Well THIS should be interesting

So yeah. Me = HUGE policy dork. I view public policy as an expression of democratic and social values, for good or for ill. The kinds of policy that a group enacts is, generally, reflective of their beliefs and their collective will to solve problems. Do they believe that problems resolve themselves, or do they need specific intervention? Do the needs of minority groups garner more interest than their numbers would suggest, or is it a ‘majority rules’ kind of deal? Do we empower individuals to find their own solutions, or do we envision government as a problem-solving apparatus? I find these questions fascinating.

Another part about public policy that I think is really important (but doesn’t get the level of attention I think it deserves) is this: does the policy work? It is all well and good to spend public funds or pass a law or build a program, but if you fail to measure whether or not you’re actually solving the problem you’ve set out to tackle, it quickly turns from government “expenditure” into government “waste”. It is partially (but primarily) for this reason that I went into the career path I’m in now.

With that in mind, I am really excited to see the outcome of this policy:

The Brazilian Senate has approved a bill that reserves half the places in the country’s prestigious federal universities to state school students. African-Brazilian Senator Paulo Paim said most Brazilians would benefit as only 10% of students graduated from private schools.


Brazil has the biggest black population anywhere outside of Nigeria, but private schools are still predominantly white. Private school students are usually better prepared than pupils from the public school system for the tough university entry exams. They get most of the places in federal universities, which paradoxically are heavily subsidised and virtually free of charge.

But many argue that a US-style affirmative action policy should not be implemented in Brazil, where most of the population is mixed race. Brazil is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world and many Brazilians regard their nation as a “racial democracy” where there is little overt racism. Nonetheless black Brazilians, the descendants of African slaves brought over during Portuguese colonial rule, are much more likely to be poor and rarely reach the top levels of business or politics.

So the obvious short-term impact of the legislative change is that federal universities are about to get a lot blacker. This will, in the medium term, mean that a large ‘boom’ or ‘bulge’ of highly-educated black and brown students will be entering the work force. Allowing for the fact that being well-educated doesn’t necessarily safeguard you from employment discrimination, it should result in an increase in the number of Brazilians of colour participating in the higher-income sectors of the economy.

The unanswered questions here are several:

  • Will the success rate go down or up? Critics of affirmative action policies will say that by bringing in “less qualified” students, you run the risk of increasing dropout rates among students who couldn’t hack it without AfAm. Proponents will note that AfAm students often outperform others who are granted entry for financial reasons rather than academic ones (itself a form of ‘action’ that I don’t really see as affirmative).
  • What will the cohort do after school? Will the ‘bulge’ result in measurably-improved outcomes for Brazilians of colour that do not attend the federal universities? Will the AfAm students get hired into appropriate jobs after graduating, or is there an opportunity to observe the magnitude of employment discrimination?
  • What happens after the AfAm period is over? This is a 10-year experiment, meaning that schools will no longer have to abide by quotas after the legislation expires. Will there be a ‘sea change’ in the culture, or will it simply revert to the racially divided system that necessitated the change?
  • What effect will this have on student life? University campuses are steeped in tradition. All of a sudden they will have a student body that lies well outside what their view of a ‘traditional’ student looks like. Will there be racial segregation on campuses? Will students of colour assimilate, or choose to start their own traditions?
  • What effect will this have on racial relations at large? Opponents of AfAm often bring up the canard of “racial resentment”, saying that white people will start to resent people of colour for taking “their” jobs and “their” university spaces. Brazil has a very different racial climate than the United States does – what effect will this have on racial relations in the short/medium/long term?

All in all, it seems like a really good time to be a sociologist or policy analyst in Brazil. I am excited to hear more about the outcomes of this policy. And yes… that makes me a giant dork. Get over it.

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  1. baal says

    does the policy work?

    Thou Shalt not Subject Government to Empirical Tests!

    (right so how is that abstinence only sex-ed working Texas? http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/USTPtrends.pdf)

    I did 4 man debate in highschool and have been wondering why noone pays attention to policy ever since. Much of government is pretty neutral, “someone needs to make a decision” while other parts have a huge impact and there are clear factual reasons for having one policy over another.

  2. mythbri says

    You have otters. I like your views and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

    Otters aside, I am interested in this as a 10-year experiment. Is 10 years enough to sustain an unassisted increase in numbers of students of color? I wish I knew of similar experiments that have been done elsewhere, but my gut feeling is if there is commitment from the schools to be as welcoming as possible to a newly-composed student body, and for said student body to assert itself when it needs to, then I’m hopeful for long-lasting, positive change.

  3. smrnda says

    I’m the type of person who doesn’t think that social problems just solve themselves because they didn’t create themselves – the people affected usually got screwed at some point in history, and are left without the resources to get out of the situation.

    As far as assessing whether or not programs are effective, it seems that, at least in the States, programs which have been shown to be ineffective, like abstinence based sex ed, continue to be used no matter how badly they fail, but I think that’s perhaps a particular problem with the States – there’s this obsession about what policy (or lack thereof) is “American” and the results matter far less.

