Chinese students look elsewhere
China Daily

For many Chinese, the dream of an American higher education is losing its appeal, as evident from the dramatic drop in Chinese students attending US universities in the past two years.

File photo: CFP

The number of Chinese students in the US had been on a steady trajectory and peaked at more than 372,000 in 2019. They accounted for 35 percent of total international students in the US, and Chinese students added $15.9 billion to the US economy that year, according to an estimate by the Institute of International Education.

However, that trend is reversing. The number of Chinese students dropped by 15 percent in the 2020-21 school year to about 317,000. 2022 will likely see a larger drop due to the halved number of F-1 visas issued to Chinese students in the first six months this year.

A recent analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education showed that "only about 47,000 F-1 visas were issued to Chinese students this summer, 40,000 fewer than were issued from May to August 2021, a 45-percent decline".

Education observers said that while the COVID-19 pandemic was a big factor in the disruption of Chinese student inflows, the tension between the US and China and the US domestic situation also contributed to the drop.

Stories of anti-Asian hate crimes and gun violence in the US are unnerving to many potential Chinese and Asian students.

"My teenage son changed his mind late last year," a Chinese mother who wanted to be identified only by her surname Chen, told China Daily. "Like many ambitious kids, he wanted to pursue higher education in the US, but he changed his mind and told me he would no longer consider the US because he's scared by all the Asian hate crimes happening in the US."

Chen said the wide reports of gun violence in the US are another major concern for her and some other parents. "Many of us don't want our children to risk their lives for a fancy US diploma. It's not worth it," Chen said.

The 2022 Report on Chinese Students' Overseas Study by New Oriental Education showed that only 30 percent of surveyed Chinese students wanted to study abroad in the US, a big drop from 51 percent in 2015.

Xiaofeng Wan, associate dean of admissions and the coordinator of international recruitment at Amherst College, wrote recently in University World News that "over the last few years, Chinese students have been drawn to many competitor countries of the US".

Data for the UK showed that Chinese student applications there increased by 10 percent as of the end of June.

Wan said the US is no longer the only destination for Chinese families to send their children, and that now 70 to 80 percent of Chinese students apply to colleges in multiple countries besides the US. Before the pandemic, only up to 20 percent Chinese students would do so.

Wan's observation is backed by various examples.

Alice Miao, a 2022 graduate from a top high school in Beijing, didn't manage to obtain admission to her dream school, the Rhode Island School of Design. However, she was admitted to other top art programs at US institutions, such as the Parsons School of Design and the University of Chicago.

In the end, she chose the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The primary reason: cost.

"The UK tuition was much cheaper than American colleges, and the school is as good, if not better," Miao told China Daily.

Yi Su, a Chinese graduate from the University of Texas in Austin, is also choosing the UK over the US for her MBA study.

"The MBA program at Oxford is only one year long, while it will take me two years to get the same degree in the US. It would cost me twice as much in the US," Su said.

Vincent Xu, a classmate of Miao's, was glad that he got admitted by the University of California in Santa Barbara, a highly competitive school for international students.

However, Xu chose to attend University of British Columbia in Canada because it is ranked 35th, and UC Santa Barbara is ranked 67th in global college rankings by US News.

Wan said that the availability of foreign branch campuses and joint programs between Chinese and foreign universities is also having an impact on the number of US-bound Chinese students. In addition, the rising number of Chinese universities ranked highly in major global rankings and the shrinking size of their American counterparts also feed the downtrend.

Wan warned that the US "is on the brink of a major shift regarding its enrollment of Chinese students. Which direction it goes in will largely depend on how seriously this issue is taken by the US government and US higher education institutions'', he said.