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A boom in private higher education for Mexico's middle class

A boom in private higher education for Mexico's middle class

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MEXICO CITY -- Private universities are flourishing in Mexico due to demand from a growing middle class. But are there enough job opportunities for graduates?

MEXICO CITY - As Mexico's last baby boom comes of age, more young people than ever aspire to a college degree. A rush of private higher education institutions has arrived to meet rising demand.

Full-time universities, online degrees, night school master's programs: There are more ways for young Mexicans to further their education than ever before, even while the labor market holds mediocre promise for many.

The explosion of private education options reflects the demands of Mexico's growing middle class. But observers question both the quality of the new options as well as their utility: In Mexico, professional jobs aren't abundant and many are poorly paid.

"The market expanded so much that because of the large range of private university options many of the jobs that would have been assured are no longer guaranteed," said David Calderon, director of Mexicans First, a nonprofit organization lobbying for education reform in Mexico. "The new aspirants, the ones that come from the middle class, aren't going to have the opportunities that there were before."

The well-regarded Monterrey Institute of Technology today operates four institutions, including TecMilenio, which has in the past decade alone opened 33 campuses nationwide plus an online program. The Tec system, which also includes feeder high schools, serves more than 31,000 students.

There are many others with names like the University of Advanced Studies, the University of Professional Development many of them founded in the past 10 years. The Interamerican University for Development, a system with institutions in 16 countries, operates more than 45 campuses in Mexico.

These schools charge tuition ranging from 1,500 pesos to 15,000 pesos monthly ($112 to $1,112), according to Alexandro Aldape, president of the National Confederation of Private Schools.

"There is a wide range of possibilities, and the cost has little to do with the quality," he said, noting that, in Mexico, high and low quality can be found at both ends of the spectrum.

Private institutions now churn out 33 percent of degrees in Mexico, compared with 14 percent in 1970, according to INEGI, Mexico's statistics agency. Roughly 2.3 million students earned a college degree in 2009, nearly 300,000 more than in 2005, according to the National Association of Universities and Institutions of Higher Education.

TecMilenio spokesman Demetrio Morales said the university system's rapid growth is a response to "the desire of more young people who want to study a degree," as well as the country's "strong need for a trained labor force with professional studies."

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, in the final year of a six-year term, touts his record on job creation: more than 2 million net jobs in the formal economy since 2007. He announced the numbers earlier this month at the groundbreaking of a new Nissan plant in the city of Aguascalientes, a hub for auto manufacturing.

But David Calderon of Mexicans First criticizes the government for attracting jobs that require more cheap, unskilled labor even while universities churn out more degrees. That's creating a "generational bubble," he said.

In the weeks since Mexico's July 1 presidential election, frustrated youth have taken to the streets in cities across the country with a range of demands, from greater transparency in Mexico's monopolized media market to government accountability.

A movement made up of students at dozens of public and private universities known as YoSoy132 is clamoring for the right to education, employment and security. Armed with college degrees and faced with limited opportunities, the question remains: What will Mexico's graduates demand next?

Photo: Flickr/LaRobinJud

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Lauren Villagran

Correspondent (Mexico City)

Lauren Villagran has written for the Associated Press, Dallas Morning News and Christian Science Monitor. She holds a degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure