Ike Okonkwo ’18


Expanding access to Brazil’s institutions of higher education, particularly for historically underrepresented racial minorities and low-income students, has long been a topic of interest in Brazilian affairs. Although racial mixing in Brazil certainly produced a spectrum of races and phenotypes that span economic classes, racism and colorism are still present in society. It can be argued that the racial democracy in Brazil asserts the absence of racism as a byproduct of the country’s history with racial mixing1. However, evidence of racial inequality specifically in the Brazilian education sector can easily be found. In Chapter 1 of Maria Susana Arrosa Soares’, Higher Education in Brazil, Soares portrays the foundation of Brazilian colleges and their backwardness. When Brazil became independent in 1822, education was restricted to the descendants of Portuguese families. In 1931, President Getúlio Vargas created the Ministry of Education opening courses that perpetuated this exclusion in the education sector.2 Even in 1934, with the foundation of the Federal University of São Paulo (USP, widely regarded as the highest quality university in Brazil), the ‘Paulista’ elite continued having privileged access to professional courses in medicine and law3. Clearly, this complex colonial history influenced a gap in who had political power, financial stability, and job opportunities. This raises the questions: How, if at all, can we repair these inequities? More, can this be accomplished through Affirmative Action (AA) policy?

In order to make sense of Brazil’s AA policy, it is first necessary to understand Brazil’s various existing models of higher education. In this text we will focus on Brazil’s public universities, which must adhere to Brazilian federal AA law. By examining the work of Brazilian scholars like Maria Soares, we can conceptualize the various models of financing for these institutions and the implications that they pose for under-represented students. These institutions include both state and federal colleges, referred to as public universities. For state colleges, the state is the principal source of funding for the institution, while the federal colleges are maintained by the federal government and depend on its tax revenue as the primary source of income4. Since education in these public institutions is free to its students, the application process to attend them remains supremely competitive. This is not to say, however, that Brazilian private colleges are necessarily uncompetitive. In fact, Soares highlights how private universities are also growing uncontrollably each year, citing the 1,004 private institutions within Brazil serving 1.8 million undergraduates (roughly 2/3 of the country’s student population in higher education)5. Still, given that Brazilian private institutions do not offer free tuition, they are less preferred or financially inaccessible to many students, especially those from low-income households.

Current trends in Brazilian education demonstrate an increase in university applicants accompanied by increasing debate over quota policies. It is worth recognizing the increased discourse surrounding AA policy as it has turned into a highly controversial topic in Brazil. Studying the student population and implementation of AA at federal institutions helps us betterunderstand the competitive nature of Brazil’s school system as it relates to socio-economically disadvantaged students. Brazil’s Census of Higher  Education confirms a recent growth in the enrollments to its colleges stating: “the percentage of people attending university is almost 30% of the Brazilian population in the age group of 18 to 24 years, and 15% is at the age theoretically adequate to attend this level of education.”6 This information (perhaps) reflects a general distrust in the labor market such that more people feel that higher education is needed to successfully secure employment. Even distance learning courses have been increasing in annual enrollment7. The creation of more vacancies on college campuses generates expenditures that are not sustainable in the long-term, exacerbating the need to create effective access to education and to rethink plans to increase the quality of all the available institutions (both private and public). To that end, I propose to approach the topic of affirmative action in Brazil taking into account its racial and economic quotas and the ways in which they operate.


It is important to review the implementation of Brazil’s affirmative action policies in order to understand the demographic makeup of Brazil’s public colleges. In 2012, Brazil’s Federal Affirmative Action Law (Lei de Cotas) established a reserve of 50% of vacancies in federal institutions for students who had completed public high schools. Of the half of the reserved slots, 50% were earmarked for students with per capita family income of up to a minimum wage and a half.8 That is to say, a total of 25% of the university spaces were reserved for students from low-income families. In addition, the law also implemented a racial distribution across the reserved spots among Black, Mixed-Race (pardos), and Native-Indian students with respect to the proportion of ethnic groups in each state. The adoption of racial sub- quotas was the most polemical of the policy as it established an unprecedented legal process for Brazilians to identify themselves racially.9 This polarizing policy gave rise to two factions: the supporters of racial quotas and its opponents.







