Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

Subscribe for free

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 Conversation With Shannon O’Brien, Part 1

ICEF Monitor: The number of students going abroad from Bolivia has pretty much doubled in the last decade. What would you say is behind that growth?

Shannon O’Brien: That is right, really the economic boom in Bolivia has been responsible for most of it. We have a lot of students who were in the cattle ranching business, also in mining, and their families have various oil interests and so on., so the economic system in Bolivia has grown substantially. We have a very strong economy right now and most of the students are able to afford, like they never have before, this opportunity to travel abroad. Although that doesn’t limit our students to an upper-end population, we do have a lot of parents who make a great deal of sacrifice to send their students abroad as well.

ICEF Monitor: And it is very much a family decision to go abroad, is it?

Shannon O’Brien: Yes, it is incredibly a family decision. Parents are very worried. They are very overprotected, as Latin parents generally are, and they want to know where the student is going and with whom they are staying. Preferably they prefer their agent, us, to have visited the place before they actually send their students.

ICEF Monitor: Some of the most popular destinations for Bolivians include the US, Cuba, Spain. How is that changing lately?

Shannon O’Brien: For us, the US is definitely the most popular. We send a lot of students to colleges, universities, and English language programmes. But Cuba on the other hand, we don’t send students from our agency to Cuba. It is more of an inter government policy where the students can receive a scholarship from the Bolivian government to go to Cuba. It is mainly for medical programmes that they do go to Cuba. Our students generally go for language programmes, for camps, universities, and also sometimes for high school exchanges. We are very happy to recently have had a lot of students interested in going to New Zealand. Luckily their academic calendar is the same as in Bolivia since we are in the Southern Hemisphere, so New Zealand is the destination of choice for high school exchanges right now.

ICEF Monitor: We have seen very good growth for New Zealand in recent years. How do you project the growth going forward then, only going up?

Shannon O’Brien: Yes, only going up. I, being a native Canadian would really love the students to go to Canada but unfortunately, it is a bit cold for our students, they are not used to such a shocking temperature. Some do, some like the snow and like to go, but New Zealand is a really good option for them because it is still tropical mainly and they do speak in English. More than anything the academic calendar is exactly the same from February to November.

ICEF Monitor: Which programmes, which age groups are the most popular, what lengths of programme are we talking about here?

Shannon O’Brien: The most popular for us is the six-month high school exchange programme. Bolivia is a very word of mouth country, so they come back and they tell everybody, and the next badge of students that will be going this year some are even planning to stay for university. It can only grow from there as the ones come back and they explain about their circumstances and their experiences to the next wave, then it will keep growing and keep growing. Hopefully, with New Zealand, we will have a very good partnership from here into the future.

Part 2: New destinations

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 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.

ICEF Monitor: We were talking about destinations for Bolivians, what are some of the newer destinations that are popping up these days?

Shannon O’Brien: Well, one of the more popular destinations recently has been Germany. Basically what the situation is is that we have various German high schools in Bolivia. Those students, along with others from different high schools, have recognised Germany as an excellent place for postgraduate study for their bachelor’s degrees and for master’s degrees as well. The cost obviously to study in Germany is relatively low compared to the United States and Canada for example, so a lot of our students have opted to come to Germany for their further higher education. That has been very popular recently and a lot of our families do have relatives in Germany as well, so that also helps. The kids in the German schools, during their younger years often do an exchange programme with Germany, so they know what to expect before they come for university.

ICEF Monitor: Would you say that when the students come to you that they have been abroad before or is this a new experience for them?

Shannon O’Brien: Most of our students are fairly well travelled, they have travelled a lot with their families. I would say the exchange programmes that we had it’s their first exchange programme, but going off to university is not the first time that they have travelled abroad, so their parents feel fairly comfortable with them going off and being more independent. They do have to be much more independent. Living in Bolivia is quite a paradise, the parents often do everything for their children. So living abroad for the first time where they have to cook and do laundry, and get around on their own is quite challenging, but they manage very well.

ICEF Monitor: For those that go to Germany then, how are their language skills? Of course there are a lot more courses being though in English in Germany but still, they probably want to learn the language to adapt to the culture. How is that going for Bolivians, do you see a rising interest in German as a language?

Shannon O’Brien: Yes, definitely. First, almost all even the ones who have gone to German high schools have to do a language programme before they go into the higher education system. So they come, they do an exchange programme or German language programme prior, and then they go into the higher education after that.

Part 3: Focus on America

Our third interview excerpt 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.”

ICEF Monitor: Let’s go back to the US a very powerful market indeed. What are some of the trends that you see around the demands for courses in America?

Shannon O’Brien: Most of our students go [to the US] for language programmes and high school exchanges. But we do have a great number who go for higher education [as well]. So the one trend that we have seen a lot of recently is that students are opting to go to a community college first for the first two years and then transfer to university for the second two years. It gives them a bit more of a personalised experience. Sometimes the universities are very big and the students are a little overwhelmed at the outset, so a college can really help them to make the transition from the Bolivian educational system into the American full on university system. Generally speaking, Florida is very popular and the Southern states are popular with our students just because of the weather but we have been noticing a lot more students going north end so that should be very interesting for the future.

ICEF Monitor: How much influence would you say an agency has in helping a student decide on whether or not they want to be in the south in the north, it’s a big decision?

Shannon O’Brien: It is a huge decision and part of being an agent is remaining very neutral. It is very difficult for us because we have a lot of different institutions who want us to promote their school obviously, and we do, but we promote them equally amongst all of the schools. Also, it is very important to us that if a student should come with a preconceived idea or an idea of where they want to go before they even come into the agency, that we help them regardless of whether or not they are a partner institution or not it.It is vitally important for us to treat all requests equally so we don’t push on the students the decision. We give them a full gamut of options and then they can choose depending on the parameters.There is a lot of different parameters obviously at stake, climate being one of them, but also budget is generally the most important. So, we give them a range of different places in their budget, in their climate area that they want to live in, and also depending on what they want to study we have to choose the university that is well known for that particular programme.

Part 4: Conclusion

In our fourth and final interview excerpt 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.”

ICEF Monitor: If we take a step back and we look at Latin America as a whole some countries have had a very difficult year with falling oil prices, falling commodity prices, they have seen their currency drop 30-40% how does Bolivia factor into the Latin American economies these days?

Shannon O’Brien: Bolivia has really had a string of good luck. We are doing very well. The boliviano, which is our currency, has remained very stable and there is a lot of growth in most of the large cities of Bolivia. Obviously there is quite a large very poor population but that is slowly getting better over time. The oil situation did affect Bolivia slightly but it hasn’t translated into a drop in currency. One of the huge driving factors in the Bolivian economy is agriculture and there is a lot of soya and quinoa, and different things being grown, which has really helped the economy substantially. If you were to visit Bolivia you would be quite amazed. I have lived there now for over 20 years and things have changed drastically in the 20 years. When I first arrived there wasn’t a supermarket in the city where I lived, now there are malls and shopping centres and so on. So it has grown substantially.


Sign up for our news alerts!

Did you enjoy this article? Then don’t miss the next one!

Subscribe for free