Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Affirmative action in Brazilian universities: guest post by Inácio Bó

 Recent legislation in Brazil addresses university admissions with affirmative action that targets multiple characteristics that individuals may have (in different combinations), namely income, ethnicity, and the type of institution at which they studied. Early attempts to implement such a system produced undesirable outcomes, but recent legislation, informed by market design, is on the path to correcting this. Below, Inácio Bó brings us up to date:

Guest blog post by Inácio Bó

For many decades, Brazilian’s federal universities were—and still are— the top higher education institutions in the country. They had, however, a contradictory combination of circumstances: all of them were public-funded and tuition-free, but their students were overwhelmingly from a minority white higher socio-economic class. In response to that, in 2012 congress passed legislation mandating affirmative action in the access of all such institutions.

Orhan Aygün and I were at that time classmates pursuing our PhD in economics at Boston College. We spent days and weeks looking at the details of the structure of the rules for implementing the law, trying to better understand it. While working on some examples, we noticed that there could in principle be situations that were at odds with the intended objective of the law. Under some circumstances, black and low-income candidates would be rejected from positions where white and high-income candidates would be accepted, despite the former having higher entry-level exam grades than the latter. This  would be an outcome that goes in the opposite direction from the intended objective of helping black and low-income students attend these institutions.

The reason for this problem lies on the method used for implement the affirmative action law in the universities. Seats in each program in each university were split into groups of seats, including “open seats”, “black candidates”, “low-income candidates”, and “black and low-income candidates”. When applying for a program, a candidate would choose one of the alternatives for which she is eligible. The top candidates among those applying for each set of seats, ranked by their grade in a national exam, would be accepted. This method might, however, result in different levels of competition for different seats in the same program, resulting for example in tougher requirements for acceptance for “black and low-income” candidates than for “black” candidates, even if on average low-income candidates have lower grades overall.

In a paper published in the AEJ:Micro in 2021 (Aygün, Orhan, and Inácio Bó. 2021. "College Admission with Multidimensional Privileges: The Brazilian Affirmative Action Case." American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, 13 (3): 1-28.), we showed how this problem can be solved while still satisfying the text and spirit of the affirmative action law in Brazil with small changes in the way by which candidates are selected. (The idea is to order slot-specific priorities so that candidates with protected characteristics can compete for all of those slots for which their characteristics qualify them.) The paper also shows “smoking gun” evidence that these “unfair rejections” were taking place, showing that programs where the cutoff grades for acceptance for each subset of seats were compatible with these rejections constituted almost half of the programs offered across the nation.

While the article gained praise in the academic economic community, our hopes that it would reach the policymakers in Brazil were initially dashed. Despite having the chance of personally visiting the Ministry of Education in 2015 for two weeks, my attempts to talk with those in power were unsuccessful, and people to whom I explained some of our findings deemed its contents “critical of the government”.

 Especially in light of the political developments that took place in Brazil in the years that followed, I had mostly moved on from my hopes of seeing the changes we proposed being implemented.

Things started to change, however, around May of 2022. The staff from the office of representative Tábata Amaral, who is a prominent young politician with a focus on education, were having talks with Ursula Mello, now a professor at the Department of Economics at PUC-Rio in Rio de Janeiro, about some aspects of the affirmative action law related to her work. Given her knowledge about the AEJ:Micro paper, Ursula suggested that I join the discussions. A meeting where this happened even ended up in the press (https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/educacao/2022/05/pesquisadores-defendem-novo-algoritmo-no-sisu-para-nao-prejudicar-cotistas.shtml).

Adriano Senkevics, her co-author in related papers who works at the INEP—an agency connected to the Brazilian Ministry of Education in charge of evaluating educational systems—also joined.

In these discussions, it became clear that if we wanted our ideas to have any chance of gaining traction, we needed to write a policy-oriented paper, focused on the current Brazilian specifics, in Portuguese, and with policy-makers as the audience—not academics.

Adriano and I worked together in that project, now with a much more detailed dataset. We tailored the proposal to the updated law, which also included reservations for candidates with disabilities, and were finally able to quantify the negative impact of the failures we identified. Our estimates indicate that, in the selection process of 2019, at least ten thousand students were “unfairly rejected” from their applications, with more than 8 thousand being left unmatched to any university despite having an exam grade high enough to be accepted for less restrictive reserved seats. These numbers greatly exceeded our expectations, and made a clear political case for a change. The working paper went out in January of 2023 (“Proposal to change the rules for the occupation of quotas in the student entrance to federal institutions of higher education,” by Inácio Bó and Adriano Souza Senkevics).

While the theoretical arguments were already in the AEJ:Micro paper, the proposal had a greater and faster impact in the corridors of the Brazilian capital. Articles in the main newspapers in the country reported on the findings and the proposal (https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/educacao/enem-e-vestibular/noticia/2023/03/quase-650-candidatos-para-uma-vaga-maiores-concorrencia-do-sisu-estao-entre-os-alunos-cotistas.ghtml

, https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/antonio-gois/coluna/2023/02/reformar-o-sisu.ghtml

, https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/colunas/rodrigo-zeidan/2023/04/desenhando-mercados.shtml )

People were openly sharing the article on twitter with members of the ministry of education

(https://twitter.com/thiamparo/status/1621189953785839617?s=20 ,

https://twitter.com/mgaldino/status/1621008428763332612?s=20 ). We could feel the momentum.

In the months that followed, I started having regular interactions with members of the Ministry of Education. The text and zoom discussions involved technical and political aspects of changes in the law, which extended beyond the specific changes we suggested.

Different variations of the changes and some alternative proposals were considered. I had to run simulations while flying to deliver them before a meeting that the secretary had with the minister. I also had the incredible experience of joining a meeting at the “Casa Civil”—a department somewhat comparable to the prime minister in a parliamentary system—with the presence of secretaries from multiple ministries , where I presented our proposal and discussed some details and scenarios. Around that time, and without our knowledge, a senator presented a bill explicitly based on our proposal (https://www25.senado.leg.br/web/atividade/materias/-/materia/156995 ).

By the end of June, our belief that the changes would be implemented became stronger. Since our proposal was (by design) already compatible with the quotas law, its implementation could be done even in the absence of new legislation, and there was clear interest on the part of those in charge for making it happen.

A momentous event in this journey, however, took place on August 9th.

Because of a series of political circumstances, an urge to pass a renewed law for the affirmative action led to a bill proposed by Representative Dandara—the first member of congress who herself benefitted from the quotas law—to be brought to the floor for a vote.

Among other changes, it made the affirmative action policy permanent, changed the order in which seats are filled, and included text that should, in the following secondary legislation, include text that describes our proposal. As if emotions were not high enough, we had urgent calls to send the text of our proposal to members in the floor of congress minutes before the vote took place. And this resulted in the photo below, showing Dandara giving a speech before the vote, with a page from our paper in her hand.

The journey is not yet over. The bill must still pass the senate, and the legislation with the implementation details will follow. But I learned that these changes are made of so many steps that one has to choose one as the turning point. We believe that this is a good one.

The INEP (National Institute of Educational Studies and Research) thinks so too: (https://www.gov.br/inep/pt-br/assuntos/noticias/linha-editorial/inep-contribui-com-atualizacao-da-lei-de-cotas)

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