Pablo Villar Vileikis is returning to finish his second year in the International Development program. He spent his summer internship with the Inter-American Development Bank in Lima, Peru.

The IDEV Summer Internship Series highlights the experiences of IDEV students participating in internships this past summer. Each year, IDEV students intern with various development organizations around the world. These internships are generously funded by SAIS donors, and offer valuable opportunities for students to gain real-world experience between their first and second years at SAIS. Pablo's internship with the Inter-American Development Bank was sponsored by Bernard L. Schwartz.

As in other countries in the region, Peru’s higher education sector is crowded with low-quality institutions, while the handful of universities that provide a world-class education are virtually unreachable for most of the population. The best universities’ price tag tends to be many times the average income. Furthermore, most students leave high school without the necessary skills to go through a semester at a premium university. For-profit universities at the low end of the quality spectrum have filled the aspirational void this situation has created, offering cheap and easy programs with poor employment prospects. As a result, higher education ends up perpetuating the mechanisms of low social mobility.

Prospective university students in Peru also face imperfect information about the professional outcomes of the different majors or technical degrees. Indeed, there are too many journalists and too few precision-drilling technicians. Given the democratic nature of the country, no one (including the government) can force students to enroll in specific programs, so divulging concrete and accurate information about professional performance becomes one of the most powerful public policy tools to foster an effective allocation of students across disciplines. The ability of prospective students to distinguish the good programs from the bad (i.e. to assess their future earnings in different programs and schools) is therefore a strong incentive for universities to improve themselves. 

What could Peru’s Ministry of Education do to address these challenges? Unfortunately, there is no straight answer, but world-renown experts on the topic are working on solutions. My summer internship at the Inter-American Development Bank gave me an unparalleled opportunity to witness an attempt to make higher education in Peru more inclusive and responsive to the labor market of the country. The negotiations of a loan to the Ministry of Education, and my professional experience in Colombia, allowed me to draw three lessons about Peru (which may be extrapolated to other countries in the region).

First, higher education institutions (HEI) need to work closely with the private sector. Most careers, both professional and technical, are based on skills, and the job market’s demand for skills varies with time. HEI's need to stay in close communication with firms to adjust their curricula for the present and future demand for skills. Governments in the region and beyond have created institutional spaces for companies, HEI's, and the government to discuss skill requirements, but they are often underused. Other models may be needed.

Second, prospective students in higher education often regard technical education as a mediocre substitute for professional careers; this is a big mistake. There is a widespread belief in the region that earning a professional degree is better than a technical one, no matter the quality differential between the two. At the same time, firms of all sizes fail to find technicians capable of mastering a certain machine or software. The frequently weak connection between firms and technical schools translates into a mismatch between the supply and the demand for skills at that level. This, in turn, results in low returns for technicians. Technical careers would benefit the most from closer cooperation with the private sector; they also take the hardest hit in terms of their reputations when that link is weak.

Last, many prospective students avoid math at all cost. While there is limited information on job-market prospects for specific careers, there is still some general knowledge about employment outcomes for different disciplines; engineers tend to earn more than social scientists, for instance. Nonetheless, prospective students often avoid careers that involve any type of mathematical training. Poor-quality math classes in high school de-incentivize applicants to aim for this type of career. Cultural biases may also play a role. It is time to teach math at school in more innovative ways. Interactive technology in the classroom, for example, may be a powerful tool that is only starting to gain enough advocates.

PHOTO CREDIT: "Uni San Marcos," public domain.