Affirmative action in Brazil’s higher education system

Evidence from Brazil shows how affirmative action students in the higher education system adjust their behaviour to catch up with initially higher-performing privileged students.

Affirmative action (AA) policies, aiming to address historical inequalities and promote social justice, have sparked debates across the world. Brazil, in particular, grapples with the challenges and complexities of AA, notably through Law 12,711/2012, which introduced the quota policy mandating all federal universities to reserve at least 50% of their enrollment slots for public education system students. This policy considers racial and socioeconomic factors, acknowledging diverse social realities across different states.

Critics question not only the existence but also the design of the quotas, with a focus on the racial component. Proponents, however, justify the racial dimension, emphasising historical reparations to Black individuals in Brazilian society. They argue that the disadvantaged conditions of the Black population underscore the need for racial considerations[1].

Opponents argue that quotas may replace qualified candidates with unprepared students, affecting performance and graduation rates. Studies conducted at Brazilian, Indian and American universities, however, indicate that such concerns may not be supported by empirical evidence (Bleemer 2022, Badge et al. 2016, Francis-Tand and Tanuri-Pianto 2018). The evidence suggests that the quota law acts as a counterforce, mitigating disparities in university admissions.


Many Brazilian Federal Universities, including the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), implemented AA policies even before the federal law. In 2005, UFBA reserved 45% of slots for public school students -- those from low-income households -- and 85% of those slots were allocated to black and mixed-race students.

Our research (Oliveira, Santos and Severnini 2024) examines the effects of AA on mismatch and catch-up among beneficiaries, shedding light on long-term benefits, such as increased diversity, societal equity, and empowerment of marginalised groups. To do that, we combine UFBA administrative datasets and a difference-in-differences strategy, where the treated group are students from public high-schools and the control group are students from private high-schools.

The study examined mismatch (the situation where AA students would fall behind in college due to lack of academic preparation) measured by GPA and dropout rates, and catch-up measured by the GPA at the beginning and end of the major. The findings reveal that quota students initially face challenges, with higher rates of course failures, lower GPAs, and higher dropout rates compared to non-quota students. However, when controlling for entry exam scores, or comparing AA and non-AA students with similar observed abilities, the negative effects on failures and graduation rates disappeared. By the time they graduated, they successfully reduced the GPA gap by 50%, suggesting a catch-up dynamic.

Majors play a role as well, with negative effects more prominent in technology and health related majors. This evidence highlights the differences in educational background between students from public and private schools. The performance of public school students relative to private school students is unusually low in Brazil, even when compared to similar countries.

Our study also innovates by providing evidence on the margins of adjustment of affirmative action students once they enrol in college. We observed that, as expected, the AA students have lower grades and fail more in the beginning of their college experience, and to successfully continue and complete the major, they adjust by reducing credit hours and working on fewer courses. After the fifth semester (the middle point in their college experience), they start to enrol in the same number of courses or even more courses to compensate. This deliberate adjustment in learning strategies contributes to their success, enabling potential quota students to not only graduate but also close the GPA gap by 50% at the time of graduation. Our findings shed light on a nuanced catch-up effect within the unique Global South context, challenging previous literature on AA’s impact on student performance.

A broader discourse on affirmative action

Our paper contributes to the broader discourse on AA. Firstly, it addresses the ongoing debate about mismatch effects by revealing that, while some mismatch exists in the Global South context, AA beneficiaries exhibit a noteworthy catch-up effect. This nuanced perspective counters prior evidence and is particularly relevant given the global applicability of our findings to educational systems resembling the Brazilian one, as opposed to the American system. Further, our work expands the understanding of AA’s impacts by highlighting novel mechanisms of adjustment employed by quota students to graduate in their initially intended major, emphasising the significance of social mobility and diversity in higher education.

The implications of our study underscore the positive impact of the AA policy at UFBA, Brazil, on student academic performance and the broader societal landscape. Our findings reveal a notably low mismatch effect and a robust catch-up effect among AA students at UFBA, even in the face of a rigid curriculum and the challenges associated with major switching. Despite these hurdles, disadvantaged students seem to successfully navigate the system, leveraging available margins of adjustment to reach graduation.

UFBA’s AA policy emerges as a powerful tool for promoting socioeconomic diversity in higher education, aligning with the United Nations’ development agenda goals of reducing societal inequalities and ensuring the provision of quality education. Importantly, the catch-up effects observed have far-reaching implications for the labour market, as AA provides historically marginalised groups with opportunities to access top-tier education, acquire skills rewarded by the market, and overcome initial academic obstacles. As these beneficiaries catch up and enter the workforce, they contribute to a more diverse and inclusive environment, fostering varied perspectives, creativity, and innovation. This diversity has the potential to enhance overall labour market productivity, highlighting the AA policy’s crucial role in shaping a more equitable and dynamic society.


Bagde, S, D Epple, and L Taylor (2016), "Does affirmative action work? Caste, gender, college quality, and academic success in India", American Economic Review, 106(6): 1495-1521.

Bleemer, Z (2022), "Affirmative action, mismatch, and economic mobility after California’s Proposition 209", The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 137(1): 115-160.

Francis-Tan, A and M Tannuri-Pianto (2018), "Black Movement: Using discontinuities in admissions to study the effects of college quality and affirmative action", Journal of Development Economics, 135: 97-116.

Oliveira, R, A Santos, and E Severnini (2024), "Bridging the gap: Mismatch effects and catch-up dynamics under a Brazilian college affirmative action program", Economics of Education Review, 98: 102501.


[1] See for example: Agencia Brasil

[2] See, for example, Figures 3.13 to 3.15 in 2021 OECD report comparing the quality of public and private school education in the OECD countries versus developing countries


This blog was originally published in VoxDEV. Read the original article here.

Rodrigo Oliveira is a Research Fellow at UNU-WIDER.

Alei Santos is a PhD candidate in Economics, in São Paulo School of Economics, he is also a former Visiting PhD fellow at UNU-WIDER.

Edson Severnini is an Associate Professor of Economics and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University (Heinz College), and a former Visiting Scholar at UNU-WIDER.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University.