Brazil is a late-comer in educational development and expansion, even compared to other Latin American countries (Castro, 1989). Portuguese and Brazilian culture have seen schooling as a valuable resource for social standing and political power, sometimes even more important than economic resources (Carvalho, 1980), since the early stage of colonization (Ribeiro, 1984). Education has also seen as the basis for the homogeneity and unity of a powerful political elite which characterizes the political and social structure peculiar to Brazil (Carvalho, 1980).
The educational level of the Brazilian population is relatively low in comparison with other Developing Countries. During the last century, Brazil's educational system expanded, but produced results not even close to an acceptable level (6 years of schooling in average).1 The level of schooling, together with vast educational inequality, drastically handicaps economic growth and is understood as one of the main causes of income inequality (Langoni, 1973). Nonetheless, the educational system has expanded considerably in the last 40 years, allowing rates of growth higher than those observed in other Latin American countries. However, it has been rather an unusual expansion. In recent decades, post-secondary education has received much more investment from the government than primary or even secondary levels. During this time, Brazil has established a system of public universities that is today recognized as one of the best among Developing Countries. Yet, education is unevenly distributed within the country at all levels (Barcelos, 1992). This inequality is even deeper among groups with socioeconomic and racially distinct heritage (Hasenbalg & Valle Silva, 1990 and Souza & Valle Silva, 1994). Thus, a public university system has emerged at the expense of lower levels, allowing an educational system with vast inequality as its main characteristic.
Despite low and uneven educational attainment, the accelerated rhythm of industrialization and urbanization of the last decades has dramatically altered the shape of the Brazilian social structure (Pastore, 1982 and Pastore & Haller, 1993). However, cumulative evidence has shown that increasing levels of industrialization and modernization do not eliminate the effects of race and skin color as a criterion of social selection and generation of social inequalities. In fact, recent research has shown that in spite of these social transformations, the non-white population is still exposed to systematic social disadvantages in such indicators as infant mortality, life expectancy, opportunity of upward social mobility, participation in the formal labor market, income distribution, and, more important for our analysis, educational attainment. Barcelos (1992, p. 55) concluded that the Brazilian educational system is facing a strong crisis. “The crisis is serious and has color,” he wrote.
A single year of education in Brazil is an important achievement, given the low educational level of the population. Each additional year is well rewarded by the market (Haller & Saraiva, 1992), even in rural areas where occupational opportunities requiring formal qualifications are scarce (Neves, 1997). In fact, Brazil has one of the world's highest rates of economic return to education, reaching an increment of ...