Is This the End of the Romance Between Chinese Students and U.S. Colleges?

For years, it seemed that there was no warmer relationship than the one between Chinese students and American colleges.

In the dozen years prior to the pandemic, the number of Chinese students studying in the United States soared by 450 percent, from 67,700 in 2006 to 372,500 in 2019. One of every three international students on an American campus was from China, drawn by the promise of a world-class education and a brighter future.

Colleges embraced these students, both for the cultural diversity they brought to campus and the tuition revenue they added to the bottom line — international-student dollars helped right recession-battered college budgets, studies have shown. Nor was their impact limited to campus; international students contributed nearly $39 billion to the American economy last year, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

But that relationship may now be faltering: Early indicators suggest that Chinese-student interest could be slow to rebound after the huge declines in international enrollments caused by Covid-19. And the chill could be coming from both sides.

Early data from the Common App show an 18-percent drop in Chinese applicants for fall 2021, even as applications from abroad increased over all. College counselors and recruiters say Chinese students and their families are concerned about America’s handling of the coronavirus and worried about rising anti-Asian sentiment in the United States.

And for the first time, a majority of Americans support limits on Chinese students at U.S. colleges, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last week. Fifty-five percent of respondents told Pew they favor restrictions on Chinese students, with one in five strongly in support.

Is this the end of the romance between Chinese students and American higher education? If so, what soured the relationship?

Barriers to Entry

The United States has long dominated the Chinese educational market, with American colleges attracting more than half of all Chinese students who study overseas. But when the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association, a group of Chinese recruitment agents, recently analyzed the preferences of more than 2.3 million prospective students and families who used its online college-search platform, it found that Britain edged out the United States as the destination of choice.

Jon Santangelo, a spokesman and senior consultant to the agents group, said that student interest in the United States remains but that demand may be “plateauing.” Britain, for example, made efforts to ensure that international students could enter the country during the pandemic, while the United States has prohibited travel from China, forcing students to quarantine in third countries before coming here.

The U.K. also loosened its restrictions on postgraduate work for international students, making it more attractive for those who value getting work experience with their foreign degree, Santangelo said. President Biden has proposed making it easier for some international graduates, those who earn advanced degrees in science and technology fields, to stay in the United States, but Congress has yet to act on the legislation.

Hamilton Gregg, a longtime independent counselor in Beijing, said he has seen a decline in families seeking to navigate the American college-admission process. He said the pandemic is the top reason for the fall-off in interest: “Covid pretty much trumps everything.”

While China was the original epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, case counts there have been largely brought under control by strict government measures. By contrast, Covid’s rampant spread in the United States makes parents worried about how safe it is to send their children to America, Gregg said.

The United States draws criticism worldwide for its pandemic response — in a separate 13-nation Pew survey, a median of just 15 percent gave America high marks on its handling of Covid. Yet globally, interest in studying in the United States seems to be on the rebound. As of March 1, applications from outside the United States increased 10 percent over the prior year, according to the Common App, with some countries, including Brazil, India, and Pakistan, seeing particularly strong growth. Not so for China, where applications declined.

Partly, the slowdown of Chinese applicants in the current admission cycle may be logistical. The travel ban remains in place, and American consulates there have been slower to resume visa processing than in many other parts of the world. Even if they get back up and running, the backlog could make it difficult to approve tens of thousands of new student visas by the start of the fall semester. Some American educators who work with Chinese students have started a petition to urge the U.S. government to give priority to student visas.

Despite the pandemic dip, Gregg said western education still holds “a great deal of attraction” to Chinese families. Indeed, applications to the Chinese campuses of American colleges, like New York University in Shanghai, have spiked.

A Loss of Confidence

But Andrew Hang Chen, chief learning officer at WholeRen Group, which helps place Chinese students in American colleges and high schools, said the pandemic has also exposed a vein of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, as people, including former President Donald Trump, blame China for the virus. Since the beginning of the outbreak, the group Stop AAPI Hate has recorded more than 2,800 incidents of anti-Asian bias. News of violent attacks, such as the January killing of a Thai grandfather in San Francisco, circulate widely on Chinese social media.

In office, Trump singled out Chinese students, putting them in the “crossfire” of Sino-American tensions, Chen said. His administration put special visa restrictions on Chinese students, including graduate students in certain STEM fields and those with ties to universities affiliated with the Chinese military, and he reportedly considered barring all Chinese students from studying in the United States. He is even alleged to have called Chinese students spies.

“Trump tried to make it hard for Chinese students,” Chen said. “They lost confidence in the U.S.”

Ryan M. Allen, an assistant professor of practice at Chapman University who studies global mobility and China, said that students absorb stories of increased scrutiny of Chinese students and researchers and feel unwelcome, even if they haven’t been personally affected. Allen teaches in a joint program with Shanghai Normal University for Chinese university instructors without doctorates. His students are educators, not in national security positions, but still they sometimes worry they could be caught up in crackdowns. “The whole environment is just boiling,” he said.

Although Biden defeated Trump, public officials’ skepticism about China, and its influence on American higher education, remains. Just last week, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved legislation to put restrictions on Confucius Institutes, Chinese-government-funded language and cultural centers on American campuses. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and presidential aspirant, has proposed prohibiting Chinese graduate students from studying or conducting research in certain STEM fields.

Wariness of China, and of Chinese students, is not just confined to Washington, as the Pew survey showed. It found that nine in 10 Americans view China as an enemy or a competitor, not a partner. The Pew poll isn’t alone in suggesting that Americans are coming to favor restrictions on Chinese students — earlier surveys, in 2019 and 2020, from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs tracked increasing approval for such limits, although Pew was the first to find a clear majority in support.

That stands in contrast to Americans’ views of international students in general. Eighty percent of Americans say it’s good for colleges to enroll students from other countries, Pew has found.

Denis Fred Simon, a former executive vice chancellor at Duke Kunshan University, Duke’s joint campus with Wuhan University in China, said it’s not surprising that public opinion would mirror rhetoric that paints China, and Chinese students, as an adversary. Reporting on Chinese students’ self-censorship and on the Chinese government’s attempts to influence students on American campuses could contribute to the unfavorable impression, said Simon, now a senior adviser to Duke’s president on China.

“There’s a sense that Chinese students are not unencumbered of political baggage,” he said.

In the past, that was less likely to affect interest in bringing them to the U.S. Student exchanges have long been seen as a way to further understanding between nations, whether friend or foe. Limiting educational ties could increase enmity, rather than insight, Simon said.

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