The Cost of Opportunity: Access to Higher Education in Brazil (2018-2019)


Brazil in the early 21st century faces challenges of great magnitude, and the expanded system of federal universities is expected to play a fundamental role in confronting them. The hopeful vision of a better future, with development and social justice, draws sustenance from a successful process of democratization since 1985, important economic advances and the positive impact of redistributive public policies. Yet existing pessimism and frustrations are more than justified by the persistence of social and racial inequalities, inefficient administration and concerns about environmental sustainability. Moreover, Brazil is passing through an accelerated demographic transition. The future of the country, to a great extent, depends on the degree of access to and quality of education.

Since 2001, Brazil has engaged in a vast expansion of its higher education system, with the stated goals of promoting economic mobility and reducing social disparities. Enrollments in Brazilian universities have more than doubled, from 3.0 million to 7.8 million students, yet the broader effects of these policies are poorly understood. Existing analyses of Brazilian higher education policies are entirely associational and descriptive in their methodology, and there is still no consensus about the extent to which policies actually contribute, in a causal sense, to social mobility or to the reduction of poverty and inequalities.

Both the potential and obstacles ahead are particularly acute in the region known as the Baixada Fluminense on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. With four million inhabitants, the Baixada has one of the highest concentrations of young people in Brazil. It is routinely stigmatized both socially and racially.

The county of Novo Iguaçu in the Baixada region is home to 829,000 people and is the location of the Multidisciplinary Institute of the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (IM/UFRRJ), the first-ever investment by the central government to address the demand for tuition-free higher education in the Baixada as part of the inclusionary policies of center-left presidential administrations since 2002. The IM/UFRRJ occupies three new buildings, has an energetic and recently hired faculty and enrolls 3,500 students in ten areas of study. The demand for higher education—and the scope of the challenge in delivering it—can be seen in looking at the census estimates for the seven counties closest to the IM/UFRRJ with 353,653 young people between the ages of 18 and 25. Given the 2016 objectives established by the National Plan of Education, 116,705 of these young people should have access to a university education, with 40% of the slots to be generated at the new public universities like the IM/UFFRJ, which at present reaches only 1% of the local population of the age group defined as the primary target for university education.

This Bass Connections project began in 2016-2017, in collaboration with faculty, graduate students and undergraduates at the IM/UFRRJ. The 2017-2018 project team engaged in a targeted field research experience, including a week of interviews with Ministry of Education officials in Brasília, an extended period spent gaining access to Brazilian national education data sets and another two weeks at the IM, where Duke signed an agreement to facilitate research exchange that included administrative and technical cooperation between the two universities. The Brazilian team organized an “Open University” conference on March 1, 2018, to discuss the importance of the IM for the surrounding community. The U.S. team is organizing a Duke-hosted conference on education and social movements in Spring 2018 focusing on comparative perspectives on social mobility and access to higher education in the U.S. and Brazil.

Project Description

In 2018-2019, under the direction of Professor Marcos Rangel, the project aims to develop rigorous causal estimates of the impacts of higher education policies on beneficiaries’ labor market performance. Using a research design that combines quasi-experimental econometric methods with a unique combination of educational and labor market data, the project team will conduct a scientifically grounded assessment of the impacts of higher education policies in Brazil.

This project has a strong potential to inform ongoing policy discussions over the value and efficacy of a set of large-scale programs that were implemented in order to expand access to higher education and reduce economic inequalities in the labor market. These policies require significant financial investment, though their impacts are poorly understood. Thus, debates about these policies have become highly politicized and are not well grounded. The project’s analysis can provide much-needed clarity to these discussions. Furthermore, the articles that emerge from this project have the potential to influence world debates around education expansion, especially in emerging economies where economic growth is steady but inequalities persist.

The project’s implications extend beyond the specifics of education policy and touch on sensitive issues such as the efficacy and transparency of public subsidy of private initiatives, large-scale state economic and educational intervention, tax relief incentives and direct cash transfer programs.

Because team members will examine multiple education systems worldwide, the project lends itself to scientifically valid cross-country analyses and comparisons. The team will submit grant applications that would enable an exploration of these broader, comparative implications.

Anticipated Outcomes

Presentations, policy papers, article submitted to peer-reviewed journals, grant applications, undergraduate honors theses

Student Opportunities

The project seeks undergraduates and graduates with some prior knowledge of quantitative methods (for refreshers, please see SSRI’s modU courses specifically on Causal Inference, Multi-Level Models, Social Network Analysis), although there will also be basic tasks such as data cleaning and sorting data for analysis. Knowledge of Portuguese is not required, but students should have some ability to learn and read data categories in Portuguese in the first few weeks of the project. Knowledge of Brazilian higher education and/or Portuguese would be most welcome.

This research not only promises to inform ongoing policy discussions in Brazil and generate articles appropriate for publication in top academic journals, but it also has the potential to win additional grants, providing an opportunity to expand the team’s research on higher education policies along cross-national and comparative lines. For this purpose, the project especially seeks a graduate student team member to assist Professor Rangel with data analysis. The team member will be paid for this work; depending on the nature of the research contribution, coauthorship of articles may result.


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019

  • Fall 2018: One-credit Cost of Opportunity course
  • Spring 2019: One-credit Cost of Opportunity course; conference; final reports


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters


We are accepting applications through Friday, April 6, at 5:00 p.m. Please use this application link and read our FAQs.

See earlier related team, The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense (2017-2018).

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Marcos De Almeida Rangel, Sanford School of Public Policy*
John French, Arts & Sciences-History
Travis Knoll, Trinity - History-PHD
Katya Wesolowski, Arts & Sciences-Cultural Anthropology*

Community Team Members

Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro

* denotes team leader


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