For Many Reasons, Fewer Chinese Students Attend US Schools

09:30 March 23, 2024

For Many Reasons, Fewer Chinese Students Attend US Schools

The U.S. State Department says there were about 20,000 fewer visas issued to Chinese students last year compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic.

After about 40 years of increasing interest, many students from China say they are considering other places for their higher education – including Britain and Hong Kong.

One student from Shanghai, Helen Dong, said she is concerned about the rising cost of higher education in the U.S. She is going to study advertising in Hong Kong later this year where it is less costly.

“It doesn’t work for me when you have to spend ($278,000) but find no job upon returning,” Dong said.

Yvonne Wong of Shanghai is 24. She studies literature and culture at the University of Bristol in Britain. She said she chose Britain because it is safer. She and her family were worried about gun violence in the U.S.

“Families in Shanghai usually don’t want to send their daughters to a place where guns are not banned,” she said. “The U.K. (United Kingdom) is safer, and that’s the biggest consideration for my parents,” she added.

Others say recent tensions between the U.S. and China have influenced the drop in students. Chinese officials say the American government is not as friendly toward Chinese students as in past years. They cite an executive order by former President Donald Trump that banned students who came from Chinese schools with a strong link to China’s military. In addition, the Chinese foreign ministry says some students have been unfairly questioned and sent home after arriving at airports in the U.S.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning called the U.S. actions “discriminatory and politically motivated.”

Young Chinese people whose parents studied in foreign countries also want to get that experience. A China-based education service company called New Oriental said students believe an education from a good foreign university will help their chances of getting a job at home, where the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds was 15 percent late last year.

They are considering schools in places such as Britain, Canada and Australia instead. Wong, the student from Shanghai who studies in Britain, said many young people want to spend time away from China after seeing the tight restrictions there during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hoping for a comeback

Starting in 2020, China restricted the ability of students to travel outside the country for their education because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The restrictions lasted for over two years, but now China is permitting students to travel again.

American universities hoped the number of Chinese students would return to levels seen in 2019 or before. But now, some experts believe there will not be a comeback.

One international education expert is Fanta Aw. She is executive director of NAFSA, a national group of international student advisors.

Aw said “international education is a bridge.” That means those who come to study in the U.S. will maintain a connection with American classmates and organizations once they return to their home countries. Those young people who come to the U.S. will become engineers, politicians and business leaders who have good feelings about America.

Aw said higher education provides a “pipeline” of young people from other countries who get to experience life in the U.S.

“Not seeing that pipeline as strong means that we in the U.S. have to pay attention, because China-U.S. relations are very important.”

At the same time, students who study in the U.S. find themselves in a predicament. The U.S. – China Education Trust spoke with Chinese students who were in the U.S. from 1991 through 2021 and found “students from China have been criticized in the U.S. as potential spies, and in China as too influenced by the West.”

History of Chinese students in U.S.

Students from China have been coming to the U.S. in increasing numbers since 1979 when diplomatic ties between the sides were established. At that time, leaders in Beijing asked the United States and then-president Jimmy Carter to permit 5,000 students to study in the U.S. Carter said he would permit 100,000 students to come.

By 1981, China permitted students to use their own money to pay for school, instead of depending on money from the government. That change brought more students to the U.S.

The number of Chinese students in the U.S. grew to over 100,000 in 2009 as family wealth increased. The Open Doors Report published by the Institute on International Education, said that by the 2019-2020 school year, there were over 370,000 Chinese students studying or working in the U.S. Last year, the number was 289,000.

In the 12-month period ending last September, the U.S. government gave out about 86,000 student visas to Chinese citizens. However, that number is lower than the pre-pandemic level of about 105,000.

“Massive” money loss

Allen Koh founded Cardinal Education, a company that advises and helps prepare students for college. His business often works with Asian students considering higher education in the U.S.

He said the drop should be concerning to the U.S. government and universities which depend on money from Chinese students.

“Ten or 20,000 students. If you figure their tuition dollars, on average, we’ll say, is about 30 to 40,000, plus their living expenses, and if you multiply that out, that is a massive amount of money that is now missing from the American economy.”

Koh noted that even if the number of students from countries such as India and Vietnam are increasing, “China has such a scale in terms of population and wealth that no country is actually going to be able to replace it.”

But, Koh said, international students continue to see the education and the academic opportunities in the U.S. as very strong. “I don’t think the other universities (in Asia, Europe, Australia and Canada) are catching up to top American universities in terms of reputation and prestige.”

However, the countries that international students in the U.S. come from are changing. The IIE noted that many American universities are now centering their efforts on recruiting students from India, especially for programs that offer advanced degrees. Still, 36 percent of schools reported increases in new Chinese students starting last autumn.

A group that follows schools that offer advanced degrees, called the Council of Graduate Schools, said American universities have seen an increase in students from India and sub-Saharan Africa since 2020. At the same time, the number of students from China has decreased. The group noted increased competition from Chinese universities and “geopolitical tension between China and the United States” as reasons for the change.

I’m Dan Friedell. And I’m Jill Robbins.

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