Millions drop out of university in Latin America because of the pandemic

Many of them were the first in their families to go to college. But how do you study when you can't survive?

BOGOTÁ - His mother, a cleaning worker, never passed second grade. Her father, a policeman, did not finish high school.

But Lina Prieto had won a place in the writing program of the most prestigious public university in Colombia. Her goal - to write the next great Latin American novel - felt at hand.

Over the past two decades, millions of Latin American youth became the first in their families to go to college, a historic expansion that promised to bring a generation into the professional class and transform the region.

But as the pandemic takes hold of Latin America, killing hundreds of thousands of people and devastating economies, an alarming setback is taking place: millions of college students drop out, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

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Enrollments are expected to decline by as much as 25 percent in Colombia by the end of the year, and similar numbers are expected in other countries .

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The exodus threatens decades of achievements that helped lift entire communities out of poverty. And it is a huge setback for a region struggling to escape its age-old trap - the often destructive dependence on the export of raw materials - and move towards a knowledge-based economy.

Prieto, a 30-year-old single mother who helps support her parents, lost her job as a receptionist. Unable to pay tuition, she dropped out of school, and also lost her daughter's place in the university's preschool.

"This year for me was the year," he said. "And everything fell apart."

Since the early 2000s, huge regional investment has helped higher education enrollment across Latin America more than double, from around 20 percent to more than 50 percent of the college-age population, according to the World Bank.

The expansion allowed millions of previously excluded groups, including indigenous, rural and black students, to enter the university.

"We came from a positive trajectory, we were changing the narrative," said Sandra García, a Colombian researcher who studies education in the era of COVID for the United Nations. "And this big crash is going to put a stop to a lot of that progress."

As the health crisis deepened, The New York Times spent weeks in conversations with students, parents, professors, officials and university rectors from all over Colombia.

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Amid the lockdowns, youth unemployment has skyrocketed and many students are unable to pay tuition, which even at public universities can cost between one and eight times the monthly minimum wage.

Most of the courses are now online, but millions of people have no internet, not even a reliable cell phone connection.

At Colombia's main pedagogical university, rector Leonardo Fabio Martínez said that up to half of the university's students could drop out this year, raising questions about who will teach the next generation of elementary school students.

At a public university in the city of Manizales, a professor said that connecting to the internet through cell phones for her architecture students for a single day of classes cost them the equivalent of a week's worth of food.

Some students said they were starving to pay for data plans, while others hid on the stairs of their buildings to better capture their neighbors' Wi-Fi, and typed homework on their cellphones only to be confronted by the spinning wheel of the phone. internet fatality when they hit the submit button.

Young women, in particular, face the highest unemployment rates in the country. Some have turned to so-called webcam work , where they perform sex acts on the internet for money.

"I have to pay for my study and support my house, pay bills, food, support my mother and two sisters," said one of those students, who lost her job in the midst of the crisis and turned to the internet "in a moment of despair." .

At the National University, a prestigious public university in the capital Bogotá, several students went on a hunger strike on August 10, camped out in a dozen tents on the otherwise empty campus to ask the government to cover their tuition since their families have hit rock bottom.

"I don't see any other options to pay for the entire semester," said Gabriela Delgado, a 22-year-old music student who participated in the hunger strike.

For weeks he slept in a tent between the faculty of economics and the faculty of human sciences, and underwent daily medical check-ups with a volunteer. When he had energy, he would take out his cello and play Bach fragments for his fellow protesters.

The strike ended on August 28 without the government complying with their requests.

For generations, many of Latin America's largest economies have been focused on commodities - oil, gold, large-scale agriculture - leaving governments dependent on, and exposed to, sometimes dangerous environmental and labor practices. boom-bust cycles caused by world prices.

In recent years, as developing countries in Asia and elsewhere have become more involved in e-commerce and high-tech sectors, Latin America has lagged behind.

Eric Hershberg, who directs the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, said the way out is through higher education.

Despite more than five decades of civil war - and a long history of blatant inequalities - Colombia has been a symbol of this change, doubling enrollment rates in higher education since 2000 and building new universities.

Since the pandemic hit, the government of President Iván Duque has made "an unprecedented effort" to help students by investing the equivalent of 260 million dollars, said María Victoria Angulo, the country's education minister.

Some public universities have been able to cover tuition for all students, at least for the semester. Many have distributed tablets or SIM cards. Some private universities, funded by the tuition of the wealthiest students, have been able to limit dropouts.

But large numbers of students are leaving, a leak that could turn into explosive resentment in the coming months, said Saulo de Ávila, a 23-year-old psychology student.

"It's going to be a trigger," said De Ávila, who is the son of peasants. He has been using a borrowed cell phone since the pandemic began and has rapped online for donations.

"As soon as the pandemic subsides a bit," he said, "many people will go out to the streets to protest."