[Published in “Talk of the town”,  Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2 June 2013.]
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Here rests his head upon the lap of earth

A youth to fortune and to fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,

And Melancholy marked him for her own.

— Thomas Gray, “Elegy written in a country churchyard”


The tragedy of Kristal Tejada, a 16-year old freshman in the University of the Philippines, has touched many people and raised questions of why it should have happened.  To us, she embodied the very small minority of the children of the poor who were able to get admitted to the best university in the country. She was an exception to the millions of poor youth who could not pursue college education. Majority of poor children drop out of school before completing the elementary or secondary grades and of those who complete high school, only a fraction are able to enroll in college, largely in the numerous low-cost low-quality private and public colleges and universities. Kristal  stood out from her college-bound colleaguesbecause she got admitted to the most competitive and selective university of the land – UP.

In UP, she was granted a large tuition discount under the university’s Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program or STFAP.  The program classifies students by income/wealth bracket and sets tuition discounts from 100% to 0 for each bracket. (Details are given below.)  Only a very small number of UP students comes from poor families because many are discouraged from applying for fear of failing the university admission test and relatively few of those who dare apply pass it.  The children of the poor go to lower quality elementary and high schools and have limited learning space and materials at home.  Kristel overcame those limitations.  Kristel’s parents must have put exceptional efforts in inspiring her to aim high and helping her study every step of the way from Grade 1 to high school. They likely scrimped every peso from basic needs in order to pay for her extra schooling needs. We may imagine how Kristel and her parents talked about her going to college and becoming a professional, and how joyous it must have been for the whole family every time she medaled for excellence in elementary and high school.  There must have been a celebration when she passed the UP test for admission.

Oh UP! the realization of many years of dreaming.  Then for a measly P6,000 tuition loan, she had to stop schooling, i.e., take a leave of absence until she could pay it.  Apparently it was near impossible for her parents to raise P6,000 to pay the loan on time, i.e., in the succeeding semester. In addition she had to pay the tuition for the succeeding semester. Where would a taxi driver find the funds for this large outlay? Kristel and her mother pleaded with UP officials to give them more time to pay the loan or re-bracket her to the zero-tuition bracket of the STFAP. Unfortunately, she did not have the strength to withstand this roadblock to this pursuit of her college AMBITION combined with other problems.  Her suicide ended the family’s years of dreaming. The suicide was a saddening and very disturbing social tragedy.  Why should it happen, who is to blame?  We are all to blame, not just the UP officials who appear to have paid more attention to the language of the rules than to the spirit of the STFAP program. Perhaps, their decision reflects a lack of knowledge and understanding of the degree of inequality of education in the country. We are all to blame for we have ignored the harsh inequality in our society, particularly the inequality in education, the main path to social mobility.

This paper tries to put Kristel’s case in the broader perspective of the harsh inequality of access to education in the country in the hope of drawing the attention of the government and the public at large to the problem.  Both the government and some private institutions have developed programs to assist poor students through college.  But they have had a relatively minor impact on the poor since few of them could qualify for the scholarship. They favor the youth who have gone to good quality elementary and secondary schools and live in more stimulating learning environments.  The scholarship programs of corporate and other philanthropic organizations amount to a few thousands out of the roughly 2 million college students.

Table 1.1

Table 1.2

The inequality of education in the country is depicted in Table 1.1 which shows the distribution of the college-age population by completed education, whether enrolled or not enrolled and by per capita family income decile in 2008.  [Similar information for 1998 is depicted in Table 1.2.]  We focus on the distribution of the youth from the poorest 20% of families (first and second deciles). Column 8 shows that as much as 22.8% of the youth in the first decile and 15.6% in the second decile were not enrolled and had not even completed elementary grades.  The fractions who completed the elementary grades and reached some high school but were not enrolled were much higher at 28.9.% and 27.9%, respectively.  As we go up the income deciles, the proportion of the youth who had reached these levels declined and proportionately more were enrolled at succeeding higher levels or completed them.  Of the richest youth who were not enrolled, only 2.3% had not completed elementary grades.  We turn to those who had reached or completed college. Among the youth from the lowest two deciles, only 0.8% and 1.6% had completed collegewhile 5.2% and 8.4% were still enrolled in college. Compare these figures to the richest youth – 27.8% had completed college while 46.6% were still enrolled in college.  A fraction was still enrolled in high school, about 20% from the lowest two deciles but only 5.5% from the 10th decile.

The inequality of access to higher education is worse in the higher quality institutions since admission to them is more restricted than to the less prestigious schools. Studies made as early as the mid-70s already pointed to the dominance of the rich in the UP student body. Yet all the students were equally and heavily subsidized, for tuition was minimal relative to operating cost.  A socialized tuition scheme had been suggested to mitigate regressive distribution of subsidy but it took more than a decade under President Abueva in 1989 to eventually adopt the STFAP.   Full tuition was raised to a higher fraction of operating cost.

