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Chinese Students in U.S. Colleges

Online and in person, students are donning caps and gowns. This week we look at Chinese students in America and America's continuing desirability as a study abroad destination.
June 3, 2021

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It's graduation season. U.S. universities remain the top destination for international students, with over 800,00 active students pursuing post-secondary degrees in 2020. That was a 25% drop, in large part due to the pandemic. For more than a decade the greatest number of those students have come from China. The former number one source for international students, India, is more than 100,000 students behind China. A fifth of the Chinese students are studying in California, the most of any state. USC hosted the fourth most total international students and was the top school in California.

Students in the U.S. and China have different preferences for college majors. In the U.S., the top three choices are business, health, and social sciences, whereas in China, the top choices are software engineering, electronic engineering, and Chinese language and literature. A recent survey from the Chinese Ministry of Education, however, reports that nearly 70% of students choose majors without knowing much about them.

Studying abroad is a great route to developing a deeper understanding of others. Most Americans, however, don't study abroad and few study for academic credit in China. Over the last decade the number of Americans studying in China has dropped from 14,877 (2011-12) to 11,639 (2018-2019). Europe has long been the preferred destination for American students going abroad. In 2018-2019, 56% went to Europe. The bulk of American trade is with Asia, but just 12% of the Americans studying abroad went to Asia in 2018-2019.

Having many smart and able Chinese and others come to study in the U.S. has been a great asset for the U.S. A Paulson Institute study, for example, noted that 29% of those teaching courses on artificial intelligence in the U.S. earned their undergraduate degrees in China. The U.S. benefits from such a flow of talent. And those returning to China have had an opportunity to experience life in the U.S.

But many wonder if recent developments will cause some from China to look elsewhere to study. The rapid rise of hostility and even violence towards people of Asian ancestry has parents and students worried about day to day safety. And some people of Chinese ancestry worry that U.S. employers and the government may view them with suspicion simply because of their real or imagined ties to China. Prof. Xiaoxing Xi spoke about this at a recent USCI webinar.

Fewer Chinese undergraduates applied to U.S. universities for fall 2021. Of course, when students were applying last fall the U.S. was not even issuing visas. That changed in May and the U.S. is now issuing visas, though some applicants complain they have been denied visas due to their family backgrounds. U.S. officials stress that students are welcome, but must be transparent about their backgrounds and intended study. Americans overwhelmingly told Pew they favor welcoming students from abroad. But a majority also said they support limiting Chinese students in the U.S. Will U.S.-China rivalry harm the educational exchange that has clearly benefited both countries?