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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Her face and bare arms painted with the words “medicina” and “UFRJ” — her major and the acronym, in Portuguese, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro — Ana Carolina and some classmates stand on the busy Rua Visconde de Pirajá in Rio’s sunny Ipanema district and ask for spare change.

The money isn’t for tuition; UFRJ doesn’t charge any. It’s for beer. Spurred on by upperclassmen, she and her body-painted friends are undergoing a kind of hazing ritual to celebrate their acceptance to the school by paying for a party.

Ana Carolina — she declined to give her last name — is among the lucky ones. Federal universities are at the top of the Brazilian higher-education hierarchy, and the only ones that are free. They are also extraordinarily competitive in a country where there is huge demand for higher education, but where the people who score at the top of the SAT-style university entrance exam and, therefore, end up at the best universities, paying no tuition, are predominantly rich white students whose parents were able to afford to send them to private high schools.

“It’s not really fair,” Ana Carolina said about the privilege she enjoys.

Higher education in Brazil
JULY 13, 2014 – Protesters stop the traffic in Paulista Avenue for only a few minutes during a protest against corruption, for improvements in public services and against the money spent on the 2014 World Cup in front of the Art Museum of Sao Paulo (MASP). Credit: Tiago Mazza Chiaravalloti / Pacific Press/Sipa USA

This divide in Brazil — an extreme but familiar echo of the widening social disparity in U.S. higher education — was one of the subjects of street protests in 2013, before the country hosted the World Cup, and is the target of reforms rushed into place by the government in an effort to forestall unrest ahead of next year’s Olympics, which will also be in Rio. As in the United States, Brazil’s higher-education inequity is rooted in its primary and secondary schools, which vary widely in quality but are generally considered to poorly serve this nation of 200 million, the world’s fifth-largest country by area, equal to the size of the continental U.S., and its seventh-biggest economy.

In some ways, American higher-education policymakers might envy Brazil. As U.S. enrollment has begun to decline, in spite of entreaties from government officials to drive more young people toward degrees, Brazilian universities have been overwhelmed by applicants, and their number of students has more than doubled in just the last 10 years.

Related: U.S. university enrollment continues to slide

The surge in enrollment here is due in large part to the widespread recognition that university graduates earn, on average, two and a half times more than people who don’t finish college, a bigger difference than that in any of the 34 member countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. And even though Americans with university educations also enjoy an earnings premium, high college costs and student debt are raising questions in the United States about the return on that investment.

“The rate of growth of higher education in Brazil is staggering, even for us,” said Edson de Oliveira Nunes, dean of policy and development at the Universidade Candido Mendes, who has also held government posts.

“There have never been enough places,” Nunes said in his office in Rio’s upscale Flamengo neighborhood, with a distracting view of Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf Mountain. “You have maybe 250,000 openings per year in a very big country.”

Another major cause of the explosion in demand for higher education has been the vast growth of what is known in Brazil as basic education, meaning primary and secondary schools.

Not until the end of military rule in the 1980s did Brazil guarantee the right to free primary and secondary education; until then, a third of Brazilians did not go to school at all, and a quarter were illiterate.

In the years since, enrollment in basic education has tripled, to 57 million. But the public universities have not kept pace, even as the government expanded existing public campuses and added new ones. So it has turned to private, for-profit higher-education providers, including the American companies DeVry and Laureate Education.

Related: Is Arizona State the model for the new American university?

Brazil, said Nunes, practically invented the concept of for-profit colleges in the mid-1990s, before the huge growth in the United States of for-profits such as Kaplan and the University of Phoenix. And as U.S. for-profit colleges have seen dramatic fall-offs in enrollment in the last few years, Brazil’s have continued to grow, and now enroll three-quarters of all students, or nearly 5.3 million. That’s more than twice as many as in the United States. Brazil’s five biggest universities are for-profit, and one Brazilian company, Kroton Educacional, is the world’s largest for-profit university, with more than a million students in Brazil on 124 campuses.

The quality of public basic education has also not kept pace with its breakneck growth, despite huge amounts of government spending on education. Just over 6 percent of Brazil’s gross domestic product goes into education, and 19 percent of its national budget, more than almost every country in the OECD. Yet the World Economic Forum ranks it 105th out of 122 countries in the quality of its education system. Most public schools operate only four hours a day.

“Our performance is okay for a small country, but we’re not a small country.”

