Affordable Degrees Offer Better Futures to Brazil's Youth

Most students at Ser Educacional work while attending classes; many are the first in their families to obtain university degrees. © Ser Educacional 


When Andreza de Oliveira completed high school in Brazil, she was still unsure about her career path. So instead of going to a university, she got a job at an accounting firm, where she worked for the next 12 years. She understood that the only way to improve her career—and her salary—was with a Bachelor’s degree. But she faced the same challenge as many of her peers in Brazil: she didn’t have much money to pay for higher education.

Andreza de Oliveira got a new job
with a higher salary soon after
graduating. © Ser Educacional

Once Oliveira found the Accounting Sciences program at the University of Guarulhos (UNG), an affordable institution that is part of the Ser Educacional network, she knew it was the right fit. Soon after starting her studies, she began to see a return on her educational investment: she was hired by one of the largest accounting firms in Guarulhos. After graduation, she landed a position at a nearby multinational chemical company where her salary increased by 40 percent. She earns extra income by providing independent tax return services.

Oliveira is not alone in finding career success after a later-in-life degree. Ser, UNG’s holding company, has grown to become the sixth-largest private education provider (by number of enrolled students) in Brazil. Its low-priced tuition, combined with federal-government student loans and grants, enables lower-income students access to degrees that can transform their lifetime earning potential and break the cycle of poverty.

Since 2010, IFC has supported Ser’s expansion with three investments totaling $55 million. The financing was used to open and acquire new campuses, modernize existing campuses, and develop Ser’s distance-learning platform. IFC was also an anchor investor in its Initial Public Offering and has helped Ser execute its long-term strategic vision. Since going public, in 2013, Ser has weathered Brazil’s economic crisis and continues to exceed market expectations, even as others in the sector are still struggling.


Market-Oriented Approach to Higher Education

Janguiê Diniz, Ser’s founder, who himself broke free from poverty through education, started the company in 2003 with a small college in Recife. He intended to serve the region’s pent-up demand for higher education in Brazil’s North and Northeast, traditionally underserved markets that are also the least developed regions in the country. At that time, there were few options for studying nearby in this region, although there was a clear need in the marketplace for an educated workforce.

From that one college, Ser has grown to become a network of post-secondary education institutions in Brazil focused on offering market-relevant education at a low cost. Its educational platform now includes eight post-secondary institutions that offer vocational, undergraduate, and graduate degrees.

As of June 2017, Ser institutions had about 158,000 students, taught by 4,700 faculty, across 64 campuses in 20 states. Like Oliveira, 55 percent of the students were female. Most who attend are young adults from lower- and middle-income families who work while they attend classes. Many are the first in their families to obtain university degrees. Between December 2013 and March 2017, Ser awarded more than 67,300 undergraduate and graduate degrees and nearly 20,000 vocational certificates. About 10,000 students graduate annually.


Graduates Drive Growth

Because Ser is focused on creating value for students, its strategy is to spend on the essential elements that students need inside the classroom, while carefully controlling its biggest costs.  Rather than tying up its capital in long-term mortgages, for example, it rents campuses in locations that are convenient for students and faculty that are close to work and transportation hubs. It has introduced several operational efficiencies across its network—including a “unified curriculum” and headquarter-administered tests—to ensure consistency of teaching and exams. This standardization has made Ser’s business model rapidly scalable.

This approach to higher education is making a difference in Brazil, where as recently as the 1990s, a large share of the workforce was relatively uneducated. Following a series of reforms, Brazil is now one of the largest tertiary education markets in the world with 8 million enrolled students—and a market potential of 35 million students. This demand is largely met by the private sector, which accounts for 75 percent of the higher education provided in the country.

Ser’s ability to deliver good quality, affordable education to underserved populations contributes to IFC’s goals for supporting development. IFC can also vouch first-hand for the high caliber of Ser’s students. In 2015, IFC’s office in Brazil pioneered a student internship with Ser to increase opportunities for students from the North and Northeast regions. Ser students now work alongside IFC employees, readying their own contributions to the world.

Read more about IFC’s work in education:

You can find out more about Ser Educacional in this case study, produced by IFC.

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Published in October 2017


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