For years, the higher education system in Ecuador focused on ensuring that students receive a degree, no matter their actual abilities. Every high school student was able to attend university if he or she wanted to, regardless of academic accomplishment.
With more than 4,000 academic programs at universities around the country, students, until 2008, were essentially "paying for a degree," said administrator at CEAACES Ryan Cobey.
CEAACES, or the Consejo de Evaluación, Acreditación y Aseguramiento de la Calidad de la Educación Superior, is the agency charged by the government in Ecuador to accredit all higher educational institutions. The agency bases its ratings on infrastructural and classroom supplies, academic rigor, how the school uses its budget, and more.
"I think that a lot of other countries have this idea of a 'culture of quality,'" Cobey said. "And the idea is to get the general public to understand what the idea of a culture of quality is. Why is quality so important in higher education? Why is it bad to just go to an institution, pay and receive your degree? Why is knowledge really important? This is something that I think needs to continue to develop here in Ecuador."
The idea of ranking universities is relatively new. CEAACES was founded in 2010 as a part of a new government initiative to improve higher education. Before the implementation of a new constitution in 2008, a university degree didn't mean as much as it does today.
Phillip Markley, a lecturer at the University of Seattle in Washington, was called to Ecuador in the late 1980s to expand its university reading program as a Fulbright lecturer.
"My purpose was to revamp the teaching of reading in the country of Ecuador and to provide a larger base of reading comprehension exercises and reading so that when the students began to read the textbook, they didn't have to translate all of it," Markley said.
Markley used experimental and control groups to see how each group would react to various teaching techniques. This attempt at increasing language enrichment in Ecuadorian universities occurred slowly, but did reveal some successful results.
Most of the change seen today comes from the new 2008 constitution.
President Rafael Correa declared Ecuador a "new nation" on the day the new constitution passed. "The old structures are defeated. This confirms the citizens' revolution," he said.
The constitution was approved with more than 65 percent of Ecuadorians voting in favor. Correa said that the constitution gave him the opportunity to implement quick social change in order to alleviate poverty and to increase other social programs in what he called "21st-century socialism."
One of the major changes Correa wanted was to improve academic quality in universities, a goal that led CEAACES and the government to cut 14 universities in 2012 because they did not meet academic standards.
"It was a little controversial in the country at the time because it was the first time in history that the government really had to shut down universities," Cobey explained. "That also meant that about 40,000 students in these 14 universities had to figure out some way to finish their education."
The government allowed the schools to close during a one-year period so the students in their final year could graduate, while other students relocated to other universities.
Along with the ranking of universities came an entrance exam for high school students that attempted to guarantee that students were prepared for university. The exam tells students which discipline they will study for the course of their university career.
"The university system has had so many changes," said Fernando Mino-Garces, the academic director of the Andean Center for Latin American Studies. "Years ago, entrance to university was free, and anybody who finished high school could get into the university."
Mino-Garces, a native Ecuadorian who grew up in the education system, was the former director of international programs at Catholic University in Quito. He says that although it is good the government wants to "force" students to go to school and to university, he wishes students were able to choose their own path of study.
"Unfortunately, it's not a free decision to students," Mino-Garces said. "They want to force students to study something that, according to the government, is what they need."
Both Mino-Garces and Markley's passion was evident as they discussed the lack of schools offering programs in the humanities and liberal arts. The government pushes students toward science and math, they said. These programs are what the government considers the best academic programs for the economic betterment in the country.
There has been some backlash against the reforms both because students could no longer decide their own paths, and because acceptance at university was harder due to the new entrance exam.
"Before the making of the new higher education law, people really didn't think much regarding a culture of quality in education in general," Cobey said. "And that means changing a lot of different things about society. That doesn't just mean quantitatively putting more books in a library or putting in more social spaces or study. It means that you have to help people realize that universities aren't just there to obtain a degree. You really are benefiting from the knowledge that's obtained at universities."
President Correa emphasized how the modifications were vital to the success of the new constitution, but that it would be a change over time.
"We can't achieve anything immediately," Correa said back in 2008. "We don't have a minute to lose."
But not everyone is willing to wait for the improvements.
Mercedes Riofrio is an Ecuadorian who is now studying at Elon University in the United States. "When I was (in Ecuador), I thought the education was good," Riofrio said. "Then I came here and saw how the education works…however, I think higher education in Ecuador has improved a lot in the last year. I think the rankings were a good idea because before them…you had no idea."
Riofrio said that education is a main priority for families in Ecuador, and that they would give all the money they had to send their children to school. However, the socioeconomic disparities in Ecuador often prohibit students from actually participating in this changing university system, she said.
"I think I am definitely one of the lucky ones," Riofrio said. "My parents have worked all of their lives for my education."