College and Quotas: How to Make Higher Education an Ever-Allusive Dream of the Lower Middle Class

If you’re unfamiliar with how Brazilian education works, I’d like to provide a little background before delving into this topic:

If you can afford it, you send your kid to private K-12 schools, which in general tend to be better than public schools (there are exceptions). If you can’t, your children have to deal with the local public schools, which are notorious for how bad they are, in terms of quality of instruction, infrastructure and safety.

When it comes time to go to college, there’s a rigorous college entrance exam called the vestibular, which is different for every university, and now there is a national college entrance exam called Enem, which can be used to apply to any university. If you’ve got money, you can take prep classes and hire tutors and you’ll likely get a good grade. If you don’t have money, well then good luck.

The best colleges are the public ones – which are free to students. Who ends up in these schools? Rich kids. Who ends up in private colleges, that you have to pay for? Everybody else.

And so the class cycle continues.

In light of how higher education is not doing a good job of promoting social mobility, the Brazilian government has decided to implement a quota system that reserves a certain percentage of seats at public universities for students who come from public schools. For example, federal (national) universities must reserve at least 12.5% of their seats for public school students and by 2016, that percentage will rise to 50%.

Sounds like a good idea, right?

It gets more complicated.

Because the benefits of private K-12 education have been touted for so long, many lower middle class families have poured all of their energy – and savings – into a private education for their children, with the hope that they would be in a better position to earn a spot at a free public university.

Take the case of Alexandre de Oliveira (41), his wife Márcia da Luz Oliveira (46) and their daughters Drielly (17) and Isabele (10). When Drielly was 6, Alexandre and Márcia decided to remove her from the public school system after a disastrous experience in which rain had flooded Drielly’s school so badly that they were called to take her home. They found their daughter sitting on her desk, trying to escape the water below. Poor infrastructure is common in public schools, and Alexandre and Márcia decided that they would do whatever it took to make sure Drielly was in a good – and structurally sound – school.

So Alexandre boosted his hours as a taxi driver. For the past ten years, he has worked regular 15-hour days to cover tuition costs for Drielly and younger daughter Isabele. Besides the strain that this has caused on the family, as leisure time and family bonding are minimal, Alexandre has also developed several health problems from sitting all day long.

The Oliveira family and an excerpt from the article.

The Oliveira family at their home in Guarulhos, São Paulo and an excerpt from the article.

With the new quotas, Alexandre and Márcia’s efforts might be in vain, because Drielly will fall into the private-school-student category, where the competition will be increasingly tough for a spot at a free public university. The reality is that private schools are not created equal, so within that decreasing % of students who will be accepted from private schools, Drielly’s chances of being accepted will decrease even further because she’ll be competing with middle and upper class students who attend far better private schools – and will be in a better position for the college entrance exams.

Attending college in Brazil is not like attending college in the US, where you have a whole list of items with which the admissions directors evaluate candidates. In the US, you have your grades, your SAT/ACT, letters of recommendation, essays (which may include a section where you can explain any particular hardship you have faced), extra-curricular activities, etc. In Brazil, it’s one thing: the college entrance exam. You are a number and nothing more. If there are 100 spots and your score is within the top 100 scores, you’re in. If not, you’re out.

I understand fully that the system of quotas is trying to diversify the criteria with which students are selected for public universities. However, as this report in Época states, “After decades of incentivizing private education, the government now punishes it with the quota system. [And now families]  need to think twice before putting their kids in a private school.”

I also understand that with any new reform, there will be a period of adjustment and hopefully the feedback from how this new quota system is negatively impacting working class families will be taken into consideration to make changes.

However, I’m not particularly hopeful, because what really needs to be addressed isn’t being addressed. The fact that the gap between public and private K-12 education is so vast should shake the consciences of Brazilian politicians. But it doesn’t. Even though more public school students will have a chance to access public universities, if the quality of those public schools remains dreadful, those students, once they arrive at the universities, will still be – and will remain – behind their private-school peers, in terms of both academic performance and social integration. These students will not be equipped with the same skill sets and I simply don’t know if these students will feel welcome on campus.

Let’s go back to the basics people. Public K-12 education has to be solid: academically rigorous, structurally sound, safe and universal.

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