8 minute read 1 Jun 2020
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How COVID-19 has impacted higher education in Mexico, Colombia and Peru

By Robert Lytle

Global EY-Parthenon Education Leader

Global professional in education markets. Passionate about the private sector‘s role in advancing outcomes. Frequent speaker at global industry gatherings. Self-acknowledged sci-fi and fantasy nerd.

8 minute read 1 Jun 2020

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  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education in Mexico, Colombia and Peru (pdf)

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We identified six trends that higher education students in these countries have experienced during the pandemic.

In brief
  • COVID-19 forced higher education students in Mexico, Colombia and Peru to adapt to new ways of learning.
  • Overall, students prefer to learn in a classroom setting, although there are aspects of remote learning that they do enjoy.
  • This year, we expect to see a drop in enrollment, a rise in tech investment and more robust remote learning offerings in higher education institutions.

In a matter of weeks, students across the globe had to quickly switch from classroom instruction to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Latin America, the ability to adapt to a new learning environment was mixed. While some students smoothly transitioned to online classes, many continue to face challenges due to the lack of digital readiness at home and a drop in household income.

EY-Parthenon teams conducted a deep dive on Mexican, Colombian and Peruvian higher education students through several surveys with 4,800 respondents. EY-Parthenon teams sought to understand the impact campus closures had on students’ academic preparation, and how the COVID-19 pandemic could permanently change the future of higher education in these countries.

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  • To see the full analysis of our survey results, download the complete report

What’s happening now in higher education?

Prior to the pandemic, most higher education students in Mexico, Colombia and Peru were enrolled in traditional, or on-site, degree programs. About a third of undergraduate students in both Mexico and Colombia declared that they are enrolled in remote degrees (online and blended). In Peru, that figure is approximately 50%, which is likely driven by local regulations requiring all higher education degrees to, at most, have 50% of their credits earned remotely (SUNEDU).

By the end of March, most Colombian universities migrated to online learning. In Peru, the school year started in March, and 26 public universities received funding to ensure that classes are delivered remotely, while labs were postponed until next semester. In Mexico, at the end of April, nearly 200 public and private universities agreed to finish the semester online. This shift to remote learning has resulted in a massive surge in virtual classes across countries.

EY-Parthenon teams identified six trends that higher education students in these countries have experienced during the confinement period to continue learning:

1. Virtual classrooms went viral

Before campuses closed, most students in on-site programs had some exposure to online education platforms. However, students mainly used these platforms to deliver homework and projects, and only a few had taken virtual classes. Prior to the quarantine period, only 15% of students in Mexico had enrolled in courses online, while 14% in Peru and only 8% in Colombia enrolled in courses online. After the required campus closures, the widespread response has been to shift to online learning for most classes.

2. To continue studying during school closures, home infrastructure matters

While home connectivity has become widespread in the developed world, many households in Latin America lack sufficient technology infrastructure. The current crisis highlights the need for adequate internet connectivity and access to a computer or tablet as a requirement to attend remote classes. In Mexico, Colombia and Peru, respondents’ at-home digital accessibility varies by enrollment in private and public institutions and there were two factors that unleveled the playing field: 1) access to broadband internet connection at home and 2) access to a device, computer or tablet at home.

3. Most universities were uprepared to support remote learning, and only a few leveraged prior experience

Digital-savvy professors with experience using education platforms were helpful to universities (mostly private) in that they assisted their university in offering a quick response to students. However, among the three countries, prior experience with online education between private and public universities was significantly different. In recent years, private online higher education in Mexico was booming. From 2015 to 2019, undergraduate students in private remote programs grew at a 10% compound annual growth rate driven by private universities, while on-site enrollments grew by 3% during the same period.¹ Colombia and Peru also experienced growth in remote degrees (blended for Peruvians). However, across countries, many universities (primarily public) are navigating uncharted territory. These first few weeks saw mixed responses from universities during campus closures. Our research highlighted two key points: 1) a prompt response to the circumstances increased students’ satisfaction and 2) students are concerned with the quality of education they’ll receive remotely and their ability to continue learning online.

