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The United States has seen a dramatic rise in the number of Chinese students studying on its campuses over the last 10 years. Approximately 370,000 Chinese students studied in the U.S. in the 2018-19 academic year, accounting for a third of all international students in the country, according to the Institute of International Education. They contributed nearly $15 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the Department of Commerce, and created thousands of jobs. However, this may soon take an unexpected turn.

In a June study by the China Institute of College Admission Counseling, 36 percent of Chinese high school students said they have forgone their plans of studying in the U.S. completely. Among their many concerns, 85 percent pinpointed their primary concern to the potential health risks of being in the U.S. Nearly half of them also cited uncertain visa policies and anti-Asian racism as their main concerns.

On May 29, President Trump signed a proclamation barring Chinese graduate students and researchers who have ties with the People’s Liberation Army from entering the United States, citing fears of intellectual property and technology theft. As of Sept. 8, 2020, the State Department has revoked more than 1,000 visas of Chinese nationals who were found to be ineligible for a visa based on the proclamation. This was a clear escalation from two years ago, when the U.S. began restricting visas for Chinese citizens studying in certain high-tech sectors with potential national security applications. These moves have worsened the fears among Chinese students that they would face tougher visa scrutiny if they major in the STEM field and potentially see their visas revoked arbitrarily during their studies, upending years of preparation and hard work in their pursuit of an education in the United States. As Sino-U.S. relations continue on a deep, downward spiral, concerns of more hostile policies against Chinese students and using them as political pawns further unsettle Chinese families.

Then there’s the raging pandemic across the United States and the surging anti-Asian racist attacks, verbally and physically, fanned by the country’s very own president, who repeatedly calls COVID-19 the “China virus.” These are deeply disturbing factors for Chinese parents when they weigh the pros and cons of sending their children, many of whom were born under the one-child policy, halfway across the globe for college.

Rock Bottom? Not Yet

“Winter is coming,” said Frances Zhang, dean of college counseling at WLSA Shanghai Academy, commenting on potential implications of the current trend to U.S. colleges’ recruitment of Chinese students. “There will be a delayed impact to the number of Chinese students applying to U.S. colleges. The real decline will manifest in two to three years when current ninth and 10th graders enter the college process,” she added.

Recent data show a 20 percent increase in the number of Zhongkao (high school entrance exam) students in Beijing compared to 2019, and a 15 percent increase in Shanghai. However, many international programs at both public and private high schools across the country have reportedly failed to meet their enrollment targets way past the traditional recruitment season.

At the recent Amherst College, Williams College and Yale University seminar with Chinese high school principals, the principal of a prestigious public high school in Xi’an, a metropolis in western China’s Shaanxi Province, lamented that their international program only managed to meet 40 percent of its enrollment goal. To retain those already enrolled, the school had to add additional courses to the curriculum, so students would still be qualified for Chinese university admissions, an unprecedented move for the school. Parents have threatened to pull their children out otherwise.

A recent white paper published in China shows that Britain has surpassed the U.S. for the first time as the primary overseas destination for Chinese students. However, even for schools that offer an exclusive A-level curriculum and send most of their graduates to Britain, widespread declines in enrollment are also common. A branch campus of a selective English independent school in southern China’s Jiangsu Province saw a 50 percent drop in its high school enrollment this year. Some previously highly sought-after international programs at public schools had to lower their Zhongkao score threshold significantly and still struggled to fill the class.

Does the U.S. Still Welcome International Students?

One of the underlying concerns of Chinese families is that the U.S. as a whole is no longer a welcoming place for them. Political and cultural differences may be in play here as many Chinese families associate the Trump administration’s xenophobic rhetoric with public opinion, including those of higher education institutions.

The recent lawsuit against ICE’s new rule barring international students from taking only online classes in the United States, championed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed Chinese families that the U.S. government did not have full control over higher education institutions’ attitude toward international students. The lawsuit itself and the subsequent victory were in stark contrast to what their system allows.

Additionally, widespread misinformation on Chinese social media, including on WeChat and Weibo, around college admission and the future of Sino-U.S. relations has generated anxieties among Chinese families about the wisdom of the U.S. as a study destination.

“We hope that there are more direct communications between U.S. colleges and Chinese families. So our families know that U.S. colleges still welcome them, and that they are not easily agitated by misleading information on the Chinese web,” said by a principal of one of the most prestigious public high schools in Beijing at the recent principals’ seminar.

The Future Outlook

One thing is for sure: Chinese families still see value in sending their children to study in the United States for the many beacon-like ideals and opportunities that U.S. higher education embodies and provides. Although the impacts of current political and health crises seem dire, and will undoubtedly have long-lasting impacts, the desire of Chinese families to provide their children with the best education out there is not going to change.

That said, recruiting Chinese students in the next couple of years will present more challenges than ever before. How well the U.S. government controls the pandemic is the key in rebuilding their confidence of setting foot in this country again. In the absence of national leadership in stopping the spread of the virus and embracing talents from abroad, higher education may need to take on more of the work. Families will not care about how much resources we provide until they know how much we care about the well-being of their children, especially during a global pandemic. As the first point of contact, admission officers have a critical role in voicing our welcoming stance and our commitment in supporting international students directly, to avoid filtered information and to clear up any doubts and misconceptions about studying on our campuses. So that Chinese students will not only want to come to the United States again, which I believe they will, but are able to have the dignity and support to thrive on our campuses and beyond.

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