The government has begun programs to address these problems, including PROUNI ("University for All"), which provides scholarships for low-income students, and FIES, which offers low-interest college loans. (Whether the resulting debt will, as in the U.S., inadvertently make matters worse for students stands to be seen next year, when the first of the loan repayments are due.) In addition, governments have offered tax breaks to for-profit universities 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 private nonprofit Catholic universities, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, a high-quality institution that goes by PUC-Rio.
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In the high-priced Gávea district, PUC-Rio looks like an exclusive American campus—if that campus were overhung with tropical trees and divided by a river leading from the Tijuca rainforest. The facilities are first-rate, and in the plaza in front of the library bears a bust of John F. Kennedy. Students here are primarily affluent, but Dalcero sees that changing: Thanks to the government grants and loans, she said, "I have a lot of friends who don’t pay." She estimated that nearly half of them receive financial aid.
The Brazilian 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 currently 42 percent in the U.S., according to the DOE.) Meanwhile, the country has directed its federal universities to set aside half of their seats for students coming from public high schools—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 at least one student, Diego Fonseca Ferreira, has already benefited from it. The first in his family to go to college, Ferreira said he got a scholarship to a private high school; the school 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," he noted.) Ferreira also recently studied abroad at the University of Illinois, at the Brazilian government’s expense as part of a relatively new federal program. On the campus in Sao Paolo, he said, he increasingly sees others who look like they come from similar backgrounds. Still, Ferreira still notices lots of inequality. "It’s just starting to change now, in this decade," he said, "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 at top-tier Brazilian universities, according to the INEP report. But the study 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.