The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense (2016-2017)

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.

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 highly stigmatized as a site of corruption and violence. Most of its residents work or go to school in Rio, enduring daily commutes of several hours each way.

The Duke team members of this Bass Connections project worked collaboratively with faculty, graduate students and undergraduates at the Multidisciplinary Institute of the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (IM/UFRRJ), located in the Baixada. This educational institution marks the first-ever investment by the central government to address the demand for tuition-free higher education in the region. Eighty-two percent of current students come from families with incomes of less than $20,000.

In June 2016, the team conducted three weeks of collaborative fieldwork in the Baixada. In March 2017, 17 Brazilian collaborators visited Duke for a nine-day exchange and day-long conference. The team traveled to Washington, DC, and met with Duke administrators to learn more about access, student services and financial aid at the university. Among the 277 conference attendees were 10 students and a professor from Winston Salem State University, a historically black university. Team members Dudu de Morro Agudo and Stephanie Reist screened their documentary drawing on 50 interviews with IM/UFRRJ students and their families conducted in July 2017. The film will be used in Brazil to encourage local high schools students to apply to the university.

The team’s suggests that policymakers do not sufficiently understand the obstacles, both financial and psychological, that racially or socioeconomically marginalized populations face when they pursue mobility through higher education. One must challenge the generally accepted belief that greater access to higher education automatically contributes to diminishing inequality by enhancing opportunity, as well as the idea that a college degree leads to significant improvements in wealth and labor outcomes.

The team’s website was honored as the best in the Education & Human Development theme of Bass Connections. Stephanie Reist won the Bass Connections Award for Outstanding Mentorship. Adair Necalli won the Bass Connections Photo Contest.


Summer 2016 – Spring 2017

Team Outcomes

The Cost of Opportunity: Higher Education & Social Mobility in Rio de Janeiro’s Baixada Fluminense (Part 1) (G. Kidd, A. Necalli, C. Ricks, J.V. Alencar, R. Allen, J. Lee, T. Brown)

The Cost of Opportunity: Higher Education & Social Mobility in Rio de Janeiro’s Baixada Fluminense (Part 2) (G. Kidd, A. Necalli, C. Ricks, J.V. Alencar, R. Allen, J. Lee, T. Brown)

The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense (presentation by Adair Necalli and Chloe Ricks, EHDx Talks, April 19, 2017)

The Cost of Opportunity Conference (Franklin Humanities Institute, March 27, 2017)

Duke Global Brazil Conference (Franklin Humanities Institute, February 17, 2017)

Challenges for Marginalized Students in Higher Education in South Africa, the U.S. and Beyond (workshop by Duke alumna Amelia Herbert, November 11, 2016)

Project website (best website at EDHx, Education & Human Development theme)


The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense

Global Brazil Lab - Cost of Opportunity in the Baixada Fluminense


John Victor Alencar ’17

Gray Kidd, PhD Program in History

Adair Necalli ’19

Eyram Klu ’19

This Team in the News

Enraizados exibiu documentário ‘O custo da oportunidade’ no Ponto Cine

Documentário mostra transformações e desafios de estudantes da Baixada que decidem cursar o ensino superior

Student Laurels and Honors for 2017

Students Present Their Research and Learn from Each Other at the Bass Connections Showcase

From Durham to Brazil, Students Share Research Stories

Two Graduate Students Honored for Excellence in Mentoring Their Bass Connections Team Members

Challenges, Dreams and Struggles: Sharing Experiences Transnationally

Photo Contest Winners Shed Light on Their Research Experiences in Brazil and India

March 27 Conference to Explore Cost of Opportunity Related to Higher Education in Brazil

Brazilian Scholars to Meet at Duke Feb. 17 for Discussion of Dams, Education and Impeachment

Bass Connections in Brazil

Bass Connections in Baixada Fluminense

IM é tema de pesquisa internacional

Advances and Challenges in the Expansion of Higher Education

Duke Team Collaborates with Brazilian Students to Explore the Cost of Opportunity

Duke’s Global Brazil Lab Works to Create Partnerships between Duke, Brazilian Universities

Rio, the Reluctant Metropolis: Introduction to the Baixada Fluminense (Part 1 and Part 2)

This project was cosponsored by the Global Brazil Humanities Lab and the Duke Brazil Initiative.

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

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Antonio Arce, Trinity - Latin American Studies*
Marcos De Almeida Rangel, Sanford School of Public Policy*
John French, Trinity - History*
Katya Wesolowski, Trinity - Cultural Anthropology*

Graduate Team Members

Aaron Colston, History
Gray Kidd, History
Travis Knoll, Graduate School - PhD in History
Stephanie Reist, PhD in Romance Studies

Undergraduate Team Members

John Victor Alencar, Global Health (AB), Economics (AB2)
Riley Allen, Int Comparative Studies (AB), Int Comparative Studies (AB2)
Zhong Huang, Computer Science (BS)
Michael Ivory, Political Science (AB)
Eyram Klu
Jessica Lee, Computer Science (AB)
Adair Necalli, Linguistics (AB)
Leighanne Oh, Biomedical Engineering

* denotes team leader


Completed, Archived