Ever the Twain Shall Meet?: Poor Students and the Public/Private Divide in Colombian Higher Education

Understanding access to education for Colombia’s lower-income students – “estudiantes de escasos recursos” seems to be the most common, politically correct term while “los pobres” is the most frank – has required reconsidering certain assumptions based on the U.S. education system. There are plenty of similarities on the surface: racial minorities and poor students are at a greater risk of dropping out; affirmative action programs have noble intentions and difficult goals; everyone has a four-letter word to share about student loans. Stringing these issues together is a ubiquitous debate about the privatization of higher education, and what sort of education reform the country really needs.

Again, much like in the U.S., the “scarce resources” of the students in question refer to more than income. Key amongst these resources are solid primary and secondary education and “social capital” – which is, loosely speaking, knowing how to dress, talk, and behave in order to successfully navigate society. This can include things as simple as a parent showing a child how to shake hands before an interview, or knowing how to write and speak in proper Spanish – that is, the Spanish that employers and university professors want to hear. This is why, if I have to generalize, I use the term “disadvantaged” students. “Lower-income” implies that the problem is merely a lack of money, and can thus be solved with more money (spoiler alert: it can’t).

Unlike the U.S., this unequal distribution of educational opportunity and social advantage forces disadvantaged students to attend private institutes of higher education. “Private institutions” in the U.S. suggest venerable institutions with high standards and higher tuition; while Colombia has its fair share of expensive and exclusive equivalents, many private institutions offer low quality, unaccredited degrees. As an important aside, institutions of higher education in Colombia are generally divided into four groups: universities as we know and love (?) them, instituciones universitarias which teach, but don’t research, technological institutions which offer the equivalent of associate degrees, and technical institutions that offer vocational training.

A sociologist working at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá explained that the majority of programs and institutions in Colombia are not accredited by the government. Moreover, there is no Colombian equivalent of our community colleges, as public universities offer only traditional, academic programs. They’re also extremely competitive. The Universidad Nacional accepts roughly 7 percent of applicants and the numbers are similar for the rest of Colombia’s public universities, most of which are concentrated in Bogotá, Calí, and Medellín. Since admission to these schools is based primarily on the nationwide, standardized exit exam, applicants from regions marked by poorer primary and secondary education and social marginalization are often denied the affordable and high quality education they offer. As a result, these disadvantaged students are forced to choose between foregoing higher education entirely or going into debt to attend low-quality private institutions.

“Mejor que nada” is the expression I keep hearing in reference to degrees from these institutions. Larger businesses tend to hire from the same, selective group of universities, which severely limits opportunities for recipients of degrees from the poorer quality institutions in question. I was told that the majority of vendors at Unilago (an affordable electronics store – think Best Buy on Black Friday) are in fact educated as engineers. It’s perhaps a step above selling cigarettes and cellphone minutes on street corners, but it still represents the signficant levels of underemployment amongst higher education graduates here in Colombia.

Securing a spot in one of these more well-recognized universities is only the first step for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Once in, many students are completely unprepared for the experience. Indigenous students face unique challenges in Colombian universities, which, like their U.S. counterparts, follow the Western European academic tradition. The positivistic, “rational,” and competitive philosophy that defines this model is often at odds with the way in which many indigenous cultures learn and interact; academics have also observed this phenomenon in North American “tribal colleges,” where traditional learning models based on observation, repitition, communal interaction, and oral history are at odds with the individualistic, writing and lecture intensive models that dominate mainstream education.

In order to address this issue, the Universidad Nacional has instated affirmative action programs that allow indigenous and Afro-Colombian students, as well as relatively well-performing applicants from poorer regions of Colombia, to bypass the state exam requirements. Once in these students have access to financial aid and various “catch up” courses intended to compensate for gaps in earlier education, with a particular focus on language and writing capacities. The professors and students I’ve spoken to laud these programs, yet point to continually high drop out rates among the target population because the programs aren’t expansive enough. Additionally, the Universidad Nacional is one of the only universities with an extensive affirmative action and support program targeting disadvantaged students; private institutions, including the technical and technological institutions which attract a higher proportion of disadvantaged students, tend to have little or no support.

The most popular solution to these problems seems to be various forms of student loans targeting these students. The federal government runs the ACCES loan program through the ICETEX institute, which has been criticized as a tool of privatizing higher education at the expense of poor students by academics, and for being “una mierda” by students. The private sector has also stepped up. The non-profit “Lumni,” which has been the focus of my research so far, offers “microfinance for students“in the form of human capital contracts that ensure an income contingent repayment scheme for loans received through the organization (i.e. Those who earn more after graduation pay more). As part of its contract, Lumni requires its beneficiaries to participate in workshops and tutoring to mitigate the risk of drop-outs.

While researchers I’ve spoken to have acknowledged that such efforts are important, the consensus seems to be that they are insufficient; they do not address the lack of space in public universities, nor the lack of diverse academic options offered therein. The current trend that pushes disadvantaged students into private institutions only exacerbates social divisions, creating separate education systems for the rich and the poor. Additionally, private, professionally-oriented degree programs tend not to convey the personal and civic benefitsof an education that includes the humanities and social sciences.

The solution, in the words of the aforementioned sociologist, is higher education that focuses on the “bienestar” of the students – their well-being. This entails erasing what he and other researchers have called the arbitrary division between academic and professional training so that students gain those elusive “practical” skills that make them attractive on the job market, but also gain the general knowledge and critical thinking capacity that turn them into creative, informed, and responsible participants in their society. ‘Access’ to this educational nirvana entails not only an equal opportunity to enter and pay for this experience, but also the equal opportunity to succeed at it, supported by a system that acknowledges unique experiences and the particular disadvantages and advantages that these imply.

Note – The photo above comes from the outside of the Universidad Pedagógica. “NO AL TLC” protests the Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Colombia. The quote beneath is from a speech in Mexico City by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Translated: “Damn the successful dictatorship of fear that forces us to believe reality is untouchable and solidarity is a deadly sickness, because your neighbor is always a threat and never a promise.”

Posted by Kevin McLoughlin – MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU

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