Opinion, by Michael Kerlin

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – University entrance exam season starts next month all across Brazil. That means nerves are running high, particularly for hundreds of thousands of young men and women from low-income communities who hope to become the first in their families to go to college.

Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant who began working in Rio’s favelas fifteen years ago.

“It’s not that hard for poor kids to get into public university. The real challenge is making it through,” a Brazilian academic recently said to me. That was hard for me to believe. I’d been visiting Rio’s favelas for fifteen years, and I’d met very few people who’d ever gone to college. Many hoped to go, but their weak high schools had left them ill-prepared for the tough entrance tests for Brazil’s prestigious public universities.

To be sure, the government has been trying to open its public universities to poor students and to make it easier for them to afford private university. One offers 700,000 scholarships for low-income children to go to private universities. But this means graduating high school students are getting funded mediocrity, going to weaker private universities—with some exceptions like PUC in Rio de Janeiro—while the rich kids still go to the best public colleges.

Fortunately, the government recognizes this, and has other efforts underway, targeted at public tertiary education for the poor. First there’s REUNI, the Program of Support for Restructuring and Expansion of Federal Universities. Then there is the Open University of Brazil (UAB). Finally, there’s the expansion of the federal network for professional and technological education.

So more poor kids can get in to public universities now, but just how can they do it? Perhaps the answers lie within the journeys of young Brazilians from poor neighborhoods who have already found a way to go to university, back when it was even harder than it is now.

The Rio de Janeiro-based Observatório de Favelas publishes a series called Caminhadas de Universitarios de Origen Popular. The books feature first person essays by college students who grew up poor. All of the contributors attended publicly funded federal universities. Almost all started their stories at childhood.

The contributors are passionate, optimistic, and seemingly free, so far, of cynicism. Many talk about how few resources their parents had; most attended public primary and secondary schools; and yet by the end of each essay they were all attending public federal universities. It could almost appear easy.

And yet upon closer reading, one word keeps appearing halfway through each essay: cursinho. Cursinho means “little course.” The stories are almost all the same. The college students, toward the end of public high school, started thinking about the entrance exams.

Called vestibulares, the Brazilian entrance exams shape the entire admissions decision at the best public universities. Everything rides on this one test. All of the student contributors to the Caminhadas books talk about how nervous they were when they first took the test. Most failed the first time.

But the kids who passed the entrance exam on their first try, and even those who made it on a second try, were the ones who had managed to pay for a “cursinho particular,” or a private test preparation course. Some of the Caminhadas students failed the test for the first time.

If they did fail, they almost always had a story to tell of a family member who somehow came up with the money for them to take a private cursinho or of great sacrifice on the part of their parents to fund a private cursinho.

On my way up into a Rio de Janeiro favela one day, I saw a banner hanging from the chain link fence in the Complexo’s main plaza. It read Inscreve-se: Curso pre-vestibular, or “Sign up for test preparation courses.”

I wondered whether community test preparation courses measured up, and I remembered the expensive private SAT preparation courses that my friends and I had taken nearly two decades before back in the United States. These private courses unleveled the playing field between those with expendable resources and those just putting food on the table and keeping the roof from leaking.

Indeed, not all cursinhos are created equal. Their numbers have abounded in recent years, and sorting the good from the bad is not easy. But, if the government could find a way to measure the effectiveness of private cursinhos, it could offer scholarships for low-income students to attend the most effective programs.

Until Brazil fixes its public primary and secondary schools, and the allocation of resources across primary, secondary, and tertiary, the private cursinho could be a silver bullet, a weak one and a long shot, perhaps more of a bronze bullet. But, until more of Brazil’s poor children make their way to college, the alternative is just more stray bullets in favela alleyways.

It’s too late for the government to help poor students fund private cursinhos for this year’s university entrance exams. But there’s time for next year. Let’s hope that the government considers adding private cursinho scholarships next year to the growing list of efforts to make university accessible to all in Brazil.

Michael Kerlin began working in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas fifteen years ago. An international management consultant, he has written about economic development in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.


  1. Thanks for bringing this topic up. I’ve been a little annoyed for a few years now at the hypocrisy of free, public universities for the rich.


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