Will Chinese international student numbers rebound in the US?


A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that fall 2022 new Chinese student enrollments in the United States fell 45% year-on-year to just 47,429, according to new visa data.

This is certainly alarming news, but not unexpected. The question remains: will Chinese student numbers in the United States ever recover? The answer is yes, but there is more to it than that.

In September 2020, at the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote a column for Within the Higher Ed Details on the problems in recruiting Chinese students.

By then, COVID had largely subsided in China, so health concerns were among the biggest deterrents for Chinese families wanting to send their children to the US, along with hostile political rhetoric from the Trump administration, tougher visa checks, travel restrictions, and rising anti-Asian racist attacks.

International curricula

One of the direct results of these concerns was the large number of Chinese families who pulled their children out of international curricula in public and private high schools and back into the national curriculum for admission to Chinese universities.

First-year enrollments at International Curriculum Schools also suffered a slump in Fall 2020 and 2021. Even in some elite schools, the drop has been as high as 60%. Many of these students would have applied for admission to US universities in the fall of 2022.

Industry experts who spoke to me for the column in 2020 shared their observations that the impact on Chinese student enrollment would be delayed by two to three years as the greatly reduced number of ninth- or tenth-graders reach their senior year of high school would have . This explains why the number took a nosedive for 2022.

Even though visas were issued in 2021, with almost 87,000, compared to just under 85,000 in 2019, it is important to remember that this figure may have absorbed those who were unable to obtain visas in the fall of 2020 due to travel restrictions. At that time only 523 visas were issued. But for that, the 2021 number would have been much lower and would be the first sign of a dramatic decline.

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signs of an upswing

The good news is that there are signs of a recovery on the horizon. According to a recent report by the Yi School, a third-party international education research and assessment company.

The study surveyed 63 international curriculum schools in some of China’s more developed provinces – Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong – as well as in the more rural ones like Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia.

It turned out that among the sampled schools, the smallest graduating class was the class of 2021 with 4,867, while the graduating class of 2025 will reach a total of 6,885 students.

The number of graduates in the 2022, 2023 and 2024 classes are relatively close at 5,100 to 5,500 each, suggesting that the total number of Chinese students studying abroad may not increase significantly until the fall of 2025.

Alternatives to the United States

Yi School founder Jingdong Xiao, who led the survey, said even if Chinese families warm to the idea of ​​sending their children abroad again, they might look to the United States as one of many options, rather than the primary one .

That’s because, in recent years, Chinese students have been drawn to many of the US’s rival countries that have recently been more welcoming, including the UK, Canada and Australia, as well as Asian destinations such as Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Japan and Singapore .

The availability of foreign branches in China and joint programs between Chinese and foreign universities are also affecting the number of students who might go to the United States.

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The increasing number of Chinese universities ranked high in major global rankings and the shrinking size of their American counterparts are creating a ranking frenzy among Chinese families, especially when the institution’s rank is linked to their children’s future employment opportunities and residency qualifications , as witnessed by Shanghai as it looks to stem a brain drain.

“Before the pandemic, only 10-20% of Chinese students considered applying to colleges in multiple countries, but now it’s going to be around 70-80%. The United States is no longer the only destination for Chinese families to send their children to,” Xiao said.

While the United States is gradually losing its appeal as a primary study destination for Chinese students, Xiao added that a US education is still valued by most Chinese families. However, they are increasingly concerned about their return on investment and the highly competitive and seemingly subjective admissions processes at highly selective colleges.

Escalating geopolitical tensions between the two world powers could also have a bigger impact when it comes to Chinese families’ willingness to send their children to the United States compared to what we see today.

A rethink

Nearly three years on from the global COVID-19 pandemic, while much of the world has lifted most if not all of its COVID restrictions, China still adheres to its “zero COVID” strategy and lockdown cities, including the Shutting down schooling online, often indefinitely.

Most Chinese nationals are still not allowed to leave the country, but students studying abroad are among the few who are exempt.

The pent-up interest in studying abroad grew even stronger among Chinese families when Shanghai, one of the top international student sending cities, went under lockdown for more than two months in the spring of 2022.

Families who were initially skeptical about sending their children abroad have completely changed their minds. International curriculum schools across the country reportedly enrolled an unprecedented number of freshmen this fall, a clear indication of this changing mentality.

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Chinese wealthy families are also looking to emigrate once the country opens up, potentially increasing the number of Chinese high school students studying abroad as foreign teachers have left China in droves amid tough lockdowns.

On the verge of a great change

The United States is facing a major shift in enrollment for Chinese students. The direction in which it goes will largely depend on how seriously this issue is taken by the US government and US universities.

While the general trend suggests that US institutions will see a rebound in Chinese students going forward, it may not be prudent to expect a return to pre-pandemic levels in the near future, or perhaps ever, given the many factors mentioned above show could potentially disrupt the trend.

There will be serious consequences if nothing is done to mitigate this risk. Not only will U.S. institutions suffer significant revenue losses from Chinese students, who represent the largest group of international students in the country and are mostly self-funding, but the United States as a whole will see its global talent pool depleted, which in the long run will affect its global talent pool will hurt competitiveness.

The US government should learn from its peer countries in attracting and retaining foreign talent by easing restrictions on work permits and permanent residence.

U.S. institutions should increase their recruitment efforts toward Chinese students, take their families’ contributions seriously, continue to express a welcoming attitude, implement more transparent admissions and financial aid policies, and adequately support Chinese students once they are on campus.

Xiaofeng Wan is Associate Dean of Admissions and International Recruitment Coordinator at Amherst College, USA. He is also a graduate student in the Executive EdD in Higher Education Program at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.


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