REDISTRIBUTING ACCESS TO UNIVERSITY EDUCATION: Evidence from a Brazilian admissions policy

The new admissions policy of a top Brazilian university, which awards state school students a bonus on their exam scores, has led to a significant redistribution of offers towards disadvantaged young people. According to research by Fernanda Estevan, Thomas Gall and Louis-Philippe Morin, published in the April 2019 issue of The Economic Journal, 10% of all applicants admitted through the policy would not have been accepted without it. What’s more, almost all these students were from a significantly poorer background than those they displaced. 


The new study looks at the introduction of an admission rule at UNICAMP, a large and highly ranked university in Brazil, to understand the impact of adjusting university admissions.  This policy awards students from state schools a bonus to their admission exam score of almost 10% of the average score.  They discover that this led to a sizeable redistribution of offers – where almost 10% of all admitted applications would not have been admitted without the policy. 


The study shows that almost all these students were from families with significantly lower socio-economic status that those they displaced. For example, the applicants were half as likely to have a father with university education.  According to the research, both the newly admitted and displaced applications had statistically indistinguishable final high school grades showing that the policy redistributes access to university education across social background while maintaining academic standards. 


A perception that unequal access to university may be contributing to unequal opportunities has led to a debate in many countries about whether to adjust university admission rules.  At the heart of this concern is that high schools have an unequal success in placing their pupils into selective universities.  For example in the UK, the Office for Students has said that A-Level grades for university admission should be “considered alongside the context in which they are achieved“ (Office for Students press release, 10.7.18).


Before the policy was introduced at UNICAMP, private school applications were about 25% more likely to be admitted through the university’s entrance exam than those from state schools.  The authors say that this difference was partly due to academic ability but that didn’t tell the whole story.  They also find that state school students tend to select courses that require lower entrance exam scores to get admission.


The study considers the implications of introducing such a policy, which could mean that some private school applications who do not benefit from the bonus will compensate by applying more effort to prepare for the exam.  However, the authors do not find evidence of sizable behavioural responses with anecdotal evidence suggesting that students continue to revise as much as they can.


The authors conclude that such an affirmative policy can successfully redistribute access to university education without seeing larger behavioural changes.  They suggest that this could potentially provide an avenue to reform access to higher education in the UK. 


Redistribution without Distortion: Evidence from An Affirmative Action Programme at a Large Brazilian University’ by Fernanda Estevan, Thomas Gall and Louis-Philippe Morin is published in the April 2019 issue of The Economic Journal.


Fernanda Estevan

Associate Professor at the Sao Paulo School of Economics at FGV in Brazil

Thomas Gall

Associate Professor at the University of Southampton

Louis-Philippe Morin

Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa