Colleges, officials try to thaw effects of the US-China chill

Why We Wrote This

The Trump administration has emphasized that Chinese students enrich U.S. universities, but the trade war and other tensions may trickle down to campuses. Schools are struggling to figure out: What now?

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Li Yiyang, from China’s Sichuan province, is a graduate student in statistics at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she hopes to work after graduation. The number of Chinese students in the U.S. has reached an all-time high, although the rate of growth continues to slow.

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Over the past decade, the number of Chinese students on U.S. campuses has more than tripled. But with U.S.-China relations chilly, and heightened concerns about espionage, what’s ahead for that trend?

This year, Chinese students in the U.S. reached an all-time high, according to data released this week by the Institute of International Education. But growth in enrollment continues to slow, from 29.9% a decade ago to just 1.7% today. 

To some extent, that reflects better opportunities for Chinese students at home. But it could spell trouble for cash-strapped U.S. campuses – and schools, along with the U.S. government, are making a push to broaden their appeal abroad. Seventy percent of foreign students in this country are concentrated at just 200 institutions, and 1 out of 3 is in California, Texas, or New York.

One part of that campaign? Making Chinese students feel welcomed, despite the frosty diplomacy. At the University of Washington, which has more than 4,000 students from China, a few students suggested tensions had led them to keep a low profile – but not most.

Eddie Chen, a lanky freshman from the northeast Heilongjiang province, says he would recommend studying abroad. “You have to solve problems for yourself,” he says. “You have to be independent.”

Fan Rong crosses the University of Washington’s red-brick central plaza and steps into a lively lounge filled with students working on fall-quarter projects. A graduate student in civil engineering from China, she’s happy studying in the United States, and recommends it to all her friends back home.

Ms. Fan says she’s planning to stay on after graduating in 2021, joining tens of thousands of her fellow students from China. “I’d like to find an internship or job in Seattle,” she says, noting that “Seattle has a lot of tech companies and we can collaborate with them.”

Chinese students such as Ms. Fan are still flowing to the U.S. in record numbers, despite tensions in U.S.-China relations that have hampered exchanges and raised fears of visa restrictions. Chinese students in U.S. colleges, universities, and professional training reached 369,548 this year, an all-time high, according to data on the 2018-19 academic year released Monday by the Institute of International Education (IIE) nonprofit in New York. The overall number of Chinese students in the country has more than tripled over the past decade.

But as the two countries’ relations chill, and the rate of growth in enrollment continues to steadily slow – from 29.9% in 2009-10 to just 1.7% in 2018-19 – officials and campuses are giving new attention to recruiting and welcoming foreign students, who are now a significant source of tuition for cash-strapped schools.

“There are pressures in both positive and negative directions. When factored together the result has been a softening of demand” for U.S. education among Chinese students in the past five years, says Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the American Council on Education. Faced with slower increases in enrollments, some U.S. schools are struggling, particularly community colleges and regional public universities, says Mr. Farnsworth, whose organization is launching a public survey aimed at building community support for international students, and thereby strengthening the U.S. position as their top global destination.

SOURCE: Open Doors: Report on International Educational Exchange and is published by IIE
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Karen Norris/Staff

Competition from other English-speaking countries, as well as from China’s own elite schools, has eroded the U.S lead. “Chinese universities continue to climb in the rankings. ... Some are really world class,” says Mr. Farnsworth, who has taught in China.

Political rhetoric casting China as an enemy has also hurt student exchanges, Mr. Farnsworth believes, although he notes the slower growth began before the Trump administration. Beijing, for its part, this summer warned Chinese youths of the risks of studying and living in the U.S.

But with continued economic growth, China’s rising middle class can still afford the costly U.S. tuition, and many parents want their children to develop critical thinking skills that they view as lacking under China’s traditional system. Li Yiyang, a graduate student in statistics from Sichuan Province, says her family pushed her to study in the U.S. “My parents were educated in China and didn’t feel it’s an energetic environment” for learning, she says.

Ms. Fan, who graduated from China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, said she was drawn to study in the U.S. in part because of the real-world opportunities. At Tsinghua, she says “all the students and teachers respect academics more than industry experience. But here students find internships at an early stage and are thinking of entrepreneurial careers.”                

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Fan Rong (left), from China's region of Inner Mongolia, and Li Yiyang, from China's Sichuan province, are both graduate students in STEM fields at the University of Washington in Seattle, and hope to work or intern in Seattle after graduation.

Broadening appeal

Chinese students remain by far the largest contingent of the more than 1 million international students in the U.S. for the 2018-19 academic year – totaling more than those from the next six countries combined.   

Trump administration officials now say they seek to recruit even more top students from China – as well as India, Brazil, and other countries – as part of a global marketing campaign to broaden the international student presence at America’s 4,700 colleges and universities.

“We have significant capacity to host many more students from around the world,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce in a conference call last week with journalists about the data from IIE, noting that 70% of foreign students are concentrated at only 200 institutions, and 1 out of 3 is in California, Texas, or New York.

A major part of that campaign is an effort by Washington to ensure Chinese students feel welcomed, despite heightened concerns over Chinese espionage. In recent months, U.S. officials have warned that Chinese intelligence services have abused the visa process and co-opted scholars to try to gain access to sensitive research and intellectual property. But only a tiny fraction of Chinese student visa applicants – .0001% – have been rejected on these grounds, Secretary Royce said in a July speech. 

Asked about overall student visa approval rates, a State Department official wrote in an email that “We do not provide specific statistics on denial rates for particular groups of students.” The official reiterated that “national security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications.”

President Donald Trump emphasized that Chinese students are an asset during an Oval Office appearance with China’s Vice Premier Liu He last month. “We have the greatest university system in the world, and we’re going to keep it that way. And one of the reasons it’s great is we have a lot of students from China,” he said.

Apart from their academic strengths, Chinese students accounted for nearly $15 billion of the $45 billion that international students contributed to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data.

Beyond the classroom

Both Chinese and U.S. officials have stressed the importance of student exchanges to the bilateral relationship. “People-to-people [exchanges] are the core,” says Qian Jin, deputy Chinese consul general in New York. “We want more exchanges and interactions between the two peoples. We don’t want obstructions.”

One way to promote bridge-building, U.S. officials say, is to encourage Chinese students here to break out of the social and information “bubble” created when they primarily interact with other Chinese students and mainland media.

At the University of Washington, which has more than 4,000 students from China enrolled on a campus of 54,000, a few students suggested the tensions in U.S.-China relations had led them to keep a low profile and avoid conflict, and one said he feared a new cold war would break out. But most indicate they are engaging with Americans and soaking up U.S. culture.

Josh Jiang, who earned an MBA and is working on a second master’s degree in information systems, says he “loves Seattle.” “American people treat me very well, and I have a bunch of friends here,” he says. “If my parents did not live in China, I would definitely want to live here.”

Other students said they were embracing the U.S. style of education.

Eddie Chen, a lanky freshman from the northeast Heilongjiang province, says studying in the U.S. has helped him grow up, and he would recommend it. “You have to solve problems for yourself,” he says. “You have to be independent.”

Mr. Chen’s friend Yiyi Zheng nods in agreement, saying she would advise U.S. study for “people who want to get out of their comfort zone and see the diversity of the world and different cultures.” 

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