4. Increased demand for financial aid and tuition adjustments

The swap of physical to virtual classrooms, coupled with economic headwinds, brought growing petitions for tuition discounts and financial aid. In social media, students from different universities across countries posted comments requesting discounts for not getting the same value proposition. Overall, online education should drive lower tuition, and, during this sanitary crisis, there are economic reasons to adjust fees:

  • Comparable tuition fees for online vs. on-site programs: Institutions that offer both on-site and remote programs charge different tuition rates for each mechanism.
  • Benefits of on-site programs not obtained in online classes: Students enrolled in on-site programs value the benefits that are absent in online education (e.g., direct contact with professors, one another) and therefore perceive online classes to offer less value.
  • Unprecedented impact on household income: Unemployment and a sluggish economy have led to a decrease in income across socioeconomic levels (SELs). In these LatAm countries, student loans are not as common as in the US or other developed countries, and parents are the primary payers of tuition. In a consumer sentiment survey conducted by EY-Parthenon teams during April 2020, 91% of Mexicans declared that they have seen a negative impact on their salaries, and even more alarming is that 64% of them have seen their incomes decrease by at least 60%.
5. Educational platforms have a long way to go in LatAm

There are a wide variety of educational platforms available for institutions to use and prior to the pandemic, universities used them to some extent. In Mexico and Peru, the most popular platform used prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was Blackboard; in Colombia, it was Moodle. However, the magnitude of the pandemic took many universities by surprise, which led to “emergency” responses characterized by the following: 

  • Widespread adoption of free platforms: Universities were given a limited time to transition to online learning and were forced to choose a remote-learning platform in a hurried manner, leading to the adoption of free platforms.
  • Multiple platforms being used in the same institution: Since the immediate focus was on “class continuity” in the educational space, this meant classes were not canceled. In this context, platform decisions were left to professors (and their individual experience), leading to multiple platforms being used in the same institution, as reported by about a fourth of students in our surveys.  
  • Platforms designed for online learning are preferred: Students prefer platforms with features that are easy to use, allow file sharing and provide access to grades. Although students have different preferences, platforms designed for educational purposes received the highest satisfaction scores. 
6. Students’ perception of online learning has not changed...yet

Although many students have at least some of their classes online, undergrads enrolled in on-site degrees still prefer classroom education. Students enrolled in on-site programs mostly value the learning experience in a classroom and the quality of education they receive. In contrast, students registered in online or blended programs mostly value schedule flexibility, limited commute needs and lower tuition rates. However, during the closure period, on-site students appreciate that online classes have allowed them to continue studying despite social distancing measures. After a few weeks of taking classes on a screen, students in the three countries did not show a significant change in their preference for online classes.

  • Although it is not preferred, students are open to continue with online classes: So far, students have a mixed perception of their temporary online experience. Around half of the surveyed students in Mexico and Colombia agreed to continue taking all classes online, despite a preference to only taking some of their classes online going forward. Respondents are mainly concerned about their ability to pay attention in virtual classes, the low interaction with teachers and the lack of personalized attention from professors.

What will likely happen next in higher education?

Understanding what happens next for higher education will be key as a new semester quickly approaches. Even though regulations in each of these countries will be different, university responses will vary widely from one institution to the other. We expect that some of the following dynamics could play out, assuming that the campus closures continue further into August and beyond: 

  • Drop in new enrollment for first-semester classes at public, low- and mid-tier institutions: Recent high school graduates will probably think twice before starting college, especially for on-site programs with relatively unchanged tuition. Many students could consider waiting until they can have the full college experience. 
  • Drop in re-enrollments coupled to an increase in free online education classes: As unemployment rises, many parents and students will probably not be able to afford tuition. Free education platforms, such as Coursera, could capture these students who may be tempted to abandon paid online education while there is economic uncertainty at home. Others could consider applying to a more affordable program at another university.
  • Remote-learning gaining share vs. on-site learning at mid-tier universities: At this level, pricing and ability to work are paramount. With an extended quarantine, parents paying students’ tuition might consider remote learning as a better option, and students who still have a job, might be more than eager to keep it.
  • Rise of EdTech platforms: Universities will pay more attention than ever before to the platform they use, its capabilities and costs. Likewise, students’ evaluation criteria for the university they choose will probably include an assessment of the platform. Significant investment in technology is expected from universities to continue providing all classes online. 
  • Robust remote learning offering: Some institutions will probably see an extended quarantine as an opportunity to expand their online offering and will begin investing in creating a robust team that will prepare them to evolve.

As the response to the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, we will continue to understand how it is impacting the education sector of Latin American countries. We will launch additional surveys, as required, to understand how students are experiencing the impact of campus closures on their academic preparation. Due to the uncertainty, we believe that universities that are flexible and can quickly adapt will be able to capture opportunities for growth in the new world.

  • Methodology

    EY-Parthenon teams conducted online student surveys in Mexico, Colombia and Peru from April 8, 2020 to May 8, 2020.


COVID-19 has created uncertainty for higher education students in Mexico, Colombia and Peru. In fact, the sector has the potential to permanently change. Our research has found that institutions that are flexible have a better chance of adapting to the situation.

About this article

By Robert Lytle

Global EY-Parthenon Education Leader

Global professional in education markets. Passionate about the private sector‘s role in advancing outcomes. Frequent speaker at global industry gatherings. Self-acknowledged sci-fi and fantasy nerd.