Chinese students have cooled on US. Could Biden change that?

Yuri Gripas/Reuters/File
Chinese students wave national flags to greet China's then-President Hu Jintao during his meeting with then-President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington on Jan. 19, 2011. The number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. has leveled off in recent years.
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Universities in the U.S. have come to rely on revenue from Chinese students, who contributed $14.9 billion to the economy in 2018 alone. But growth has leveled off, after years of double-digit increases – for reasons ranging from concerns about gun violence to Trump administration policies on China.

Now institutions are wondering if a Biden administration might do enough to reverse the trend of a thinning pipeline. The incoming president has signaled his appreciation for the talent and diversity international students bring, and announced plans to grant green cards to foreign graduates of U.S. doctoral programs. 

Why We Wrote This

The pandemic looks likely to keep more students at home – not just logging in to class from their couch, but also studying in their own country, rather than going abroad. What’s at stake for schools?

But some education experts doubt a dramatic shift is coming, particularly with the pandemic influencing families’ decisions. And not all think that’s such a bad thing. The shift could prompt U.S. schools to reimagine how they operate, consultant Marguerite Dennis wrote in a column this fall. 

Others are concerned about the potential for a permanent pullback in international students.

“The fundamental tragedy of this [current] administration’s choices is that some of it may be irreparable,” says Bob Murphy, of the Michigan Association of State Universities.

As universities consider how to woo international students for the coming year, the views of one group in particular stand out: young people from China.

Despite tension between the two countries, Chinese students have traditionally numbered the most from any nation studying in the United States. Growth in their ranks has leveled off after years of double-digit annual increases, for reasons ranging from concerns about gun violence to Trump administration policies on China.

Now the pandemic is also influencing decisions. But institutions are wondering if a Biden administration, with its stated appreciation for the talent and diversity brought by international students, might be enough to reverse the trend of a thinning pipeline.

Why We Wrote This

The pandemic looks likely to keep more students at home – not just logging in to class from their couch, but also studying in their own country, rather than going abroad. What’s at stake for schools?

“The fundamental tragedy of this [current] administration’s choices is that some of it may be irreparable,” says Bob Murphy, chief policy officer for the Michigan Association of State Universities. “The United States has been seen as special in many ways: rule of law, its historic external orientation, investment in public higher education. And when you disrupt norms, it shakes faith in the foundation of the country and it’s going to be harder to demonstrate to international students it won’t happen again.”

In September, the U.S. State Department announced that in recent months it had revoked the student visas of more than 1,000 Chinese nationals on the grounds that they were “high-risk graduate students and research scholars.”

The Trump administration has previously raised concerns that some Chinese citizens granted U.S. student visas pose security risks through involvement in nontraditional espionage. The administration’s China strategy, released in May, emphasized support for Chinese students and researchers while saying U.S. officials would “screen out the small minority of Chinese applicants who attempt to enter the United States under false pretenses or with malign intent.”

Next steps

In an open letter published on Dec. 3, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University in New York, urged President-elect Joe Biden to act quickly on international student policies, including those that limit stays and work opportunities. Among his list of remedies: “End paranoia of Chinese students.”

“Instead of enlisting universities to monitor foreign-born students and visiting scholars, particularly if they are ethnically Chinese,” Mr. Bollinger writes, “focus again on attracting – and welcoming – the brightest minds in the world, regardless of nationality or country of origin.”

Mr. Biden has not yet outlined a detailed China strategy, but has emphasized taking a united approach with allies, an approach which could bring about a more consistent and moderate policy. Experts believe the Biden administration will take a more targeted approach to security concerns. Former ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, president of the US-China Education Trust, says the incoming administration would likely do more to promote diplomacy at the local level.

“If you don’t have people-to-people exchanges and especially education exchanges, who is there to provide another picture?” she says, referring to the way the U.S. is often depicted in China. “It is that people-to-people exchange pillar, the educational exchange … that’s what can still continue to hold at least the channels of communication open and continue to have views and messages transmitted, and that’s very important when all else fails.” 

With regards to international students, analysts expect Mr. Biden would return to a more open Obama-era policy. In loosely detailing immigration policy plans, the incoming administration has cited research pegging the yearly contribution of foreign-born workers at $2 trillion. Among other signaling, Mr. Biden’s team has announced plans to grant green cards to foreign graduates of U.S. doctoral programs, as “losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness.”

New realities?

Even with a change in the White House, what’s still unclear is what Chinese leader Xi Jinping will allow students to do. “It works both ways,” says Mr. Murphy of the Michigan Association of State Universities. China’s ministry of education last year issued an alert warning students that U.S. visa restrictions could impact their study in America.

Moreover, some experts believe that regardless of the change in U.S. administration, fewer Chinese students are likely to come to the United States – and that may not be a bad thing. Marguerite Dennis, an international education consultant, writes that “countries heavily dependent on Chinese student enrolments … can no longer expect Chinese students to enrol in the numbers they have for decades” for several reasons, including “economic insecurity in China and geopolitical tensions.”

The shift could prompt innovation by forcing U.S. universities to reimagine how they operate – a necessity in the post-COVID-19 world, she writes.

Universities in the U.S. have come to rely on the revenue brought by Chinese young people, with nearly 370,000 students studying at U.S. schools in 2018-19. Chinese students contributed $14.9 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the U.S. Department of Commerce. International students overall contributed about $39 billion during the 2019-20 academic year, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

At Michigan Technological University, an engineering magnet on the Upper Peninsula, the association for Chinese students dates back to the 1920s. “These students’ culture enriches our area, and we hope to sustain that,” says John Lehman, vice president for university relations and enrollment. The university of 7,000 enrolled nearly 300 Chinese students a few years ago, down to about 100 this year.

Rethinking their options

U.S. schools are competing with those in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom for students. China is also investing heavily in its own higher education system, with an increasing trend for students to stay home.

Chinese graduate student Wang Yixuan recently chose England for her studies, because of tensions between China and the U.S., and because “in the U.S. the gun has not been banned,” she says.

Ms. Wang returned home in March to Changsha and finished her courses online, and is currently interning for a Chinese company. About to complete her one-year master’s in global supply chain management at the University of Leeds in England, she says financial considerations were also a factor in her choice. Tuition, room, and board add up to be less than in the U.S. Overall, she’s happy about her decision. “England is so beautiful,” she gushes. “And it’s so different from China.”

The pandemic is also making the job of recruiting more difficult, putting more pressure on the incoming administration. The failure to control the spread last spring in the U.S., coupled with the virus’s resurgence this fall, has led many Chinese students to return home.

“I knew a lot of students who were studying in the United States, but because of COVID, most of them have decided to come back to China,” says Jin Xinhe, a senior studying marketing at Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics in the coastal city of Hangzhou. “COVID there is very widespread,” she says, unlike in China, where the virus is under control and she can attend classes in person now.

Ms. Jin originally planned to go to graduate school in the U.S., but has now decided to stay in China and start her own online jewelry sales business. “Due to COVID and also the market impacting my choices,” she says, “I plan to first work a couple of years and then decide whether to go overseas.”

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