Chapter 7 The Road to Elite Higher Education for Brazilian Students with Low Socioeconomic Status

Zhou Yan

*Zhou Yan is Assistant Research Professor at the Institute for International and Area Studies of Tsinghua University, as well as Postdoctoral Research Fellow in area studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She holds a PhD degree in Political Science and Brazil Studies from Tsinghua University. Her research focuses on Brazil, and her general interests include state and society relations, social mobility and political behaviours, inequality, and social movements.


The expansion of higher education systems has become a global phenomenon. Brazil joined the wave of higher education expansion in the late 1990s, with its expansion taking place primarily in the private sector. A new group of profit-making and highly commercialized higher education institutions (HEIs) has emerged, accounting for the bulk of university expansion in Brazil. With the expansion of the higher education system in Brazil, access has become easier for those who are the first in their family to attend college. However, educational inequality has increased among groups of different socioeconomic status, not only in terms of higher education enrolment rate, but also HEI selectiveness and selected majors.

Access to elite higher education remains a powerful instrument of social reproduction. The job prospects for graduates of elite universities and graduates of low-quality HEIs are quite different in Brazil. Elite higher education provides young people with different visions and horizons, and students from top HEIs are more likely to become economic, political, and social elites who later have greater influence or even decision-making power with regard to the nation’s development. Therefore, facilitating the qualitative equality of access to higher education has profound social and political meaning, not only influencing the lives of low-SES individuals, but also the whole structure of social mobility and political renovation.

Despite their socioeconomic disadvantages, a small number of Brazilian low-SES students do manage to enter elite universities. They generally devote much more time, energy, and effort than their high-SES peers on their way to entering top colleges. The questions remain: how did these low-SES students overcome the culture of valuing work more than study and the widespread sense of self-exclusion with regard to elite colleges, and how did they acquire the educational aspiration to attend elite HEIs and prepare themselves academically?

Instead of examining how existing inequality reproduces itself, this study explores the mechanisms by which it is sometimes interrupted in order to help with the design of social policies that will facilitate the breaking of this “vicious circle” of educational inequality. This study is based on fieldwork conducted in the city of São Paulo, which consists of 21 in-depth interviews with low-SES background undergraduate students at an elite private university and another ten interviews with the same stratum of students at a third-tier private university. The interviews were designed to understand the trajectories to higher education of these students. Aspects such as personal information, family background, school history, working experience, social networks, higher education decision-making, college experience, future plans, and political positions were covered during these interviews. In general, the interviews were semi-structured in order to include issues that otherwise might be neglected.

The divergence of trajectories among low-SES students begins with key contacts—which may come from family, community, school, work, and other social networks—that possess more cultural capital than these students and their parents. These contacts provide crucial information on better educational opportunities and prospects, which help facilitate students’ entry into habitus-cultivating organizations that prepare them for elite universities. However, channels for these students to acquire more cultural capital and thus cultivate their elite-college-going habitues are not institutionalized, and are instead both scarce and contingent. Brazilian low-SES students, as a whole, still faces severe cultural and educational barriers to achieving social mobility. The study shows that educational inequality in Brazil exists in various phases for low-SES students. Due to the lack of cultural capital from parents, only a small number of these students have the chance to go to better elementary schools. During the transition to secondary education, fewer of them manage to enter selective high schools. An even smaller proportion of these low-SES students make it to top universities. If provided with more information on better educational opportunities, more low-SES students will be able to at least “give it a try”.