The country’s private universities have expanded their own student financing programs with the downsizing of Fies, starting in 2015.
Even though most of these initiatives do not have an explicitly racial focus, they benefited more black students than white ones, which contributed for the imbalance in higher education between the two groups to fall in the last five years.
The data are part of a study by economists Sergio Firpo, Michael França and Alysson Portella, from Insper, carried out with the support of the Parceiros da Educação program.
The work also shows that, despite the contribution of initiatives such as grants and scholarships, there is still room for a greater induction of racial balance in financing for private higher education.
Firpo, França and Portella are the creators of the Ifer (Folha de Equilíbrio Racial Index), which measures the exclusion that blacks and browns suffer in privileged strata.
In the educational component of the index, measured by the completion of higher education, inequality in the country stagnated in 2020, after seven consecutive years of decline.
If this stability is confirmed, private higher education will be essential for the country to return to a path of greater equity.
This is because, although quotas are the policy with the greatest symbolism in the fight against racial inequality, they are insufficient to tackle the problem in a country where private institutions account for about three out of four enrollments.
In the last decade, they grew heavily supported by student financing, the study shows.
The proportion of students from these universities with some type of funding jumped from about 20% in 2009 to almost 45% in 2015 for private for-profit and to 30% for non-profit, show data from the higher education census.
The main responsible for this increase was initially Fies. At its peak in 2014, it served more than a fifth of private higher education entrants.
With the economic crisis, however, errors in the program design became evident, and defaults exploded. From 2015 onwards, Fies has shrunk substantially.
In 2019, the program financed the enrollment of only 66,600 newcomers to colleges in the country, almost half a million fewer than in 2014.
It was in the vacuum of this downsizing of Fies that the universities’ own programs gained space. With them, the percentage of students with some funding remained relatively stable until 2019, according to Insper economists.
Although without a racial focus in most cases, these initiatives started to reach proportionally more black and brown students than white ones.
In 2009, 9.8% of white students received some non-refundable scholarship (which they would not have to pay back) from the university, compared to 9.4% of blacks. In 2019, these proportions were 25.3% and 28.1%, respectively.
The study’s authors make the reservation, however, that it is not known exactly how much of the tuition fees these scholarships cover.
Aid also tends to be less numerous in more popular courses, says Rodrigo Capelato, executive director of Semesp, an entity that represents the sponsors of higher education in the country.
That’s because most private institutions don’t have a lot of money to spend on their own programs. As a result, when they have enough paying students, they end up not opening free places.
An exception is the law degree at FGV (Fundação Getúlio Vargas), in São Paulo.
Even with a competition greater than 20 candidates per place, the course offers scholarships that have racial self-declaration as one of the criteria for choosing the beneficiary.
The goal is both to equalize opportunities and increase teaching excellence, bringing in very good students who could not afford to be there and increasing diversity in the classroom, says Oscar Vilhena Vieira, director of the institution’s law school and columnist for the sheet.
Stella Ferreira dos Santos, 22, was one of the beneficiaries of this policy — and others.
“I’ve been on a scholarship since I was a baby,” he says. She was cared for free of charge in a nursery where her mother worked and, for most of her primary and secondary education, she received a full scholarship in a private school, a condition she maintained at FGV.
“I am the result of this series of good opportunities that were offered to me”, says Stella.
Integration into college did not happen without stumbling blocks. In two punctual and serious episodes of racism with other students, she says that she thought: “Will I be the next one?”
But the balance is more than positive. “I did everything you can imagine. I played soccer, I was president of the academic center, I took part in the popular course, I went on trips, parties, I made many friends”, he says. “I dream very big and I also see that I have broadened the horizons of the people around me.”
With an endowment that helps pay not only the tuition but also the expenses for the student to stay in a full-time course for the first three years, FGV does not have the same limitations as most colleges, especially in a scenario of economic crisis.
Therefore, representatives of the sector insist on the need for greater participation in public funding. “If the government is so afraid of default, it could open lines of credit for institutions to create their own student credit programs, in which they would assume the risks”, says Capelato.
Insper’s economists, in turn, defend that public financing works as an inducer of equity.
A possible initiative would be to condition universities’ access to Fies and Prouni to guarantee racial balance in their courses, according to the racial composition of the municipality in which they work.