Peru's Blueprint for Equity in Higher Education

Nov. 18, 2021

by María Luisa Zeta, MPA '22 for Annotations Blog

Higher education (HE) in Peru is characterized by low access and completion rates, as well as persistent gaps by socioeconomic status (SES). To the extent that more years of education equates to greater social mobility, we should be concerned with how SES affects students’ chances to access and succeed in HE programs. Lowering barriers to entry is a good start but it is not sufficient to achieve equity goals. Complementary policies that compensate for accumulated gaps throughout schooling are essential.

Students take placement exam in photo

Peru’s Higher Education Landscape

According to the National Household Survey (ENAHO), in 2019 only 30% of adults in Peru between the ages of 17 and 24 were enrolled in a HE program. Degree holders within this age group are an even smaller share at 9%, indicating that the transition from high school to HE enrollment and completion is anything but smooth. Gaps in access by geographic location and SES are large: enrollment in urban areas is twice as high as in rural areas, and more than four times higher for the richest income quintile than for the poorest. 

Peru’s HE landscape has changed dramatically over the years. Access has increased and so has private provision. Legislation passed in 1996 established tax benefits for for-profit institutions and led to a sustained surge in the number of private colleges. Yet it was not until 2014 that a quality oversight institution was created to regulate minimum quality standards for universities. A recent evaluation shows that in 2000, public universities hosted 60% of enrolled students compared to just 16% in 2019. Even though access has increased across all income groups, SES gaps in enrollment continue to persist and increase over time.

The Proposed Policy: Granting “Unrestricted” Access to College 

One of the most salient promises of the newly elected government was to grant unrestricted access to public tuition-free universities. Currently, admission to public universities is determined by entrance exams administered by each institution. Admission is highly selective: for the oldest public university, only 9% of applicants were admitted in 2017. As the proposed policy evolves towards implementing more targeted admissions paths to enable increased access among the most vulnerable, there is a unique opportunity to focus on equity goals in HE attainment. 

Lowering admission barriers is likely to motivate decisions that may be very different in the absence of this policy. A study shows that when high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds in Michigan learn that they can get funding to attend high-quality universities, their probability of applying and eventually enrolling increases. In Colombia, the announcement of a merit-based scholarship program for college increased performance in a high-stakes exit exam for high school students from lower SES backgrounds. 

If Peru's college access reform is to be successful in increasing equity, it must include remedial and compensatory measures; otherwise, it may hurt the group it is trying to help.

Hence, simply learning about opportunities to attend college is likely to have greater effects for equity in the medium and long run. However, decreasing the barriers to entry without also providing universities with adequate financing for expansion — especially in the absence of effective quality assurance mechanisms — often translates into reduced quality of education.

Additionally, if Peru’s college access reform is to be successful in increasing equity, it must include remedial and compensatory measures; otherwise, it may hurt the group it is trying to help. A policy that solely focuses on reducing the gap among the most vulnerable students — those at the margins of the admissions cutoff — will be most beneficial. There are two key policy objectives that should be guaranteed: access and persistence. Currently, graduation rates also correlate with SES: nationwide figures for 2019 show that college dropout rates among low SES students are twice as high as those for high SES students. Unrestricted access on its own may be regressive in the short run, allowing only students with the best pre-college education to succeed.

Policy Implications 

If implemented correctly, this policy can help to (1) integrate a currently fractured system where high school graduates lack the competencies needed to enroll and succeed at the tertiary level, (2) increase funding for public institutions to expand admissions without compromising quality, and (3) decrease the gap of tertiary education enrollment by SES. The extent to which these actions may be a driving force for social mobility is still limited, but increasing access is a necessary first step. Postponing this agenda is no longer an option. 

Relaxing constraints on college admission for low SES students is a necessary measure, though not sufficient, to ensure they succeed.

Many questions remain around how this policy should be implemented: Which universities should be targeted to increase admission seats? What criteria will be used to select students? Will some fields of study be prioritized? How can training and vocational programs, where quality assurance remains more incipient, be incorporated into the policy

As broader inequalities remain, expanding university access cannot replace other programs that lower financial and non-financial barriers for low SES students. In fact, these policies are complementary. For instance, scholarship schemes are a complementary intervention needed to lower costs related to migration, school supplies and other living expenses for disadvantaged students. In the absence of such programs, low SES students may not be able to enroll or may be faced with the choice of increasing working hours, which affects academic outcomes. 

Gaps that affect education attainment start in the early years. They reproduce and amplify over time. Relaxing constraints on college admission for low SES students is a necessary measure, though not sufficient, to ensure they succeed. An approach that focuses on closing the gaps in key transition points throughout K-12, that also includes other measures to tackle persistent barriers, will bring us closer to the equity goals we are trying to achieve. 

Headshot of Maria Luisa Zeta
Meet the Author: María Luisa Zeta

María Luisa Zeta is a MPA '22 student at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), where she focuses on economics and policy analysis. She has experience working in education research and policy in Peru, her home country, and in other Latin American countries. Her areas of work are equity and learning quality across different grade levels with a particular interest in Pre-K and higher education.