This infographic illuminates the distribution of spaces in Public Universities

By the same token, we must stop to address the consequences of applying to or not applying to the universities’ quota pools. For students who have entered university through the quota system, they risk being identified as ‘quota holders’ (cotistas). In recent years, quota holders have faced social challenges as negative attitudes about their status have manifested in forms of bullying including cases of physical violence used against them.11 That is to say, being a quota recipient (likely) equates to having greater chances of being beaten, isolated, or having one’s academic merits and/or ethnic identity questioned. These factors present a negative cost for minority students, discouraging their use of the quota policy. Conversely, for students who choose not to apply to the quota system, they run the risk of being less likely to receive a seat in a public university. All of these challenges to (AA) policy are significant because they limit the access to higher education, a potentially powerful agent in combating cycles of intergenerational poverty and increasing an individual’s social mobility.

In short, when doing an analysis of the quota system in Brazil it is crucial to take all these details into account alongside the students’ experiences. Therefore, we investigate the effects of the 2012 AA law. Specifically we ask: how has federal AA policy in Brazil been received by its students and how has it influenced students on a day-to-day basis? We then address which measures can be applied to improve its implementation. The data collected from this study suggests an internalized discourse regarding race and social status that reflects the need to change federal quota policies and potentially the funding of higher education in Brazil as a whole.


1. The Methods

This project used both quantitative and qualitative methods to explore the relationships between participants socioeconomic profile and their daily experiences as students of public universities. For the quantitative portion, we used SPSS to breakdown correlations between student attributes like race, family income, quota status, college, and rating of the quota system. We utilize regression analysis on these student attributes and their personal ratings on a scale of 1-5 of the quota policy (from least to most favorable), attempting to explain the variance in the students ratings. It is important to note that our quantitative methods report on a small number of participants (50 students), which could potentially invalidate the nature of such methods. However, we still find some statistically significant data that could at least justify the continuation of further studies of a larger magnitude. For the qualitative portion of our study, students wrote open-ended responses about their most present challenges (specifically on college campuses) and also had the option to participate in oral-interviews.

2. The Participants

This study was conducted with the help of 50 participants who were randomly selected from various Brazilian universities including the Federal University of Amazonas, the State University of Amazonas, the University of São Paulo, the Federal University of São Paulo, and the Federal University of Pernambuco. Participants were recruited using fliers that were posted on their respective campuses. Of the 50 participants who responded to these postings, 41 completed the questionnaire and agreed to have their answers published. Figures (1-4) depict demographic details of these participants (see appendix).

3. Instruments

The data for this study were collected through two research instruments: audio recordings of in-person interviews and an online questionnaire developed to access the students’ opinions of the quota policy.

Quantitative Results and Discussion

The following tables (1-2) depict the most relevant data on the relationship between students’ course selection and his/her attributes such as: their rating of the quota policy, level of family income, and status as a quota holder. What we can see from this information is that there is a negative and significant correlation between the courses of business administration and the ratings of the quotas. In other words, as the level of satisfaction with the quota policy increases, the number of administration students drops. Most of the administration students in this sample come from the University of São Paulo (USP) and are also responsible for the positive correlation between high-family income and enrollment in the administration course. That is to say, that with an increase in the number of USP administration students, there is an accompanying increase in family income and lower satisfaction with quotas. It is also interesting to note that a parallel trend exists with the law course, though it is not statistically significant (perhaps) due to the sample’s fewer number of law students. Our sample of quota holders relative to other students is relatively small, rightfully so, as the percentage of total quota holders overall is much smaller in many courses. In short, these correlational data may reflect a negative attitude among students in the most competitive courses (administration and law) in relation to quotas. Conversely, we find that the less competitive course, social service, possesses the opposite relationship regarding student enrollment and family income; social service also possesses the largest number of quota holders in total.


