Brazil Goes to College but Chooses Wrong Major: The Ticker

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By Mayara Vilas Boas

In Brazil, enrollment in higher education rose 110 percent over the past decade. According to the Census of Higher Education, released Nov. 7, enrollment reached 6.3 million people in 29,500 courses offered by some 2,377 institutions. "Maybe it was the best decade for access to higher education, both in relative and in absolute terms  -- but especially in absolute," said Fernando Hassad, the Brazilian Education Minister, after the results were announced.

The minister may have been too enthusiastic. Veja, a prominent Brazilian magazine, noted that the number of students between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled in higher education increased only 2.4 percentage points in this period -- going from 12 percent of the population in 2001 to 14.4 percent in 2010. The Brazilian government had expected youth enrollment in universities to reach 30 percent over that span. Mozart Neves Ramos, a member of the National Education Council, explained just how far Brazil's higher education system still has  to go: "Mexico and Chile have between 30 and 40 percent of young people in higher education. In the European Union, the number jumps to 70 percent."

The census also shows that fewer students have been finishing their courses and graduating. In part, blame a weak primary and secondary education system. As Ramos put it, "When students get to the classroom, they are unprepared for the material, so they give up easily."  Yet the high dropout rate is also partly a function of financial difficulty: much of higher-education enrollment in Brazil is concentrated in private colleges and universities, which are extremely expensive to the average population.

The typical Brazilian student attending university comes from a lower socio-economic background and goes to class at night or through a long-distance program, often after spending all day at work. After a while, such students are unable to keep up with the costs, or the demands, and leave. And some 15 percent of the total increase in student enrollment in 2010 came from long-distance and online classes, which studies in the U.S. show have significantly lower rates of student success than face-to-face classes.

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the census is that it shows that relatively few Brazilians are graduating with science, math and technology degrees. There's a shortage of such skills in the labor market -- with many thousands of open positions but not enough graduates to meet the demand. According to Relacoes do Trabalho, a network of experts interested in labor relations,  33,000 engineers graduate from Brazilian universities every year, but the country needs about 90,000. Major oil centers in Rio de Janeiro alone will need 5,000 engineers before the end of 2012. These are essential jobs for the development and sustainability of a fast-growing nation.

That more Brazilians are pursuing higher education is certainly good news. But officials and observers shouldn't exaggerate: The country needs to invest more in education and to train more people with the skills to do the jobs the market needs.

(Mayara Vilas Boas is on the staff of Bloomberg View.)

-0- Nov/08/2011 21:03 GMT