BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Her mother, a housekeeper, never made it past second grade. Her father, a policeman, never finished high school.
But Lina Prieto had won a spot in the writing program at Colombia’s most prestigious public university. Her goal — to write the next great Latin American novel — felt within reach.
Over the past two decades, millions of young people in Latin America became the first in their families to head to college, a historic expansion that promised to propel a generation into the professional class and transform the region.
But as the pandemic grips the region, killing hundreds of thousands and devastating economies, an alarming reversal is underway: Millions of university students are leaving their studies, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.
The exodus threatens decades of achievement that helped move entire communities out of poverty. And it is a big step back for a region struggling to escape its centuries-old trap — an often destructive dependence on exporting raw materials — and move toward a knowledge-based economy.
Ms. Prieto, 30, a single mother who helps support her parents, lost her job as a receptionist. Unable to pay tuition, she dropped out — and lost her daughter’s spot at the university’s preschool as well.
“This was my year,” she said. “And it’s all come tumbling down.”
Since the early 2000s, enormous investment in elementary and high-school programs — and a decision to build new universities — helped higher education enrollment across Latin America more than double, from about 20 percent to more than 50 percent of the university-aged population, according to the World Bank.
The expansion allowed millions from previously excluded groups, including Indigenous, rural and Black students, to go to college.
“We were on a positive trajectory, we were changing the narrative,” said Sandra García, a Colombian investigator studying Covid-era education for the United Nations. “This shock is going to put much of that progress in danger.”
As the health crisis deepened, The New York Times spent weeks speaking to students, parents, professors, officials and university rectors across Colombia.
Amid lockdowns, youth unemployment has spiked and many students cannot pay tuition, which even at public schools can cost anywhere from one to eight times the monthly minimum wage.
Most courses have moved online, but millions do not have internet, or even a reliable cellphone connection.
At Colombia’s main teaching college, the rector, Leonardo Fabio Martínez, said as many as half of the students might leave this year, raising questions about who will teach the next generation of grade-schoolers.
At a public university in the city of Manizales, one professor said it was costing her architecture students the price of one week of groceries to connect to the internet via cellphone for a single day of classes.
Some students said they were going hungry to pay for data, while others hid in stairwells to boost Wi-Fi from neighbors, tapping out papers on cellphones only to be confronted by the spinning wheel of internet doom just as they hit send.
Young women, in particular, are facing the highest rates of unemployment in the country. Some have turned to so-called webcam work, performing sexual acts on the internet for money.
“I have to pay my tuition, manage the house, pay the bills, meals, and I support my mother and two sisters,” said one of those students, who lost her job during the crisis and turned to the internet “in a moment of desperation.”
At the Universidad Nacional, a prestigious public university in the capital, Bogotá, several students went on hunger strike on Aug. 10, camping out in a dozen tents on the otherwise empty campus, calling on the government to cover their tuition as their families hit bottom.
“I don’t see any other way to pay for the semester,” said Gabriela Delgado, 22, a music student and hunger striker.
For weeks she slept in a tent between the economics and humanities buildings, shuffling to daily medical check-ins. When she had the energy, she pulled out her cello to play fragments of Bach for fellow protesters.
The strike ended on Aug. 28 without the government meeting their demands.
For generations, many of Latin America’s biggest economies have been centered around commodities — oil, gold, large-scale agriculture — leaving governments dependent on sometimes dangerous environmental and work practices, and exposed to boom-and-bust cycles caused by prices that are set globally.
In recent years, as developing countries in Asia and elsewhere have moved further into e-commerce and high-tech sectors, Latin America has fallen behind.
The way out, said Eric Hershberg, who leads the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, is through higher education.
Despite more than five decades of civil war — and a long history of stark inequality — Colombia had been a symbol of that change, doubling higher education enrollment rates since 2000 and building new universities.
Since the pandemic hit, the government of President Iván Duque had made “an effort without precedent” to help students, investing the equivalent of $260 million, 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 schools, funded by tuition from wealthier students, have been able to limit dropout.
But large numbers of students are slipping away, a loss that could turn into explosive resentment in months to come, said Saulo de Ávila, 23, a psychology student.
