Privately-owned Bolivian institutes are another alternative for education in Bolivia. In view of the poor quality of the country's public education system, enterprising Bolivian and foreign investors have poured millions into private universities
and private schools
, as explained previously, but the proliferation of private and vocational institutes is, perhaps the most surprising result of this neglect.
This phenomenon is most evident in Eastern Bolivia, and more specifically, the department of Santa Cruz, a region that since the Colonial era has been far more neglected and ignored than the Western half of the country. Even after Bolivia gained its independence from Spain in 1825, the ensuing succession of national governments invested heavily in the country's more populous West, mostly in La Paz, over the next 160 years, and little elsewhere. As a result, Bolivia's Eastern population has developed a very entrepreneurial spirit and massive efforts were made to attract foreign investment. This gained momentum during the 1990's when the region's vast oil and gas fields were opened to foreign investment.
Over the next 15 years Santa Cruz and Tarija took advantage of the sudden interest in developing the region's oil and gas industry. Bolivian businesspeople invested heavily to improve the region for its citizens while making it more attractive to the great influx of foreigners who arrived to populate it. Between 1998 and 2005 six large private universities were established (and have since opened branches in other cities throughout the country), numerous private schools were opened, and existing private schools were vastly improved.
Foreign oil companies, as a stipulation of their contracts with the Bolivian government, built and equipped dozens of public schools and health centers in far reaching rural areas that previously had little or no education or health care infrastructure. Non-profit organizations donated dozens more. The region experienced a construction boom which lasted for several years, and in Santa Cruz continues at record rates even today, as immigrants from other areas of Bolivia flood into Santa Cruz at the rate of about 7000 new inhabitants per month.
The department of Santa Cruz, and its capital city, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, have become the fastest growing department, and the largest city in Bolivia, within the past 10 years and the economic engine of the country, with this department alone generating nearly 40% of the gross national product. Meanwhile tiny Tarija is now Bolivia's fourth fastest growing department. Since the last national census, taken in 2001, the city of Santa Cruz has grown by over 600,000 people with more arriving each day, and this where the role of private institutes becomes important.
Most of the population growth Eastern Bolivia has experienced (the same is happening in Tarija) is due to the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Bolivian citizens who are leaving La Paz, Oruro, Potosí, Cochabamba and other areas to seek greener pastures in Bolivia's newly wealthy East. However, most are not middle class or wealthy families and cannot afford to send their children to the posh new private universities and schools that have sprung up. Meanwhile, national government investment in the nation's public education system continues to lag and has failed to improve education levels or quality, despite the new socialist government's ambitious goals.
The result? The region has seen a surge in (foreign and Bolivian) privately-owned, but affordable institutes, academies and vocational schools offering every subject under the sun. Students of all ages can study languages, music, handcrafts of all types, baking and decorating, driving, modeling, sports, speed-reading, driving, advanced mathematics, chess, painting and sculpture, fashion design, cooking, carpentry, dance, computer programs, and much more, day and night and on weekends. Some of these, like the private schools and universities, have grown and expanded into other cities, offering dozens of alternative, affordable options for education in Bolivia.
The role of private institutes is important in a country like Bolivia where the public school and university system continually fails to provide truly worthwhile education and drop-out rates are high. In Bolivia, where people are accustomed to saying "de la necesidad nace la creatividad" (creativity is born from need) private institutes, and their owners, have risen to the occasion.