The continuation of these correlations can be seen in table two. However, table 2 depicts the relationship between university and the students’ attributes (ratings of the quota system, family income, and status as shareholder). The most relevant data here show a negative and statistically significant correlation between quota satisfaction and enrollment at USP. Again, this factor is largely due to to the administration students in the sample. More, we see a positive correlation between students attending this university and higher family income. On the other hand, we find a negative correlation between the enrollment at the University of the State of Amazonas and wealth. All of this is to say that our data confirms a relationship between the level of resources students have, what the student chooses to study, and where they choose to study.


Finally, we analyze the multi-variable regression that uses students’ ratings of the quota system as a dependent variable and their attributes (course, college, family income, etc.) as the independent variables. In other words, this regression seeks to predict how students would rate the quotas conditional on their socioeconomic background. What we found is that 57.7% of the variation found in the student responses can be explained by their socio-economic profile. However, this data needs to be seen as speculative because its ‘F-value’ remains affected by the sample size which was not significant. (see the ANOVA in the appendix – Figure # 5). Still, a similar discourse has been observed by (Bourdieu, 2007) as he summarizes his quota research stating – “these [quota] students do not choose, they are those chosen to occupy careers and courses of lesser prestige.”


a. Predictors: (Constant)

  • School, Course, Race
  • Gender, Income, Age
  • Quota Student, Entry Year

b. Dependent Variable: Quota Rating

Qualitative Results and Discussion

To answer the following short-response question: describe your college experience?, we use data collected on a scale of 1 to 5 whereby students would rank the most present challenges in their experiences. Of the 41 participants, 24 answered the first question and 29 answered the follow-up question. What the responses reveal is simply a division between quota-holders and non-quota holders. For the quota holders, the most pressing challenges they detail (in descending order) were: cost of materials/food/rent/ transportation, balancing working hours with class (many of them take night classes and work during the day), and social exclusion. In other words, most of their problems posed literal consequences for their attendance in the university. On the other hand, the challenges described by non-quota holders were not related to their permanence in the institution (e.g. securing an internship, participating in extracurricular, accessing to teachers, transferring what they learn in the classroom into tangible skills). It is interesting to note that the challenges reported by the students in the state of Amazonas were outliers. For these students, both quota holders and non-quota holders alike described facing a lack of infrastructure on their campus. This may suggest that the students’ problems are not centralized, but rather, that the challenges are nuanced and move depending on the region.

In addition, several quota students shared in the interviews a feeling of “happiness to simply attend a public university”, as they view it as a life-changing opportunity to improve their socioeconomic status. For many of these students, studying at the public university is the most constructive option in their lives. However, this attitude may come with a conundrum of encouraging these students to apply for a place in the public colleges regardless of their course of study. This may explain the tendency for quota students to look for the least competitive courses in order to better their chances of acceptance into a free institution. If these assumptions are valid, they would contribute to an internalized discourse on race and socioeconomic status that dictates that underrepresented students attend whichever courses are offered at night, whichever courses require the least materials (to minimize expenditures), and whichever course they have the best chance of gaining acceptance. In this case, if quotas are unsuccessful in changing these attitudes, then they are not effectively solving the problem of unequal access to educational resources.


The proposal of this text was not to validate or invalidate the presence of quotas but rather to examine using a microscopic-lens how students interact with the quotas, to potentially justify alternatives or alterations to existing policy. Consequently, this study was designed to access the beliefs and attitudes of Brazilian students about their experience in public as it relates to AA policy. Based on the collected qualitative data of the student narratives in interviews and questionnaires, we confirm evidence of an internalized discourse on race and socioeconomic status that dictates how these factors interact with students’ access to higher education. This discourse associates the most competitive courses of greater prestige (such as law or business administration) with higher family income. Indeed, our qualitative data implicates the presence of this narrative positively disproportionately correlating underrepresented students with less prestigious institutions/course selection. It may be that underrepresented students are subject to a selection bias whereby they are selected by courses that are less competitive and have a lower cost of materials.