“This is going to be a detonator,” said Mr. de Ávila, who is the child of farmers and has been using a borrowed cellphone since the pandemic began, rapping on the internet for donations.
“As soon as the pandemic subsides,” he said, “many people are going to go out and protest.”
The challenge for many students is not just that they don’t have internet or a computer. Many share cellphones with family members and live in places where coverage is spotty.
On a recent morning, Wendi Kuetgaje, 22, sat barefoot in a cluster of trees by her home in a rural, Indigenous community east of Bogotá.
Ms. Kuetgaje, an anthropology student, craned over her mother’s cellphone, trying to decipher what the professor was saying about involuntary linguistic symbols and the function of myths over a terrible connection.
As the session wrapped up, the professor asked for feedback. Ms. Kuetgaje had caught about half of the class. Zoom had crashed at least eight times. She looked like she might cry.
“They’re speaking,” she said, as the sound cut out and her classmates chattered on, “but I can’t hear them.”
Ms. Kuetgaje attends the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá on scholarship. When she was a child, her family fled violence in their home state of Amazonas. Now they live on the Maguare reservation with about 25 other families.
School Reopenings ›
Back to School
Updated Sept. 4, 2020
The latest on how schools are reopening amid the pandemic.
- There have been at least 51,000 coronavirus cases at more than 1,000 American college campuses since the pandemic began, the latest New York Times’s survey shows.
- SUNY Oneonta canceled in-person classes and sent students home because of a coronavirus outbreak.
- Millions of college students in Latin America are leaving their studies because of the pandemic.
- Professional licensing exams have been severely disrupted by the coronavirus, making it difficult for newly trained lawyers, doctors and others to start their careers.
They have limited electricity and survive mostly on visits from tourists, which have stopped during the pandemic. Her sister, Johana, a lawyer, is the only person in their community with a university degree.
Ms. Kuetgaje, whose parents are Uitoto and Tatuyo, plans to study Indigenous peoples. “We have always been studied by others,” she said. “We, as Indigenous, can also tell our own stories.”
When she started school, though, she quickly felt alienated from her wealthier, city-savvy classmates.
“I’ve learned to be quiet,” she said, “so as not to generate conflict.”
As classes moved online and Ms. Kuetgaje moved home, the distance only grew. Cell service comes in sporadically, which means she sometimes studies under the stars while everyone else is asleep. Last semester she had so much trouble logging in that she missed two important tests and nearly failed.
Now she is partway through her thesis project, which traces her family’s history and customs, and has only two semesters left. She can’t fail, she said. If she does, she believes she will lose her scholarship.
If that happens, she said, “I lose everything.”
Full tuition is completely out of her reach, she said.
Her younger brother, Jefferson, 19, a law student who is in line to become the community’s next leader, dropped out last semester because of the connection problem.
He is back in school now, connecting from a grassy field on his father’s cellphone, his notebook balanced on his knee for hours at a time.
“The civil code has been discriminatory against many minority communities,” his Roman law professor said over video one day. Chickens clucked around Jefferson. “It’s up to you all to finally change it.”
One day in August, Ms. Prieto, the writing student, sat in her small bedroom in Bogotá, locked in like much of the city.
Ms. Prieto fell in love with storytelling after reading “A Hundred Years of Solitude,” the multigenerational epic by Gabriel García Márquez that is often considered Colombia’s definitive novel.
But it was her own story that convinced her to become a writer.
At 16, fed up with her family’s poverty, she became one of hundreds of young people to join Colombia’s best-known leftist rebel group, the FARC. She then spent three years in prison for her guerrilla activity.
When she got out, she funded the early years of her education by washing car windows in the street.
The novel that was going to be her thesis, “While You Sleep,” braids her own story with that of her family, including her mother, who began working at age 7.
But the best part of studying, she said, was that it allowed her to put her daughter, Luna Victoria, 4, into an acclaimed preschool on campus.
“In my head I had already secured my daughter’s education,” she said.
The pandemic forced her to confront the precarious nature of the life she had built.
The preschool was only for the children of students and staff. So when Ms. Prieto had to drop out of school, Luna lost her spot, too.
Sofía Villamil contributed reporting from Bogotá and the Maguare reservation.