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How Do Favela Youth Access Brazil’s Top Universities? The Role of College Exam Prep Courses

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“The idea of universities for everyone doesn’t exist… Universities should be reserved for the intellectual elite.” These are the words of Brazil’s recently dismissed Minister of Education Ricardo Vélez-Rodriguez, spoken in January of this year.

Diametrically countering this notion, pré-vestibular college entrance exam preparatory courses—offered for free or for a symbolic amount—are democratic educational spaces that strive to help low-income youth get into college. As top public and private Brazilian universities increased admissions slots in the past two decades with a new emphasis on democratizing and expanding access to higher education in the country, favela community-based test preparation courses began to expand to serve students attending public schools in these communities and peripheral neighborhoods across the Rio de Janeiro metro region.

Since 2003, we have seen public policies promoting educational inclusion such as the federal University for All (ProUni) scholarship program, affirmative action laws, the federal Student Financial Aid Fund (FIES), and scholarships that cover living expenses. This movement aimed to facilitate access and increase the number of low- and middle-income students in higher education. According to Brazil’s National Union of Students (UNE), there were 1.7 million people enrolled in higher education in 1994. In 2014, this number increased to 7 million, 2.3 million (33%) of whom were students considered low- and middle-income.

In accordance with this growth, an example of community pré-vestibular course is the Invest Pré-Vestibular Course, founded in 1998 in Botafogo, in Rio’s South Zone, by alumni of the private Santo Ignácio High School. These alumni noticed a need among nearby favela youth for extra support to prepare for Brazil’s college entrance exam, the vestibular, and eventually, its replacement—the National High School Examination (ENEM). Over the years, nearly 250 graduates of the course have been admitted to universities, according to project manager Getúlio Fidelis.

This program is one of many free pré-vestibular programs in Rio de Janeiro that offer high-quality instruction. Beyond just the curriculum, the encouragement and support from teachers and volunteers can make a world of difference at this stage of students’ education, which can take up to a year or more.

For teacher Elis Costa, the experience has been unforgettable. “I’m eternally grateful and a huge admirer of these students, from whom I never ceased to learn. They say that I’m the teacher, but the truth is that I was the one learning from start to finish.” Costa taught literature classes at the Redes da Maré Pré-Vestibular course in the Complexo da Maré favelas, in Rio’s North Zone. According to records, the NGO has seen more than 1,000 students admitted to universities in Rio.

The courses facilitate learning, often because they share an important feature: their non-traditional format. With a focus on extracurricular activities, debates, and participatory classes, the courses stimulate interaction among participants. “I consider it a privilege to share an approach to teaching and learning in which the student and the teacher arrive at a point where the line between teaching and learning dissolves,” Costa stated.

Marcelle Lima, who studied at the Redes da Maré Pré-Vestibular course for eight months and now has a degree in public relations, passed the entrance examination and received a full scholarship through the ProUni program. Years have passed, but her memories remain. “In addition to the knowledge gained from the curriculum itself, what most surprised me was the psychological support offered there. I heard the stories of people who were able to [achieve their dreams] regardless of where they lived, and this really motivated me,” she said.  

In the Morro dos Macacos favela, also in Rio’s North Zone, student Priscila Cristina, 18, dedicated herself to politics and sociology classes at the Vive Pré-Vestibular course. “In the beginning, I thought I was going to learn high school things, but I was wrong. I learned to see the world through new eyes and the teachers always believed in me. They would say that we belong at universities, that it’s our right,” she said. Priscila was accepted into the sociology program at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) in 2019. 

Danielle Figueiredo, 24, spent three years at the Redes da Maré Pré-Vestibular and was admitted to the National Service for Commercial Training (SENAC), the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ), and the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). She is now a history student at UERJ and works as a volunteer tutor at the UniFavela Pré-Vestibular, a program created by college students. “The main reason I’m pursuing a degree is to impact people’s lives. In the end, education should always be liberatory,” she said.

But upon gaining admission, students’ struggle is not over. After less than a month in office, the new Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub announced funding cuts to federal universities. However, in the midst of such uncertainty, free pré-vestibular courses continue to be an alternative for those who believe in education as an instrument of change.

Check out this list of several community-based pré-vestibular courses in Rio:

UniFavela Community Pré-Vestibular (Maré – North Zone)
Contact: unifavelacontato@gmail.com

ANF Community Pré-Vestibular (Downtown Rio)
Contact: prevestanf@anf.org.br

Maré Center for Solidarity Studies and Action (CEASM) Pré-Vestibular Course (Maré)
Contact: contato@ceasm.org.br

AfroEducando Pré-Vestibular (City of God – West Zone)
Contact: prevest.afroeducando@gmail.com

Vila Isabel Vestibulares (VIVE) (Morro dos Macacos – North Zone) 
Contact: robertogeog@gmail.com

Cerro Corá Pré-Vestibular (Cosme Velho – South Zone)
Contact: prevestcerro@gmail.com

Invest Pré-Vestibular (Botafogo – South Zone)
Contact: curso.invest@yahoo.com.br

Community Education Project (PECEP) (Gávea – South Zone)
Contact: contatopecep@gmail.com

Redes da Maré Pré-Vestibular Course (Maré)
Contact: redes@redesdamare.org.br

EducaAfro Pré-Vestibular (Various Locations in Rio)
Contact: educafrorio@educafro.org.br

Gota Social Community Pré-Vestibular (Tijuca – North Zone)
Contact: gota.social@ph.com.br

CEDERJ Social Pré-Vestibular (Downtown Rio)
Contact: vestibular@cecierj.edu.br

Éthos Pre-ENEM Course (Nova IguaçuBaixada Fluminense)
Contact: pre-enem_ufrrj@hotmail.com

Carolina de Jesus Community Pré-Vestibular (Vila Kosmos – North Zone)
Contact: cccarolinamariadejesus@gmail.com

Vetor Course (Cosme Velho)
Contact: contato@vetorvestibular.com.br

Samora Machel Pré-Vestibular (Ilha do Fundão – North Zone)
Contact: presamora@gmail.com

Social Action Pré-Vestibular (Cidade Universitária – North Zone)
Contact: pvsacao@gmail.com

UFF Community Pre-College Prep (São Gonçalo – Greater Rio)
Contact: prenoturno7@yahoo.com.br

Direct Action in Popular Education (Mangueira – North Zone)
Contact: comunicacao.adep@gmail.com

Lagoinha Community Pré-Vestibular (Nova Iguaçu)
Contacttaiscogo@gmail.com

Bom Pastor Pré-Vestibular (Belford Roxo – Baixada Fluminense)
Contact: pvpnides@gmail.com

Community journalist Thaís Cavalcante was born and raised in Nova Holanda, one of Maré’s favelas. While working as a community communicator in Maré, she decided to study journalism in college and believes in the power of information to change the local reality for the better.