In 1991 the education system was reaching a relatively large part of the population, at least at the elementary level. According to 1988 Philippine government figures, which count as literate everyone who has completed four years of elementary school, the overall literacy rate was 88 percent, up from 82.6 percent in 1970. Literacy rates were virtually the same for women and men. Elementary education was free and, in the 1987 academic year, was provided to some 15 million schoolchildren, 96.4 percent of the age-group. High school enrollment rates were approximately 56 percent nationwide but were somewhat lower on Mindanao and in Eastern Visayas region. Enrollment in institutions of higher learning exceeded 1.6 million.
Filipinos have a deep regard for education, which they view as a primary avenue for upward social and economic mobility. From the onset of United States colonial rule, with its heavy emphasis on mass public education, Filipinos internalized the American ideal of a democratic society in which individuals could get ahead through attainment of a good education. Middle-class parents make tremendous sacrifices in order to provide secondary and higher education for their children.
Philippine education institutions in the late 1980s varied in quality. Some universities were excellent, others were considered "diploma mills" with low standards. Public elementary schools often promoted students regardless of achievement, and students, especially those in poor rural areas, had relatively low test scores.
The proportion of the national government budget going to education has varied from a high of 31.53 percent in 1957 to a low of 7.61 percent in 1981. It stood at 15.5 percent in 1987. The peso amount, however, has steadily increased, and the lower percentage reflects the effect of a larger total government budget. Although some materials were still in short supply, by 1988 the school system was able to provide one textbook per subject per student. In 1991 the Philippine government and universities had numerous scholarship programs to provide students from low-income families with access to education. The University of the Philippines followed a "socialized tuition" plan whereby students from higher income families paid higher fees and students from the lowest income families were eligible for free tuition plus a living allowance.