Education is free of charge in State institutions, without prejudice to the charging of school fees to those who can afford them. The central government covers 91 per cent of financing for the public education system by redistributing funding sources to local governments. The approval of Act No. 715 of 21 December 2001 introduced the policy of decentralization in Colombia, providing greater autonomy to a group of municipalities and making spending more equitable and efficient.
In Colombia, the largest transfers are made through the Sistema General de Participaciones [General Participation System – SGP], which represents 65 per cent of total education spending. The SGP funds are derived from tax and non-tax revenues collected by the central government, most of which are transferred to the certified territorial entities . The certified territorial entities are responsible for administering the education provision in their area of jurisdiction. The amount transferred is calculated using set formulas that include a performance component (allocating more funds to higher-performing regions) and national rules that set teacher salaries in all schools.
There are three SGP transfers that can be used for education: (i) education, which constitutes more than half of the SGP transfers; (ii) general purpose; and (iii) school meals. Certified territorial entities must spend the money in a number of specific categories. These categories account for 92 per cent of the total resources available, most of which fund staff payroll.
The general purpose SGP transfer is discretionary at the certified territorial entity level, meaning that the municipality may or may not use the funds to cover school expenses, while the school meals transfer is intended to finance the School Feeding Programme. Lastly, Colombia has the Fondo de Educación Gratuito [Free Education Fund]: a small financial flow from the central government to the school level, to be administered and spent by principals on school network operations.
The second largest source of resources is “other transfers from the central level”. These mainly cover the payment of teachers’ social contributions (90 per cent) and some expenses related to early childhood, school meals and other minor items. This source accounted for 14 per cent of State funding for preschool, elementary and secondary education in 2016. However, these resources are heavily concentrated in certain territorial entities, such as Bogotá, Medellín and Barranquilla.
In 2016, the central government financed the largest share of the public education system, accounting for 91 per cent of total resources.
 Act No. 715 of 2001 established that all municipalities with more than 100,000 inhabitants would become certified municipalities, while those with less than 100,000 inhabitants would be eligible to become certified if they had certain technical, administrative and financial capacities.
The Ministry of Education has set out a series of programmes and projects for each level of education. In early years education, the goal is to provide a food supplement and teaching materials to all children enrolled. In primary and secondary education, the aim is to build new classrooms and schools, and provide educational resources and textbooks to all students in the official sector.
With regard to school meals, the goal is to provide snacks and lunch to those on the official single-day enrolment register, which is equivalent to 7.5 million students. The School Feeding Programme offers highly nutritious food supplements to students enrolled in the State education system. It aims to facilitate access, retention and learning for children and adolescents. The 2019 public spending plan for School Feeding Programme implementation is 1.075 billion Colombian pesos (COP) (USD 343 million), which represents 26 per cent of the total public investment budget.
Literacy programme: This programme provides education to young people and adults over the age of 15 years who have not had access to the education system or who have lost their basic reading and writing skills due to lack of use. The purpose is to contribute to the development of basic, citizenship and socioemotional skills. Between 2011 and 2014, the programme benefited 456,000 individuals from 76 certified territorial entities and 14,196 teachers were trained in flexible models. The investment made was COP 72.27 billion.
The Inclusive Higher Education Policy Guidelines (2013) state the need to reduce the existing gaps between populations, regions and institutions in higher education. These guidelines are primarily aimed at meeting the specific needs of people with disabilities and with exceptional abilities and/or talents, ethnic minority groups, victims of the internal armed conflict, the armed population in the process of reintegration, and the population living in border areas. In 2019, the government approved projects to strengthen education through a differential approach for children and young people from ethnic minority groups, and to strengthen continued schooling for those affected by the conflict and the vulnerable population in general.
The Fondo de Créditos Condonables [Forgivable Loans Fund] is aimed at Afro-Colombian students with low economic resources and good academic performance. It aims to facilitate their access, retention and graduation in the higher education system.
The Colombian Institute of Educational Credit and Technical Studies Abroad (ICETEX) offers the “Ser Pilo Paga” [Hard Work Pays Off] scholarship programme to expand access, retention and graduation opportunities in higher education for different social groups and territorial communities. ICETEX also offers Ser Scholarships, which aim to promote access to and retention in higher education for students from vulnerable social strata through support from the productive sector. The purpose of these scholarships is to collect and administer private-sector donations to promote higher education in Colombia.
Más Familias en Acción [More Families in Action] (2001) is a bimonthly conditional cash transfer programme aimed at families living in poverty, displaced persons or indigenous communities with children under the age of 18 years. The programme has an educational subsidy that shares responsibility for school attendance. In 2017, COP 1.9 billion (USD 643 million) were spent on the programme, representing 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product and benefiting 2.5 million households (8.4 per cent of the population).