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Results Briefs December 18, 2020

Increasing Access to Tertiary Education for Disadvantaged Youth in Colombia


Focus Group with Beneficiaries of ACCES loans. Photo Credit: ICETEX

The ACCES Program provided grounds for considering that financing student loans for underserved populations is sound public policy. From 2012 to 2017, the Program added 400,000 students to the Colombian tertiary education system, graduated 124,000 students, increased the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds from 58% to 64%, with women representing 57% of beneficiaries in 2017. As for its outcomes and rigorous evaluations, the Program demonstrated empirically that well-designed, demand-driven financing mechanisms such as ACCES can lead to significant positive development outcomes in education enrollment, equity, graduation, and quality, providing privately life-changing and socially cost-effective returns.


Colombia experienced a growth in gross higher education rate by 40% between 2006 and 2012, adding over half a million new students, and increasing the number of graduates by more than 50% since 2006. Yet, these numbers fell short of Colombia’s aspirations, and education policy remained centered on expanding enrollment and graduation rates. In addition, a highly privatized system and very inequal system for financing public education led to the further exacerbation of inequalities, particularly noticeable at the regional level as the majority of quality institutions were in metropolitan areas. Public financing of higher education had a large demand-side component, through student aid and loan programs financed through the Instituto Colombiano de Crédito Educativo y Estudios Técnicos en el Exterior - ICETEX (Colombian Institute for Educational Credit and Technical Studies Abroad). ICETEX is the only provider of long-term student loans, especially for vulnerable populations.   


Since 2002 the Bank has helped ICETEX to face challenges on higher education in Colombia by financing long-term student loans from disadvantaged backgrounds called Tu Eliges. Students loans are allocated based on shifting priorities that are reflected in its allocation formula, which prioritize student merit, socioeconomic status, region of origin, quality of the institution or program (primarily measured through accreditation status) and expected repayment ability. The zero percent credit line was the most notable innovation, as traditional ACCES loans only financed 50–75%  of tuition costs; this new credit line allowed students with no additional resources to borrow 100% of the amount needed for studying. The second key innovation was the Fondo de Garantías (Fund of Guarantees), which allowed approved students to borrow even in the absence of a loan co-signer (ACCES loans required it). Together, these innovations of Tu Eliges would allow the very poorest, who often lack any family saving or collateral, to also access higher education.


students graduated by the program


The ACCES Program has helped increase student enrollment, graduation and equity in higher education in Colombia by increasing the number of student loans allocated to population from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and in quality higher education institutions and programs. Key outcomes include:

  • The Program added 400,000 students to the tertiary education system, positively contributing to the gross enrolment rate that went from 42.4% to 52.4% from 2012 to 2017. The impact evaluation showed that ACCES decreased dropout rates by about 7% and increased academic performance for the students at the margin, and improved the probability that a beneficiary student would enroll by a 20%.
  • The Program graduated 124,000 students and helped increase the graduation rate in 2 percentual points from 2012 to 2017.
  • ACCES helped address equity in access to higher education by increasing the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds from 58.1% in 2012 to 64.4% in 2017.
  • 83% (or 16,882) of ACCES beneficiaries were enrolled in high quality universities or programs in 2018.

Bank Group Contribution

The World Bank, through the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) provided a loan in the amount of US$200 million to contribute to the financing of this project.


In an effort to diversify its sources of funding, expand its ability to lend to students, and increase its long-term sustainability, ICETEX made significant strides in mobilizing private sector financing (US$246 million) to advance its objectives and those of the project. The Government of Colombia (GoC) also provided US$236 million in counterpart funding to finance the remainder of Project costs (aggregate project cost was US$436 million).

Moving Forward

Two new Bank-financed operations with the GoC in education, the Access and Quality in Higher Education Project – PACES Project of 2017 and its additional financing effective since 2019, have added US$320 million to improve the quality of tertiary education in participating institutions and to increase the enrollment of students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds in quality programs. In close alignment with the objectives of the ACCES Project, these new operations have continued the partnership with ICETEX and the focus on financing the demand with a focus on the most vulnerable and on high-quality institutions and programs.


A focus group of 22 beneficiaries attending a top private university in the municipality of Cali, 73% of whom were from disadvantaged backgrounds, was held in February 2019. All focus group participants noted that the Program provided them with the financial resources needed to be able to access higher education. The majority (90%) of the group would recommend the ACCES loans to others given their high valuation of easiness of requirements and low interest rate. Additionally, for those eligible for maintenance subsidy (one monthly minimum wage per semester), the subsidy represented a significant income for covering their student living expenses.