Safety concerns could thwart Chinese students’ return to US

For the first time in 15 years, China is no longer the number one international student-sending country to the United States. It has been surpassed by India, ending one of the most remarkable and unprecedented international student mobility trends the world has seen.

According to Homeland Security’s SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) programme database, as of October, there were more than 338,000 active student visa holders from India, 27% more than China, which sat at a little over 265,000.

Graduate students were the major force behind this historic swap. The October data revealed that nearly 80% of student visa holders from India were in a masters programme, compared with less than 40% among Chinese students. However, for those pursuing a bachelor degree, the number of student visa holders from China was nearly 2.4 times more than those from India.

Historically, like India, more students from China pursued graduate studies in the United States.

The first time US colleges saw more undergraduate student enrolment from China than graduate students was in the 2014-15 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report.

That, however, ended in the 2021-22 academic year, when the enrolment of Chinese undergraduate students dropped by 15%, whereas graduate student enrolment saw a 4% increase.

In other words, whether or not US colleges will see a meaningful rebound of Chinese students in the coming years will hinge closely on how Chinese high school students perceive the United States as a study destination.

International curriculum high schools

International curriculum high schools are the main sources of overseas Chinese undergraduate students since that’s their main focus. So their enrolment data is most indicative of future trends.

In my ongoing doctoral study of 103 international curriculum high schools in China for the Executive Doctor of Education in Higher Education programme at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, preliminary findings show that the enrolment of current 10th grade combined (10,648) is nearly 50% more than that of the current 12th grade (7,138), the members of which are in the process of applying to colleges overseas.

When a similar study was conducted before the start of the autumn semester, the increase of the then 10th grade, now 11th grade, was 25% more than that of the class that had enrolled in colleges overseas this autumn.

This is a strong sign that Chinese high school students are once again studying abroad and we will see the largest number of them since the beginning of the pandemic in two years’ time.

The study, which involved 136 school-based college counsellors, explores key contemporary factors that influence the decision of Chinese high school students at international curriculum high schools in mainland China to study in the United States.

The 103 unique schools represented are geographically diverse, spanning 34 cities in 13 provinces, including the biggest student-sending markets, Beijing and Shanghai, as well as less commonly seen regions such as Shandong and Jiangxi provinces. Some 65% of the schools are private and 35% are public.

When asked where the first-choice destination is for their students, 67% of counsellors said the United States, followed by the United Kingdom at 29%. However, the reality is not as simple as the data may suggest.

A generally negative view

In recent years, it has become almost the norm for Chinese students who are US-bound to apply to other countries or regions as a plan B or plan C.

This phenomenon largely stemmed from the anxiety among Chinese families that certain conditions in the United States may pose risks to their children, such as political hostility towards Chinese students from Trump administration officials, gun violence, anti-Asian racism, plus the pandemic-induced health concerns and travel restrictions during the COVID-19 years.

The general Chinese public also holds a generally negative view of the United States. In a recent study on Chinese public attitudes towards Europe and the United States, published in the Journal of Current Affairs, researchers found that 75% of respondents in China held negative views of the United States, twice as high as most European countries.

Even though the pandemic has now ended, and the Biden administration has been steadfast in its support of international students, the concerns still linger.

More than anything else, the main concerns now are the ever-present gun violence in the United States, and the highly volatile US-China relations, two headline issues that often occupy major segments on China’s state-controlled news outlets and social media platforms.

More than 60% of counsellors responded that among their students whose first choice destination is the United States, more than half of them will apply to colleges in a back-up country or region, including, in the order of preference, the UK, Canada, Hong Kong SAR and Australia.

Safety concerns

The number one reason that would make it more likely for them to choose to go to their back-up destination, according to counsellors, is safety.

Concerns about safety in the United States are not new to Chinese families. During the pandemic, they were introduced to one of the darkest sides of the United States: racism against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

Gun violence, especially when it involves Chinese international students as victims, often sends shock waves across Chinese social media, projecting the United States as a dangerous and crime-infested place to the Chinese public.

So much so that in my study, 100% of the 136 counsellors listed safety, including gun violence and anti-Asian racism, as one of the key factors that their students are most worried about when considering studying in the United States. The close second is the unpredictable prospect of US-China relations.

During my two recruitment trips in China this year, where I connected with hundreds of families across the country, their overwhelming interest in sending their children to study at a US college often leaves me in awe, but their concerns are also palpable.

On the one hand, they are attracted to the United States because of its advanced technology, innovation, institutional resources and global name recognition, the student-centred teaching and the numerous chances to access global opportunities; on the other hand, they are weighing how much risk they are willing to tolerate when their children’s basic physical safety might not be guaranteed once they have crossed the Pacific Ocean.

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, United States. He is presenting his research about student mobility from China at the CIS (Council of International Schools) Forum in Dublin this week.