    My worry on this one is that having a degree and qualifications doesn’t necessarily get you a job later on – it’s helpful, but you can still be subject to discrimination.

    I agree with you that being able to afford college is basically affirmative action for rich white kids, many of whom aren’t that remarkable in terms of academic abilities to begin with.

  4. smhll says

    I’d sign up for a free trip to Rio (in 10 years) to go study this.

    My experience with education is in the US. In the US I think that just reserving places in college for racial minorities would not be sufficient, because African Americans are more likely to attend fairly lousy public schools. Improving school quality, starting with kindergarden or preschool, and working on up the ladder seems like an important adjunct to improving access to university.

  5. eric says

    Yeah, love the meta-policy behind this decision, in that Brazil’s government is willing to adopt a policy for 10 years to see if it works. In the US the arguments for or against a policy tend to be more absolute, less social-experimenty.

    California has something related (though not closely): the top 10% of CA high school students – from school programs accredited by UC – are guaranteed admission to a university in the UC or Cal State systems. The state has had that law for many years now, so I’m sure there are sociological studies of the impact.

    One (anecdotal) impact has been that high schools and parents have become very interested in ensuring their school curriculum gets accredited by UC, because it means great things for their kids. This has created, in essence, a strong curriculum standard that applies to ALL schools – public and private – because UC is now deciding what counts as a legitimate history, biology, etc. course at the high school level. This has lead, for example, to cases like ACSI vs Stearns, where a parochial christian school sued to get their fundie biology course accepted as accredited and getting shot down by the courts.

  6. Patrik Roslund says

    Policy is important but so are the costs. Universities should be free of charge and you need a good student loan system to give everyone equal opportunity.

  7. says

    Equal financial opportunity at point of enrolment, sure. But this isn’t about that – this is about equal opportunity at a much larger and more varied scale.

  8. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    Interesting idea. It does make me wonder about whether or not tackling the actual causes of the disparity would be more effective, and in a purely academic sense, that might work. If the causes behind the education differentials are poor state school funding, endemic racism or problems with curriculum then such affirmative action may be less effective in the long term. If students at state schools are receiving a poor quality education, they may be less likely to do well at university level.
    If, on the other hand, the quality of education is comparable to privately funded schools and racism or selection bias is more problematic, this should show it up nicely.

    All in all, a very cool thing to try. Obviously there won’t be a single cause for the disparity in student intake, but this should help clarify the problem if nothing else. Combined with a review of public school funding and curriculum, this could be a powerful thing.

  9. Paulino says

    This is certainly one the initial steps towards social justice in Brazil. I’m not sure if it is the best one, but it is undoubtedly an important one. I would first try to fix public schools, the low standards of public school perhaps poses a greater source of social inequality in Brazil(other than racism, of course), and greatly influences access to Universities.

  10. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    (right so how is that abstinence only sex-ed working Texas? http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/USTPtrends.pdf)

    It’s working wonderfully. The teen pregnancy rate has increased, making kids and especially girls suffer for being human and having sex, and creating a generation at greater risk of poverty, educational disadvantage, and far more dependent on churches and family for support, thus increasing the proportion of people unlikely to see through Republican propaganda or have the leverage and latitude to stand up for the interests of their demographic groups.

  11. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Will the ‘bulge’ result in measurably-improved outcomes for Brazilians of colour that do not attend the federal universities? Will the AfAm students get hired into appropriate jobs after graduating, or is there an opportunity to observe the magnitude of employment discrimination?

    …or, for that matter, will those who benefit seek to “pull up the ladder behind them” like certain former underclasses in the US and elsewhere have done when they gained greater social acceptance and access to education and economic means.

  12. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I would first try to fix public schools, the low standards of public school perhaps poses a greater source of social inequality in Brazil(other than racism, of course), and greatly influences access to Universities.

    Even if you fix public schools, there’s likely to be a stigma associated with them that will persist for some time, and a relatively prestigious reputation that comes from attending private schools (which 1) cost a lot of money and thus have a strong selection bias in favor of students from wealthier families and 2) can be more selective about the students they admit and retain than public schools, generally), which combined with private school students being far likelier to have the money to pay for tutoring and prep courses and vastly reduced chance of having to work outside of school to support the family, results in a largely artificial academic prestige attaching to public school students.

  13. says

    Hi! I’m from Brazil. Lived and did my undergrad and grad studies there. Maybe I can contribute to the discussion.

    Higher Education in Brazil
    Is basically divided in public and private. Public universities are the high quality ones, and the main source of research and scientific production. There is basically at least one university in every main city. São Paulo for example has something like 5, all excellent ones. The bad side is that the number of students it can take per term is limited, and way below the demand. Courses like medicine or Law School can have rates applicants/accepted to the order of hundreds! The selection is made via an exam one does at the end of High School. If you fail, you are allowed to retake the exam the number of times you want (it happens every year or semester, depending on the university). You can also apply simultaneously to different universities, even in different cities.

