US universities face sharp drop in Chinese student numbers

Chinese students attend the graduation ceremony at Columbia University in New York in May 2019. [Photo by Wang Ying/Xinhua]

In the Chinese film American Dreams in China, three young men opened a language school in the 1980s to prepare Chinese students for the TOEFL, a test for non-native English speakers who want to enroll in English-speaking universities. The school has helped generations of Chinese students to study in the United States.

Four decades later, the dream seems to be fading in the minds of many Chinese students.

A recent Wall Street Journal report said that in the first half of 2022, US student visas issued to Chinese nationals fell more than 50% from pre-pandemic levels.

In the first six months of 2022, the United States issued 31,055 F-1 visas to Chinese nationals, compared to 64,261 for the same period in 2019, according to US State Department data. F-1 visas allow foreigners to study at schools in the United States.

The University of Miami’s Herbert Business School, which is ranked #1 in Florida and #26 globally in business administration based on the 2021 Academic Ranking of World Universities, saw a 30% drop in the number Chinese graduate students this year.

“At the peak maybe four years ago, we had maybe up to 300 Chinese students,” John Quelch, dean of the Herbert Business School at the University of Miami, told China Daily. This year, the university has about 140 Chinese students, he said, adding that this is a rough estimate.

“We think we’re not as badly off here because we’re well known in China as a China-friendly business school,” Quelch said. “We are very culturally diverse. The Coral Gables campus in South Miami is self-contained and very safe and beautiful.”

For more than a decade, China has been the largest source of American international students. They provide crucial college tuition as many international students pay close to the full sticker price, especially at public universities where most international students pay much higher non-resident tuition – just like non-resident U.S. citizens – than in-state students.

In the 2020-2021 academic year, 317,299 Chinese nationals enrolled in US institutions, representing about a third of all international students studying in the United States, according to a 2021 Pew Research study.

In the 2019 academic year, Chinese students contributed $15.9 billion in economic value, according to a report by Open Doors of the Institute of International Education.

The deterioration of China-US relations is one of the reasons for Chinese students to seek higher education elsewhere.

“The decision to go to graduate school is usually at least a year and sometimes two years to take. People don’t decide on Friday and leave on Monday,” Quelch said. “So I think the cumulative weight of deteriorating US-China relations has definitely made more students and potential parents in China question whether the United States is a hospitable place.”

Biases also affect where Chinese students choose to study.

A 2021 report from The Carter Center found that 62% of Chinese Internet users had a negative perception of the United States. A study published in March shows that young Chinese, those born in the 1990s and later, tend to have a more negative impression of the United States than their parents.

“We’re very keen to keep the flow of Chinese graduate students into a school. It’s just very important for people-to-people exchanges and mutual understanding,” said Quelch, who previously served as dean of both at London Business School and China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, and as Senior Associate Dean at Harvard Business School.

“The China-US relationship is the most important bilateral relationship. And it’s critical that we have as many Chinese students as possible developing their understanding of American culture and how Americans think and behave in business. And I wish we had the same number of Americans wanting and wanting to study in China,” he said.

The language school that opened in the 1980s to help Chinese students study in the United States is now the New Oriental Education Technology Group, a Chinese education company. The company’s recent study showed that Chinese students’ interest in studying in the United States has been declining since 2017, even as overall Chinese interest in studying abroad is on the rise.

These days, more students are expressing interest in going to the UK than to the US, while interest in Hong Kong and Singapore is steadily increasing, according to the report.

One of the reasons these regions and countries appeal to Chinese students is that they are English-speaking places, Quelch said.

“English is the main currency of business, the language of business all over the world. And so it makes sense from the point of view of developing your language skills,” he said.

(Web editor: Wu Chaolan, Liang Jun)

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