When Brazil implemented affirmative action at its federal universities in 2012, the policy prompted a public debate that largely resembles the debate over affirmative action in the United States.
Brazil’s affirmative action policy requires every federal university to reserve at least half of all seats for students from certain groups. Out of that half, about half of the seats go solely to Black, mixed and Indigenous Brazilians. The other half go to low-income public-school students. Other universities are free to set their admissions policies.
Like many Americans, some Brazilians worried that affirmative action would reduce the quality of education in public universities. Some were concerned that only the more privileged members in the targeted groups would benefit and that affirmative action wasn’t worth it. Others doubted that beneficiaries could keep up academically and feared that their peers would suffer as a result.
As researchers who study college admissions, economics and the equity of social interventions and policies, we took a critical look at the effects of affirmative action in Brazil. To do this, we examined prior research, as well as the effects of affirmative action on student learning and future earnings. In America, these outcomes are difficult to study because, prior to the use of race being banned in college admissions, schools implemented affirmative action as they saw fit. In Brazil, all federal universities had to implement affirmative action the same way.
Brazilian federal universities are some of the best in the country. Even more importantly, they are tuition-free. They are the preferred universities for most high school students and their families. Historically, mostly well-off students attended these universities.
Through our research, we concluded not only that Brazilians’ fears about affirmative action lowering the quality of the nation’s universities were largely unwarranted, but also that across most measures the policy has proved to be quite beneficial.
Specifically, we found that:
• Those admitted to universities via affirmative action performed quite well in their studies. By the time they graduated, their grade-point averages were not much different from the GPAs of other students. In the most selective majors, the
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