A SINE FROM ABOVE

Mexico 2016 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES

As demand for education grows, especially among a surging middle class, more and more private universities are opening their doors across the country.

In recent years, a new Mexican middle class has begun to emerge. The baby boom of the late 1980s to early 1990s is now producing a new generation of young adults who are coming to maturity with hopes and dreams beyond what the standard higher education system has been able to offer. In response to this, a new group of private universities is emerging to fill the gaps and provide a quality education to a previously overlooked subset of the population.

Traditionally, Mexico's higher education system has been centered around a network of public universities that now includes several additional technical schools and universities created to offer different and more diversified options for Mexico's population. The largest and most well known of these traditional schools, the Universidad Nacional Autonomic de México, enrolls over 200,000 students, making it the largest university in Latin America. These schools have traditionally been difficult to get into due to their high admissions standards and limited number of enrollment slots, making them an option primarily for Mexico's upper classes.
Today, new private university networks are contributing to the development of the country by diversifying the available talent base and preventing concentration in a few select cities. As Luis Roberto Mantilla, Rector of the Universidad Latina de América (UNLA), told TBY, “Before 1991, local students had to go to other parts of Mexico to study, causing a brain drain for our state. Now we attract not only local students from Morelia, but from the whole state, and this has made the development of Michoacán possible over the last 25 years."
Public schools are still responsible for over two-thirds of total university enrollment. However, with the emergence of a new wave of middle-class Mexicans, demand for a quality university education has been rising beyond what the public sector is able to offer. University coverage, the percentage of students enrolled out of the total university-age population, was only 28% in 2010, far below Argentina's 73% and Chile's 50%. Mexico expects to boost this number to 50% by 2020, but there needs to be a concerted effort to increase the options available to middle- and lower-income populations. Enrique Larios, the Rector of Centro Universitario Emmanuel Kant (CUEK), believes that private universities are essential to meeting this surplus need: “[The] educational gap in Mexico [is] caused in large part by the government's inability to meet the obligations of a student population as large as Mexico's. … Private universities like CUEK help remedy these deficiencies."
The private universities that have emerged are diverse both in location and offerings. Examples of these schools include the Monterrey Institute of Technology's Tecmileno Institutes, ICEL University, and Laureate's UNITEC. These schools all have multiple locations in regions outside the cities that have traditionally been the homes of higher education. Tuition at these universities can be as low as $125 per month, an amount much more in line with lower-middle class incomes. Dr. Héctor Escamilla Santana, Rector of Tecmileno University, explained that the founding mission of Tecmilenio was to “offer a quality education with affordable tuition to a bigger number of students."

The services these schools offer have been shifting in recent years as they try to best meet the needs of their students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. Their nontraditional structure allows them to be more creative in offering new programs and take advantage of technologies such as online- and distance-leaning programs to reach new audiences. “What is most important are your values and your skills," Dr. Escamilla Santana told TBY. “We have challenged the academic directors to be more flexible." Mantilla expressed similar sentiments, noting that “[UNLA] provides our students with a holistic view that incorporates the complexities of the world from every field possible. … We also promote a form of learning outside the classroom through activities that give our students the possibility to interact with others."

Ensuring that these institutions remain high quality as they continue to grow rapidly is a one of the biggest challenges the sector faces in the future. A tremendous amount of money is being poured into in these new schools; Laurate, one of the largest private education providers in the world, has invested heavily in Mexico in recent years. It was just 35 years ago when private institutions granted only 14% of degrees in 1970, a number less than half the current rate. The rapid growth of private schools speaks to the Mexican population's demand for quality education, and further aggressive, yet careful expansion should bring continued benefits to the country's development.