The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense (2017-2018)


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.

Enrollment in higher education in Brazil has tripled in the last decade. Three quarters of this growth has taken place in tuition-charging private institutions, whose racial and class composition is unrepresentative of the country.

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.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project began in 2016, in collaboration with faculty, graduate students and undergraduates at the IM/UFRRJ. The 2017-2018 Bass Connections project team will engage in a targeted field research experience, including a week of interviews with Ministry of Education officials in Brasília. The team will also organize a speakers’ series on social mobility and access to higher education in the developing world.

Team members will participate in collaborative work with Brazilian counterparts, which includes the opportunity to meet with a delegation of counterparts at the UFRRJ and a “Cost of Opportunity” conference along with members of the 2016-2017 team. The 2017-2018 team will get caught up on the state of project research and collaboration and discuss research agendas for summer fieldwork as the project begins its second year.

Anticipated Outcomes

Presentations, policy papers, videos, blog posts, grant applications, undergraduate honors theses


Summer 2017 – Spring 2018

  • Summer 2017: Field research in Brazil in late summer, 2-3 weeks
  • Fall 2017: One-credit Cost of Opportunity course
  • Spring 2018: Further activities

Team Outcomes to Date

Nova Iguaçu “Open University” Conference Sparks Continued Reflection (Riley Allen)

Cost of Opportunity 2018 Conference: Educate to Liberate, April 20, 2018

The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense (talk by Joseph Beck and Riley Allen), EHDx, April 19, 2018

The Cost of Opportunity: Revolutionizing Public Higher Education in Brazil Since 2003 (poster by Riley Allen, Eduardo Ángelo da Silva, Joe Beck, John French, Andrew Guinn, Travis Knoll, Adair Necalli, Chloe Ricks, Cesar Santos), presented at Bass Connections Showcase, April 18, 2018, and EHDx, April 19, 2018

Travis Knoll (Ph.D. Program in History), Bass Connections Follow-on Student Research Award

Open University: The Right to Higher Education, conference organized at the Universidad Federal Rural de Rio de Janeiro, March 1, 2018

Project team website

Is Lady Justice Blind? Reading Brazil’s 2012 Affirmative Action Decision through the Struggle for Gender Equality (Travis Knoll)


How Bass Connections Helped My Dissertation


Travis Knoll

Faculty Perspectives: John French

Chloe Ricks

Joe Beck

Mitchell Ryan

This Team in the News

Collaborative Research in Brazil Delves into Higher Education, Politics and Social Justice

Higher Education Access in Brazil and the U.S.

Duke Students Awarded Certificates in International Area Studies

These Ph.D. Graduates Played Key Roles in Their Bass Connections Projects

Bass Connections Showcase Presents Research Highlights from Durham to Malaysia

The Amazon: A Natural Laboratory for the Study of the Environment, Politics and Society

Meet the 2018 Recipients of Bass Connections Follow-on Research Awards

Federal Rural University (UFRRJ) Event Discusses Higher Ed

Federal University Campus in Rio Periphery Launches Manifesto Defending Brazilian Higher Education

Evento na UFRRJ de Nova Iguaçu discute a universidade pública

Meet the Members of the 2017-18 Student Advisory Council

Exibição de documentário movimenta Colégio Estadual Bom Pastor, em Belford Roxo

2017 Latin American Film Festival Begins Oct. 1

See related teams, The Cost of Opportunity: Access to Higher Education in Brazil (2018-2019) and The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense (2016-2017). This project was cosponsored by the Global Brazil Humanities Lab and the Duke Brazil Initiative.

Faculty/Staff Team Members

John Victor Alencar, Franklin Humanities Institute
Marcos De Almeida Rangel, Sanford School of Public Policy*
John French, Arts & Sciences-History*
Kenneth Maffitt, Is - Latin American Studies
Katya Wesolowski, Arts & Sciences-Cultural Anthropology*

Graduate Team Members

Gray Kidd, History-PHD
Travis Knoll, History-PHD
Stephanie Reist, Romance Studies-PHD

Undergraduate Team Members

Riley Allen, Int Comparative Studies (AB)
Joseph Beck, Public Policy Studies (AB)
Adair Necalli, Linguistics (AB)
Chloe Ricks, Int Comparative Studies (AB)

Community Team Members

Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro
Andrew Guinn, Graduate Student, UNC-Chapel Hill
Mitchell Ryan, UNC-Chapel Hill (Undergraduate Student)
Dudu de Morro Agudo, Enraizados

* denotes team leader