That’s what drives wealthy Brazilians, most of whom are white, to enroll their children in significantly higher-quality private high schools that better prepare them for the university entrance examinations.

“Much like what happens in the U.S., parents are preparing their children as early as elementary school to get into elite universities,” said Gregory Elacqua, director of the Public Policy Institute at the School of Economics and Business at Chile’s Universidad Diego Portales, who studies Brazilian education. “They invest a lot of money in private schools and tutors, they send their children abroad, they pay for test preparation, so they have every advantage.”

It works. Students at Brazilian public universities are both wealthier and whiter than the national average — 68 percent white in a country that is 48 percent white, according to the National Institute of Educational Studies, or INEP.

Related: Colleges that pledged to help poor families have been doing the opposite

“We have historically had an extremely elitist system where very few people could get in,” said Dilvo Iivo Ristoff, INEP’s director of higher education statistics. “The more competitive [the program], the whiter the students are, and the wealthier they are.”

The rich not only get into the free public universities; once there, they are more likely to major in disciplines that lead to high-paying careers, including medicine and engineering. While only 13 percent of Brazilians go to private high schools, 89 percent of those in medical school are private high school grads, and three-quarters are white. Lower-income students, meanwhile, have to pay to go to for-profit universities, which specialize in majors that cost less to provide, such as accounting, management and teaching. All of which, the INEP report said, “sharpens existing distortions in society” instead of blunting them.

The less well-off “don’t necessarily want to be in these programs, but it’s their only way into the universities,” Elacqua said. “Then they go on to become teachers, and not very effective teachers, and it perpetuates the cycle. These kinds of policies are exacerbating inequality.”

That’s similar to what’s happening, if with less attention, in America, said Martin Carnoy, a Stanford professor of education and co-author of a book about universities in Brazil and its fellow emerging economies China, India and Russia The fastest-growing group of college-aged Americans are first-generation, low-income racial minorities often stuck in poorly performing urban high schools. If they go to college at all, they’re channeled into community colleges or second-tier, underfunded public universities that, as in Brazil, can limit their choices. And with the competing demands of work and family, reaching graduation can be a challenge.

“There are smart, low-income kids who beat the odds, but very few of those poor kids manage to finish,” Carnoy said.

More than half of Brazilian students end up dropping out without earning degrees— those at the public universities because they don’t have to pay, so there’s nothing to lose, and those at private universities because of poor preparation and money woes. That’s slightly more than the proportion of students in the United States who the Department of Education says still haven’t graduated after six years.

Some of the for-profit universities in Brazil, like their U.S. counterparts, are also plagued by questions about quality. Last year, nearly 2 percent lost their accreditations for falling short of standards. But critics say the government is so desperate to increase capacity that it overlooks many shortcomings. For example, although a third of the faculty at for-profit universities is required to teach full-time, while the rest are paid by the hour, “nobody actually has 33 percent full-time professors,” the Universidade Candido Mendes’ Nunes said. “I understand the reasons why the government doesn’t clamp down on the licensing process. We kind of pretend that we have regulatory control, but we don’t.”

Related: Poorest states cut what experts say could help the most: higher ed

All of these trends have led to a turning point in Brazilian higher education.

Fed up with the inequities, Brazilians in opinion polls put education near the top of the long list of problems they blame squarely on the government. (When God created Brazil, one pessimistic business owner quipped, he gave it gold, oil, beautiful beaches, tropical weather and no natural disasters. “But, God, it’s too perfect,” said St. Peter. “Wait till you see who I put in charge of it,” God said.)

Successive governments have begun programs called PROUNI (“University for All”), which provides scholarships for low-income students, and FIES, which offers low-interest student loans; whether the resulting student debt will, as in the United States, make matters worse for students and not better stands to be seen next year, when the first of the loans come due. In addition, for-profit universities have been offered tax breaks in return for giving discounts or scholarships to low-income applicants.

“That makes more people’s lives a little bit easier,” said Taina Dalcero, a student working toward a master’s degree in linguistics at one of Brazil’s high-quality, private, nonprofit Catholic universities, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, or PUC-Rio.

Students at Brazilian public universities are both wealthier and whiter than the national average — 68 percent white in a country that is 48 percent white.

In the high-priced Gávea district, PUC-Rio looks like an exclusive American campus, if that campus was overhung with towering tropical trees and divided by a river leading from the lush Tijuca rainforest. The facilities are first-rate. In the plaza in front of the library is a bust of John F. Kennedy.

