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The number of students from China who attend American colleges and universities more than quadrupled over a decade, fueled by an unprecedented boom in Chinese students going overseas for their undergraduate study. But now some colleges that had come to count on the steadily growing stream of full-tuition-paying students from China are seeing those numbers begin to contract.

Rahul Choudaha, an international education analyst, said universities -- in particular public land-grant universities that were big beneficiaries of the China boom -- are “resetting the growth in expectations at the undergraduate level.”

“It pretty much is a plateauing of the growth,” Choudaha said. “If this is the mature plateauing of the demand from the Chinese undergraduate side, then universities have to now rethink what does it mean in terms of their budgets, in terms of their structures.”

“For many of these universities, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, the demographics do not support substantial growth in enrollment in the future. A lot of them have been seeing this growth coming in the undergraduate level from China as a great boon to their enrollment. A lot of those growth expectations affect other services also -- for example intensive English programs, for example pathway programs. They all have been designed on the assumptions of very high growth rates.”

National-level enrollment data are not yet available for this fall, but colleges have reported declines in first-year international student enrollments for two straight years, and China is the largest single source of international students, accounting for about a third of international students in the U.S.

In the fall of 2018, just under half (48 percent) of colleges reported declines in new students from China, according to a survey managed by the Institute of International Education that garnered 540 responses from colleges. About 42 percent of colleges also reported declines in enrollments from the second most significant sending country, India. The top three reasons cited by college officials for enrollment declines were, in order, the visa application process and visa delays or denials (cited by 83 percent of respondents), the “social and political environment in the U.S.” (60 percent), and decisions by students to enroll in universities in other countries (59 percent).

There’s no doubt that the sociopolitical climate and worsening relations between the U.S. and China have spilled into the education sphere: in June, China’s Ministry of Education went so far as to warn students of potential visa problems if they choose to study in the U.S. But college officials say there are a variety of factors at play in the changing demand, not least increased competition for international students coming from across the globe.

“We do think that some of the changes in the immigration environment are having an effect, but I think what’s happening is a much larger set of changes in the global higher education landscape more generally,” said Hannah L. Buxbaum, vice president for international affairs and a professor of law at Indiana University.

The total number of students from China at Indiana has fallen by more than 1,000 in five years, from 3,834 in fall 2014 to 2,649 this fall. The number of Chinese undergraduates declined from 2,741 to 1,702. The steepest declines in Chinese enrollments at Indiana have happened since 2017.

“There is no question there is just tremendously increased competition from universities in other countries, and I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not just in other Anglophone countries, but it’s also universities in non-Anglophone countries. If you look at the Netherlands, if you look at other European countries in particular, they have really ramped up the number of English-language programs they offer,” Buxbaum said.

“If you look at the competitiveness of American universities in the global context, our cost is a significant barrier,” said Buxbaum. “It’s possible for students to find opportunities at universities in other countries at a significantly lower price. While we do think that some of the U.S.-specific issues right now -- around immigration and around the concerns that students will find a welcoming environment in our communities -- are part of the picture, I really think they are only part of it. I think a lot of what we’re seeing points to more structural changes in higher education globally.”

Other big public universities in the Midwest that have seen large declines in Chinese enrollments include the University of Iowa, which is enrolling a total of 1,304 students from China this fall compared to 2,004 in 2017, including both graduate and undergraduate students. The number of Chinese undergraduates at Iowa fell from 1,633 in fall 2017 to 928 this fall.

At Michigan State University, overall Chinese student numbers have steadily declined from 4,793 in fall 2014 to 3,226 this fall. The number of Chinese undergraduates at Michigan State declined from 3,899 in fall 2014 to 2,513 this fall.

The declines are not limited just to the Midwest. The Associated Press reported in September that the number of new undergraduates from China at the University of Connecticut declined by about 10 percent, or 50 students, from fall 2017 to fall 2019. The AP also has reported on drops in Chinese student enrollments at the University of Vermont.

At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the total number of new international undergraduates declined by about 10 percent this fall compared to last fall, and the decline among new Chinese undergraduates was a little higher than that, according to Kregg Strehorn, assistant provost for enrollment management at the university (Strehorn said he did not yet have more precise numbers on China to share).

“I think it’s a confluence of politics and finance and maybe just better competition: I think other countries have seized the opportunity here to insert themselves more prominently in the market,” Strehorn said.

As for the politics, “I was just on the road overseas, and we get asked all the time about the political situation, about the difficulty in obtaining and keeping a visa. We get asked all the time about gun control,” he said. “What we’ve really tried to do is get out front of any of the perceived issues with coming to the United States and really sell the fact that we are a great college town and it’s a great place to come if you’re coming from outside the country, because you’re going to be met with open-mindedness and a lot of diversity and a lot of opportunity.”

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- a top destination for Chinese students -- the number of Chinese undergraduates has fallen by about 8 percent over the past two years, from 3,298 in fall 2017 to 3,043 this fall. The number of new freshmen from China was essentially flat this year compared to last year.

“I would say that the overall trend line across the United States is down, specifically from China,” said Andy Borst, UIUC’s director of undergraduate admissions. “We feel pretty good this fall because we feel like we bucked that trend by maintaining our freshman number. At this point our strategy is to maintain and fortify our current pipeline and focus on growing our international population from a diversity perspective and get more countries represented.”

At the University of Arizona, the total number of undergraduates from China this fall is 1,249, down about 11.5 percent from 1,412 a year ago. The change in the number of new undergraduate students from China was flat, according to Stephanie Adamson, Arizona’s senior director for undergraduate recruitment.

Arizona also has 391 students enrolled in a dual degree program with Ocean University of China, 372 of whom are in China and 19 of whom are in Tucson. The program in China is one of 10 dual degree programs Arizona runs through the “microcampus” initiative it started two years ago.

“I think that’s one of the ways that the University of Arizona is adapting to the changing international enrollment environment, looking at these more creative approaches, like dual degrees or microcampuses,” Adamson said.

Rajika Bhandari, an international education expert, said that early indicators of the decline in Chinese students began happening a few years ago when the rate of growth in students from China slowed down substantially.

"If we look at some of the surrounding factors, I think one of the aspects that we don’t focus on enough are just demographic shifts that are taking place," Bhandari said. "According to one estimate, the college-aged population in China, which is 18- to 24-year-olds, is projected to decline by more than 40 percent between 2010 and 2025."

“The spike we saw was driven by Chinese undergraduate students, and that’s impacted a lot by the really rapidly growing Chinese middle-class economy: parents saved for many years to send their one child abroad. I think it was at that moment in time a confluence of economic and educational aspirations coupled with just a growth in that college-aged cohort that was coming of age."

Now, Bhandari said, we're seeing "a different confluence of factors," including the demographic one. "There certainly have been social and political shifts both within the U.S. and China, and the other big factor is what’s happening in China itself in terms of how much home capacity has expanded, and everything that China is doing to expand its institutions at home, to engage more with countries that are part of the Belt and Road Initiative and to engage more regionally so students … simply have more options. A lot of that growth has also happened just in the past seven to eight years."

"Are we at a turning point?" Bhandari asked. "I do think that we’re not going to see those sharp rates of growth that we had been seeing before."

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