Colombia’s new education policy is set the change the face of private universities across the country. With a budget of $65 million and the offer of 10,000 scholarships, the government hopes to encourage more disadvantaged students to attend higher education.
The aim of the policy is to offer young people from poor backgrounds the opportunity to succeed in higher education. Where in the past it may have seemed out of the question for even the brightest kids from these areas to attend a private university or college, this scholarship policy, which is based on a standardized exam, allows 10,0000 of those who achieve good scores to go on to either private or public universities.
“In 2012 we began to investigate how students access to the best universities in the country and found that 17,000 young people at levels 1, 2 and 3 who obtained the best results in tests were left without access to college because of financial or personal problems. So, the new scholarship program uses system in which excellent test results could become their ticket to enter institutions of high quality,” explained the Minister of Education Gina Parody.
On the announcement of the new policy entitled “Working hard pays off”, President Juan Manuel Santos stated that “Education is the tool of equity par excellence. When a young man with economic resources or one of scarce resources go to the best universities on their merits, they start from the same base. That’s equal opportunities, that is equitable and that is peace.”
However in the policies initial phase there have been some unexpected consequences. The experts who created the program did not suppose that 85% of those students chose private universities who are considerably more expensive than public universities whose prices are progressive.
“What happened is interesting and it was completely unexpected. There weren’t any messages from the ministry that could have led students to prefer private institutions. They had all the freedom and autonomy to choose institutions and programs,” said the researcher behind the new education policy, Juan Felipe Pengamos.
In response, Penagos suggested that this trend reveals a challenge to universities who will need to create and manage strategies to attract these students with best academic talent whether they are public or private institutions.
Although one might think that the arrival of more than 9,000 students to private institutions, with expensive fees, could jeopardize funding for the program, Penagos has ensured the public that this possibility was accounted for and the $65 million that the government allocated in the first year of the program is enough to cover the tuition and living expenses of all 10,000 students.
The ministry of education has recognised that although poor students granted a scholarship may now be able to afford the fees, there are many other obstacles that they will face along the way which could jeopardize their success.
One of the major concerns shared by the experts is the drop-out rate. It is estimated that in Colombia, half of high school graduates who enter college drop out for economic or personal reasons.
According to the Ministry of Education, 15 percent of freshmen drop out and by the tenth semester around 45 percent of students have left. In fact, the college graduation rate in Colombia is 34.3 percent and does not vary much between public and private institutions.
“This poses another challenge for universities who will need to find strategies to retain these students coming from diverse backgrounds to higher education institutions which, for many years, were reserved only for young people with money,” Stated Penagos.
However, there is a check in place to protect the scholarship funds from those who drop out. As the State cannot give money to the students for legal reasons, it was established that there would be a system where the university would reclaim the money from the government once the student had completed their studies. Those who drop out or do not finish, will be responsible for any fees they incurred.
It is hoped that this strategy will not only ensure the fair allocation of funds but will also encourage students to complete all their courses.
In addition to affecting the demographics of higher education, the policy has also led to the rise in the scores needed to enter several universities and courses. This is especially evident for courses such as medicine which is in high demand.
The policy has also had great effects on the universities themselves who have not only had to cope with the new influx of students, but also had to create structures and systems dedicated to supporting all the students from diverse backgrounds.
Despite the policies initial success, it has been met with some criticism from the leftist political party Democratic Pole. They argue that half of the resources should have gone to public universities. Instead, they argue, the new program diverts public money to private institutions that only focus on elite preferences.
On the whole the new education policy has been largely celebrated for creating equal opportunities for all.
The Government hopes that by 2018 there will be 40,000 students receiving scholarships for higher education.
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