Will Chinese international student numbers rebound in the US?

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that new Chinese student enrolments for autumn 2022 had declined by 45% in the United States compared to the previous year and are now only 47,429, according to new visa data.

This is alarming news for sure, but not unexpected. The question remains: will Chinese student numbers ever rebound in the United States? The answer is yes, but there’s more to it.

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

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

International curricula

One of the direct results of these concerns was the massive number of Chinese families pulling their children out of international curricula at public and private high schools and back to the national curriculum for Chinese university admission.

First-year enrolment at international curriculum schools also took a hit in the autumn of 2020 and 2021. Even at some of the elite schools, the decline was as steep as 60%. Many of these students would have applied to US higher education institutions for the autumn 2022 intake.

Industry experts who spoke with me for the column back in 2020 shared their observations that the impact on Chinese student enrolment would be delayed for two to three years when the greatly reduced numbers of then ninth or 10th graders would have reached their senior year at high school. This explains why the 2022 number took a nosedive.

However, even though 2021 saw a higher number of visa issuances at nearly 87,000 compared to just under 85,000 in 2019, it is important to bear in mind that that number may have absorbed those who were not able to obtain a visa in autumn 2020 due to travel restrictions. Only 523 visas were issued at the time. But for that, the 2021 number would have been much lower, acting as the first sign of a dramatic decline.

Signs of a bounce-back

The good news is that there are signs of a bounce-back on the horizon. It is estimated that the graduating class of 2025 at international curriculum schools in China will see the highest number of graduates at over 110,000, a 42% increase on the graduating class of 2021, according to a recent study conducted by Yi School, a third-party research and assessment firm for international education.

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

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

The number of graduates in the classes of 2022, 2023 and 2024 are relatively close to each other, within 5,100 to 5,500 respectively, suggesting that the total number of Chinese students studying overseas may not show significant increases until the autumn 2025 intake.

Alternatives to the United States

Yi School founder Jingdong Xiao, who led the survey, said even as Chinese families warm up to the idea of sending their children abroad again, they may consider the United States as one of many options, instead of the primary one.

That’s because, over the last few years, Chinese students have been drawn to many competitor countries of the US which have been more welcoming to them of late, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, as well as Asian destinations such as Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Japan and Singapore.

The availability of foreign branch campuses in China and joint programmes between Chinese and foreign universities are also having an impact on the number of students who might potentially be US-bound.

The rising number of Chinese universities ranked highly in major global rankings and the shrinking size of their American counterparts feed into a ranking craze among Chinese families, especially when the rank of the institution is tied with 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 would consider applying to colleges in multiple countries, but now roughly 70%-80% will. The United States is no longer the only destination for Chinese families to send their children,” 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 uber-competitive and seemingly subjective admission processes at highly selective colleges.

Escalating geopolitical tensions between the two global powers may also have greater ramifications when it comes to Chinese families’ willingness to send their children to the United States compared to what we are seeing today.

A changing mindset

Nearly three years into the COVID-19 global pandemic, while much of the world has scrapped most, if not all, of their COVID restrictions, China is still sticking to its ‘Zero-COVID’ strategy and locking down cities, including putting school education online, often for an indefinite period.

Most Chinese nationals are still restricted from leaving the country, but students studying overseas are among the few who are exempted.

Pent-up interest in an overseas education became even stronger among Chinese families when Shanghai, one of the major international student-sending cities, was locked down for more than two months in the spring of 2022.

Families who were initially sceptical about sending their children abroad have changed their minds completely. International curriculum schools across the country have reportedly enrolled unprecedented numbers of first-year students this autumn, a clear indication of this changing mentality.

Chinese families with means are also looking to emigrate as soon as the country opens up, potentially boosting the numbers of Chinese high school students studying overseas, as foreign teachers left China in droves amid heavy-handed lockdowns.

On the brink of a major shift

The United States is on the brink of a major shift with regard to its enrolment of Chinese students. Which direction it goes in will largely depend on how seriously this issue is taken by the US government and US higher education institutions.

While the overall trend suggests that US institutions will see a bounce-back of Chinese students down the road, it may not be wise to expect a return to the pre-pandemic level any time soon, or perhaps ever, as the many factors outlined above could potentially disrupt the trend.

There will be grave consequences if nothing is done to mitigate that risk. Not only will US institutions see a major loss of revenue from Chinese students, who are the largest group of international students in the country, with the majority being self-funded, but the United States as a whole will also see its global talent pool depleted, which will hurt its global competitiveness in the long run.

The US government should take lessons from its peer nations when it comes to attracting and retaining foreign talent by easing restrictions on work authorisation and permanent residency.

US institutions should enhance their recruitment efforts with regard to Chinese students, take their families’ input seriously, continue to express a welcoming stance, establish more transparent admissions and financial aid policies and provide adequate support for Chinese students once they are on campus.

Xiaofeng Wan is an associate dean of admission and the coordinator of international recruitment at Amherst College, United States. He is also a doctoral candidate in the executive EdD in higher education programme at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.