From the field: Recruiting in Bolivia

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • We continue our “From the Field” series today with a conversation with Shannon O'Brien, Director of International Studies of Minerva Consultores Académicos SRL in Santa Cruz, Bolivia
  • Ms O'Brien describes a study abroad market in Bolivia that has grown quickly in recent years
  • About 40% of Bolivian students go to Cuba, often for medical studies and with support from the Bolivian government
  • Minerva’s experience, however, suggests that students handled by Bolivian agencies are more likely to go to the US, or to alternate destinations such as New Zealand or Germany that have grown in popularity in recent years
  • Demand is particularly strong for language and high school exchange programmes, but Ms O'Brien also sees strong demand for higher education abroad

Bolivia is a small, land-locked country of about 11 million people in South America. It generally does not enjoy the same prominence in international markets as do some of its regional neighbours, such as Brazil, Peru, Argentina, or Venezuela. But a closer look suggests that may soon change.

Indeed, Bolivia has all of the hallmarks of an emerging education market. It has a youthful population – 60% of Bolivians are under 25 years of age – a growing middle class, eye-catching economic growth, and remarkably strong public finances.


While it has long been one of the poorest countries in the region, the percentage of the population living in poverty has decreased by 25% and average incomes have increased by more than 300% since 2001.

The government has been widely praised for its fiscal management, and has notably stockpiled the largest foreign currency reserves in Latin America, aggressively paid down public debt, kept inflation in check, and balanced the public accounts. The Bolivian government of President Evo Morales has also stockpiled a “rainy day fund” equivalent to US$14 billion, or about a year-and-a-half worth of exports.

The significance of this last point rests partly on the fact that Bolivia’s recent track record of economic growth has been largely built on commodity exports and on shipments of natural gas in particular, which account for about half of all export revenues.

The Bolivian economy has been on quite a tear in recent years. Economic growth pushed up to 5% per year in 2011 and at that point Bolivia also began to outpace some of its larger neighbours, Brazil and Venezuela included, to become one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies.

However, the pattern in the region, and indeed for many commodity-dependent markets around the world, is that as world prices go, so goes the local economy. This has led many observers to wonder if the Bolivian economy is in for an abrupt slowdown next year, as world oil prices have fallen off so sharply. But others point out that the country is in a better position than many, partly by virtue of its strong public finances, to fend off the immediate effects of any such downturn.

Bolivia has been in a way an outlier,” Ana Corbacho, the International Monetary Fund’s chief of mission in Bolivia, said to The New York Times in 2014. Ms Corbacho noted that falling commodity prices and other factors have lowered economic expectations throughout the region, but that, “The general trend is we have been revising down our growth forecast, except for Bolivia we have been revising upward.”

A big jump in outbound mobility

The latest UNESCO data indicates that the number of Bolivian students going abroad for tertiary studies increased by more than 250% between 2003 and 2013. Slightly more than 9,100 students went abroad in 2013, with about 40% heading for Cuba and another 25% combined to Spain and the US.

Originally from Canada, Shannon O’Brien has lived in Bolivia for more than 20 years and knows the market well. She is the Director of International Studies of Minerva Consultores Académicos SRL, an agency based in Santa Cruz.

In our first interview segment below, she attributes the growth in Bolivian outbound numbers directly to the country’s strong and steady economic growth. Also of note are her comments as to the destinations of choice among students referred by Minerva: “For us, the US is definitely the most popular,” she says. “We send a lot of students to colleges, universities, and English language programmes.”

The agency, she explains, tends not to handle students bound for Cuba as those students largely go abroad in the context of bilateral agreements between the two governments (often for medical studies and with the benefit of scholarship support from the Bolivian government).

In the previous interview segment, Ms O’Brien highlighted the demand for six-month high school exchange programmes among Bolivian students and a growing interest in New Zealand as a study destination.

In our second video excerpt below, she expands on this theme to describe a growing interest in studying in Germany as well, fuelled in part by family and cultural ties between the two countries, but also by the presence of German high schools operating in Bolivia.

Our third interview segment below swings back around to focus on the US as a leading destination for Bolivian students. “Most of our students go [to the US] for language programmes and high school exchanges,” says Ms O’Brien. “But we do have a great number who go for higher education [as well].”

She goes on to describe a relatively recent trend in the market where undergraduate students opt to go to an American community college for their first two years of study, and then subsequently transfer to a university to complete their degree programmes.

“It gives them a bit more of a personalised experience,” she adds. “Sometimes the universities are very big and the students are a bit overwhelmed at the outset, so a college can really help them to make the transition.”

In our fourth and final interview segment below, we step back to look at the larger economic context in the country. Ms O’Brien notes that the Bolivian economy remains strong this year: “We are doing very well. The [Bolivian currency] has remained very stable and there is a lot of growth in the big cities.”

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