Almost all secondary schools are in the larger cities; thus, little educational opportunity is open to rural children, except those reached by educational radio and television broadcasting. The government has established two basic programs for improving secondary education—the integration of practical training into high-school academic curricula and the training of agricultural experts at the secondary level—so that students who do not go on to college (relatively few do) are prepared to receive further technical training or to earn a living. The National Apprenticeship Service offers technical and vocational training in fields that contribute to national development; the program is financed by compulsory contributions from private enterprises and employees.
As of 1996 there were 644,188 students enrolled in higher education in Colombia; post-secondary teachers numbered 66,538. The National University in Bogotá, founded in 1572, is one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. Other important universities include the Universidad Javeriana (founded 1622), which is operated by the Jesuits; the Universidad de los Andes, a private institution based on a US model; and the Universidad Libre, a private university with active liberal leanings. In 1964, the Colombian Overseas Technical Specialization Institute (ICETEX) was formed to coordinate scholarship and fellowship funds for Colombians wishing to study abroad. Graduates of foreign schools who return to Colombia reimburse ICETEX from their subsequent earnings.