Students here are primarily affluent, but Dalcero sees that changing. Because of the government grants and loans, she said, “I have a lot of friends who don’t pay. Almost half of them don’t pay.”

The government has called for an increase in the proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college, from the current 30 percent to more than 50 percent, by 2024. (It’s 42 percent in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education.)

Federal universities have been directed to set aside half of their seats for students coming from public high schools, in a complicated form of affirmative action that also takes into account the students’ race.

The deadline for that target, too, is next year, ahead of the Olympics. But Diego Fonseca Ferreira has already benefited from it.

The first in his family to go to college, Ferreira got a scholarship to a private high school, which helped him get into the University of Sao Paolo, where he’s working toward a bachelor’s degree in physics (“It’s a dream I always had since I was a kid and started watching sci-fi movies”). Ferreira also studied abroad at the University of Illinois, at the Brazilian government’s expense.

On the campus in Sao Paolo, he said, he increasingly sees others like him. Still, “there is huge inequality. It’s just starting to change now, in this decade, but in the University of Sao Paolo you see that 95 percent come from rich families. We have a long way to go.”

There have been some improvements in diversity, according to the INEP report. But it also found that although blacks are now in the majority in the country, they are still in the minority in every degree program.

“The socioeconomic gap is not changing very much,” said Simon Schwartzman, a senior researcher at the Instituto de Estudos do Trabalho e Sociedade, or Institute for Labor and Society.

Impatience with the pace of these reforms exploded in 2013 into those street protests before the World Cup.

The activism is, in part, driven by a broader social awareness born of greater education, said Elacqua, of the Universidad Diego Portales. “It’s like what happened in the U.S. in the 1960s,” he said. “This is kind of like our civil rights movement.”

The government responded to the protests by promising to pour three-quarters of future offshore oil revenues into all levels of education, raising its investment to 10 percent of GDP.

But the price of oil has plummeted since then, the fast-growing economy has stalled and the World Cup and Olympics have drained billions from the treasury. And the government has quietly stopped allowing students receiving PROUNI grants from also getting FIES loans, a move decried by private universities that say it will reduce the number of Brazilians able to afford tuition.

Higher education in Brazil
In this March 27, 2013 photo, students occupy the administrative offices of the Rio de Janeiro Rural Federal University, UFRRJ, to protest the school’s conditions in Seropedica, Brazil. Laboratories routinely flood when it rains, lecture halls reach oven-like temperatures because the burned-out AC units were never replaced, the Internet works only intermittently and students hardly dare venture out after dark for fear of being mugged. Credit: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

The seeming need for more investment in higher education is evident on campuses such as the surprisingly run-down UFRJ, Brazil’s biggest public university — built by a military government on landfill in a remote part of the city to prevent students from being concentrated downtown — where municipal buses disgorge a steady stream of passengers who line up at the two working elevators out of five in the administrative building, which also houses the faculties of architecture and fine arts. The brick and tile is cracked, lights don’t work and the roof leaks. Even in the administrative offices, the furniture is tattered.

Faculty at the heavily unionized public universities are often nowhere to be found, students said. The start of the semester here was delayed because of a conflict involving the cleaning staff.

“I’d like to have more investment in education,” said Luiz Silveira, who is studying environmental engineering in one of the few buildings on the campus that seems up to date, thanks to contributions from the private sector, and which he contrasts with the ramshackle condition of the humanities building, just across the street.

Silveira was among the students who took part in the World Cup protests. “For me personally it was all about education,” he said. As for the government’s promises, he said, “People don’t trust in those.”

The breakneck growth in university enrollment slowed to 3.8 percent in 2013, the most recent year for which the figure is available — about a third of the rate of the years before that, the Ministry of Education reported. And while the number of students coming into the universities continues to increase, the number of graduates coming out of them declined in 2013 by nearly 6 percent.

“I’m not hopeful for the future of this business,” Nunes said. “Our performance is okay for a small country, but we’re not a small country.”

To change this, among other things, Brazil has launched a project it calls Science Without Borders, paying to send 100,000 students like Ferreira to top universities abroad in the hope they will return and help improve the way Brazilian universities are run.

“They come back with a whole new approach with their courses,” said Denise de Menezes Neddermeyer, director of international affairs for the Ministry of Education.

And while “it’s too soon” to measure the impact, Neddermeyer said, “If Brazil is wise enough to capture all this good energy the students are bringing, there will be good results.”

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