Tab 2

Differential tuition discounts were set for each family income/wealth ranges or brackets.  These are labeled alphabetically, currently from A to E2, richest to poorest with discounts from zero to 100.  Table 2 gives the discount rate, the share of students, the subsidy level and the total subsidy in 2010-2011.   Full tuition rate is set at P1,500 per credit unit. Assuming 35 credit load per year, full tuition amounts to 49,500.  Note that operating budget per students was about P100,000. This means that even at full tuition, students are still heavily subsidized by about l/2 of total cost.  The P100,000 average cost is lower than the average tuition in the top two private universities, De La Salle University and Ateneo de Manila University.

In 2010-2011, as much as 21.5% of students in UP-Diliman were in the millionaire Bracket A, and 22.8% in the second richest Bracket B –  a total of 44.3% of all UP-Diliman student body. Bracket E2 for annual family income of less than P80,00 (P6,666 per month) had only 4.3% and Bracket E1, which charged zero tuition, had 8.2% share. Bracket D where Kristel was assigned to has 14.1% enrollment share. The middle class or Bracket C had a share of 24%.  The last column of the table gives the distribution of total subsidy estimated as full-cost minus tuition multiplied by students in each bracket.  The poor got a smaller share of the subsidy even when they were exempted from paying tuition since they comprised a small fraction of the student body. It is noted that UP cannot reverse the inequality of its education by STFAP since it is implemented independently of its admission system and of the existing basic education system. An admission policy based on scholastic achievement test is necessarily biased against applicants who have inferior college-preparatory education.  Table 3 gives the distribution of UP-Diliman applicants and admission qualifiers by STFAP Bracket. Note that some 65,000 apply for about 3,800 freshmen slots.  It is hard to imagine how strongly poor students in poor-quality high schools in remote areas can ever compete for UP admission.  Many get discouraged and don’t even think of UP as a college choice. The table shows that the poor are poorly represented among the applicants and qualified.  The large majority of the applicants and qualified comes from upper income families in Metro Manila (Table 4).  Almost 22% of UP-Diliman qualifiers come from Bracket A, the millionaire class, 23% from bracket B, only 9% and 6% come from Brackets E1 and E2. Bracket D where Kristel belongs shared 9% of the qualifiers.  Those from public high schools which enroll the great majority of students (about 75%) had a share of only 10% while private high schools, 61%. The better quality science high schools which enroll less than 10% of students contributed 25%.Tab 3

Tab 4

We may take Kristal’s tragedy as a wake-up call for the government and the public at large to address the dire inequality in education. Attention is directed to the sources of inequality and to the weaknesses of existing education programs that fail to reduce the inequality, particularly the subsidy system. To be noted are the following:

  • We have failed to nurture and develop the many geniuses and artists from among the poor.  Talent exists in all population classes and the geniuses and artists among the numerous poor youth have been allowed to wither like Gray’s flowers in the desert air.
  • UP is the only SUC that has adopted a socialized scheme (STFAP). All the other SUCs charge minimal tuition.  All students in each SUC are given equal subsidy (cost-tuition) irrespective of family background, academic performance and field of study. But subsidy rates differ across SUCs since they have varied average cost. As chartered institutions, they obtain their budget directly from Congress.  Congress does not follow any common rational criterion in the budget allocation to SUCs.   A scholarship program strictly based on academic performance but with adequate financial assistance for deserving poor students is obviously superior to the present system.
  • There are now close to 1,800 colleges and universities including 110 SUCs, about 1,500 private and 75 local government colleges and universities.  Quality is generally poor even among the state and local institutions. Entry into the poor quality institutions is fairly easy but strict in the higher quality ones. What should be an efficient and equitable subsidy system to students and institutions in this large practically intractable system?
  • A cursory review of the implementation of STFAP shows lapses in procedures. First UP does not undertake an active information campaign about the program. It does not link up with the better quality high schools for stimulating interest and effort for admission into UP and its myriad departments. These include many that are underutilized or under-subscribed. Application for STFAP is entertained after a student has qualified for admission and after enrollment. The application for STFAP must be made upon notice of qualification for admission,which  is given a few months before enrollment.  Parents’ apprehension about the cost of studying in SUCs will be assuaged if they are well-informed of the STFAP program.
  • Government subsidy for higher education may be efficiently allocated if made available to all high quality colleges and universities, not just to high quality SUCs.
  • In the long-run, equity in higher education will depend on the equality of access to good-quality basic education.  An improvement in the quality of elementary and high schools to which the children of the poor enroll would make them more competitive in qualifying for entry into high quality colleges and universities.