    I studied in public universities for my bachelor and masters degree. Now I have a PhD position in Germany, and I should say that concerning the curriculum, Brazilian universities are surely a match to german ones. We do lack however in infrastructure and investiment. While german universities would have in their labs the most modern equipament, we would have to struggle with some 30-year-old-always-braking machines.

    Private higher education on the other hand used to be for the “rich and not-so-smart”, that is, if you could not pass the exam for a public university and could afford the expensive taxes, you would go to a private college. But now, since it is a good business, you have private colleges in every corner. And instead of competing on the quality, they often compete on the lowest price, lowest effort needed, and shortest time to graduate. So now you can find colleges that give you a business degree in 2 years for 100 bucks per month. But don’t ask about the competence of such “graduates”. (To the despair of anarco-capitalism idealists)

    Of course there are regulations, but you know, when the money dictates, everything goes.

    There are a few (really few) good private universities. But those are reaaaaally expensive.

    Black and White
    So the situation is the following. If your parents had money enough to pay for a private basic and high school, most likely you are white, and most likely you will be able to enter a public university. If your parents could not pay you a good school, statistically speaking you are probably black, and if you want a college degree you will have to work during day so you can afford some crappy university during night (yes, night courses exist in Brazil).

    So yes, the rich gets the free and good, and the poor gets the paid and bad.

    As said, I studied in a public university. Most of my colleagues were white, and most of them had a car to drive to the university (I also had one).

    Affirmative policies up to now
    Although it is the first time such a law is passed on a federal level, federal and state universities have autonomy enough to have their own internal regiment, so some universities have already race- or social condition-based policies.

    The implementation was and is not easy. Some years after I started my undergrad my university implemented race-based system, dedicating 20% of places to black and mixed people. The criteria was declaring yourself as a black of mixed, than you would pass through a committee of “judges” who would tell if you are indeed black or not. The problem lies on the wide mixture of the Brazilian people. For exemple, although I myself count as white, I had a black grandgrandmother, so I have some black traces. There was a famous case of two identical twins, whoch one was accepted as “mixed” and the other wasn’t.

    But this was on the very first stages of the system. I might say that it was still “experimental”. Today I cannot say how is the status of the selection, but I CAN say however that according to different sources, the performance of the “affirmative” students are comparable or even better then the “regular” students.

    And as was pointed out on the text, the student life on the campus is changing. Having more contact with a previously marginalized sector of the community, I could say that students are understanding better the social and racial problems the country has.

    This particular law
    There is more to the law as was written on the text. In fact, it reserves 50% to public school students, and 50% of this 50% (that is, 25% of the total) for students from low-income families. And, from each subset, the places should be distributed according to the race demographics of the city or region the university is in.

    So far as I know, this law, although approved by Senate, it still has to go to Congress, where the white and rich majority can bring it down. But I hope the public pressure is enough for it to be approved.

    So, that’s it. If you have questions, I can try to answer. =)

  14. says

    so if I understand this correctly, the imbalance is created because “Private school students are usually better prepared than pupils from the public school system for the tough university entry exams”. Which means that after the policy expires, things will revert to where they are now unless other policy changes are made which would somehow eliminate this disparity.

    These 10 years would certainly be good evidence for whether the private schools actually give people better education, or whether they just excel at test-prep. Based on that, policies which would eliminate the imbalance could then be devised: if it’s just test-prep, then maybe getting rid of entrance exams and replacing them with a Top 10% Rule would be better; OTOH, if public students are actually getting a much worse education, then nothing other than improving their educations is going to help, unless they make this new law permanent and allow under-educated students to make up the difference somehow.

  15. Katie says

    I think this is definitely interesting. I always had issues with the way that scholarships and university entry in my area worked: since they rewarded high marks only, they really tended to favour richer students over poorer ones (since only rich students had parents that could afford to pay tutors). You’d have be to be an excellent student to be poor and get a scholarship (which was needed for school), but you could be merely good and rich (even if you didn’t need it).

    I’ve always had a bit of a problem with race-based scholarships or entries, simply since race doesn’t always go along with poverty (particularly where I grew up–lots of poor white farmers and relatively rich doctors and engineers who were often east Indian). I’d much rather give scholarships/entries favourably to those of less means (but decent marks). Also less problematic in areas that have lots of mixed race people!

    The counter-argument of course is that it isn’t all about money. Perhaps race is discriminated against as a separate factor, not just mediated through material wealth.

  16. Paulino says

    Your curriculum isn’t examined during the admission into univesities, only your grades at Natiobal HighSchool Examination (ENEM) or the particular examination of certain universities. So prestige doesn’t count but you are right about prep schools. So yes I agree that fixing public schools wouldn’t be sufficient but it is a problem that must be addressed for the same reasons that this law was put forward.

  17. Marcelo says

    I was still in UERJ (Rio de Janeiro State University) when the state law of the same kind passed.

    One think I can tell you that I thought very strange, I saw only a small increase on the number of people of color on the new classes after the law And we had some bizarre cases on the news like identical twins making applications and one considered black but not the another.

    I don’t have time right now, I intend to come back and write more.

  18. says

    Just an update here. President Dilma Rousseff just approved the law. It should start being applied already in the next selections.

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