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Can High School Vocational Skills Pay for an Academic Degree?: The Brazilian Educational Model

Most Brazilian college students pay for their degree by working full time using the vocational skills they acquired in high school.

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High schools in the United States tend to be divided into two categories: academic or vocational.  Brazil has a different model. Many Brazilian public high school students take on both academic and vocational studies.  From 7 A.M. to 12 P.M., Brazilian high school students study academic subjects.  Then, from 1 P.M. to 5P.M., they learn a vocational skill, such as secretarial studies, electrical repair, business management, or tourism.

Brazilian high schools are set up with this mixture of academic and vocational course studies because public universities are free and very select.  Ironically, wealthy students who received quality education at K-12 private schools fill these public universities because they have the training to pass the entrance exams.  Students who are not wealthy and who attend K-12 public schools tend to receive less than stellar educations, and they often cannot pass the public universities’ qualifying exams. Therefore, the economically and educationally disadvantaged students often have to pay for private universities.  Yes, the rich kids go to college for free, and the poor kids have to pay. 

Only 14% of the Brazilian population has a college degree.  About 80 percent of Brazilian university students attend private universities.  The private university students are expected to work and pay for their tuition.  Brazilian former student Juliana Campos, 29, commented, “You don’t often see families in Brazil paying for their child’s education.  I didn’t have help from my parents.  I had to work full time and take evening classes Monday through Friday.”

Ms. Campos's story is not unusual.  Students start working full time right out of high school. However, since they have vocational skills, they can get real jobs, not minimum wage “McJobs” in retail, and can thus help cover the cost of the education.  Private universities often hold classes at night because they know students are working during the day.  

Ms. Campos paid for her bachelor’s degree in translation studies by working as a secretary during the day.  “I had very busy weekends.  That was the time to do homework and research.  It was tiring.  I did okay but I think I could have done excellent if I had more time to study and I wasn’t so tired all the time.”

Ms. Campos found her secretarial job through a job posting at her vocational high school.  She graduated high school in December and started working in January for a manufacturing company that needed a secretary proficient in English.  When she was 19, she accompanied the business owners on a trip to Germany and Switzerland, serving as their translator.  

"I felt so empowered to be trusted at such a young age to do all the translations during the business transactions," Ms. Campos said.   

Her college experience was not easy and not fun, but due to her vocational high school training, she left college without student debt and with four years of real work experience.  

The author of this article would like to thank Juliana Campos for sharing her story and her insights into the Brazilian education system.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Would U.S. high school students benefit more from vocational training than from extracurricular activities undertaken mainly to impress college admissions officers? With such vocational skills they could work in roles that could contribute significantly to their college tuition, make them more well rounded and more mature students, and graduate with a clearer perspective of their career aims.


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Hi Amy, interesting post! Any chance you could find an image to go along with it? Images help grab attention and tell a story with higher impact. You should be able to use the Edit Contribution button on the top of your post and follow the instructions to add images from there. Looking forward to seeing more of your inspiring insights on OpenIDEO.

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