Furthermore, from this small, random, sample size we can glean that the general perception of Brazilian AA policy is that it is ineffective. We have seen nuances in student accounts of the challenges they face on their college campuses and these challenges move depending on the region, this perhaps means that the problems of Brazil’s education system operate on various geographic and governmental levels. More, what we can deduce from this point is that simply reserving seats for underrepresented students without other measures is not enough to reduce inequalities in the education system. Preparing underrepresented students to receive higher level education is another important part of closing the education gap. One step in particular to do this would involve investing in the lower levels of the public school system (e.g. high schools) that most underrepresented applicants come from.

Solving inequality in the education system is not only a matter of distributing seats, but also, financial management is a factor that directly affects underrepresented students. For this reason, to address the challenges mentioned in the Brazilian education system, I propose a three- point plan that requires greater transparency in the educational budget, followed by a reassessment of the distribution of educational funds by the Ministry of Education and the implementation of a new tuition-system for Public Universities, in which students pay tuition on a sliding percentage scale based on their family income or attend free of cost if they are below a certain income level. With the remaining savings from the new tuition based school system, I would recommend reinvestment into the country’s primary and secondary education system. I would also submit that it is important to start campaigning to change the narrative on college campuses surrounding AA policy so that these policies can be better understood as inclusive efforts rather than alienating. Everyone stands to benefit from attending a more diverse campus.12 However, when quotas are casted as a socio-economic/racialized competition, underrepresented students face large social costs which may deter them from applying to particular courses. When viewed as a cut-and-dry competition, AA policy appears to polarize campuses over issues of race, class, and who does or does not deserve to attend. For this reason, the status-quo on many Brazilian campuses is tangibly hostile towards quota holding students. In the future, I propose studying the trajectory of these students, investigating their attrition rates in their programs of study to see if the cause is due to lack of scholarships/aid, lack of night school offerings, etc. I would additionally obtain a larger sample to gain better statistical analysis and further confirm or refute the notion that quota students actually face more “bullying” for their status.



Figure #1

Figure #2

Figure #3

Figure #4

Figure #5




  1. Beting, Joelmir. “Canal Livre Discute Cotas Raciais.” Canal Livre, Rede Bandeirantes, São Paulo, São Paulo, 10 Apr. 2009.
  2. Soares, Maria Susana Arrosa., and Arabela Campos. Oliven. “Educação Superior No Brasil.” Educação Superior
    No Brasil, CAPES, 2002, pp. 24-37.
  3. Soares, Maria Susana Arrosa., and Arabela Campos. Oliven., pp. 24-37.
  4. Soares, Maria Susana Arrosa., and Arabela Campos. Oliven. “Educação Superior No Brasil.” Educação Superior No Brasil, CAPES, 2002, pp. 194–218.
  5. Soares, Maria Susana Arrosa., and Arabela Campos. Oliven. “Educação Superior No Brasil.” Educação Superior No Brasil, CAPES, 2002, pp. 113–130.
  6. Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas (INEP) Educacionais Anísio Teixeira. Censo Da Educação Superior 2013, Ministério Da Educação, 2013, download.inep.gov.br/educacao_superior/censo_superior/apresentacao/2014/coletiva_censo_superior_2013.pdf.
  7. INEP. Censo Da Educação Superior 2013.
  8. Beting, Joelmir. “Canal Livre Discute Cotas Raciais.”
  9. Educarargentina, director. Raça Humana. Raça Humana, YouTube, 29 Oct. 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovZVqvkyBbo.
  10. Beting, Joelmir. “Canal Livre Discute Cotas Raciais.”
  11. Vermelho, Portal. “Indígenas Da UFSC Repudiam Agressão a Cotista Kaingang No Sul.” Portal Vermelho, Portal Vermelho, 29 Mar. 2016, www.vermelho.org.br/noticia/278475-10.
  12. Gurin, Patricia, Biren Ratnesh A. Nagda, and Gretchen E. Lopez. “The benefits of diversity in education for democratic citizenship.” Journal of social issues 60.1 (2004): 17-34.




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