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After the Pandemic, Young Chinese Again Want to Study Abroad, Just Not So Much in the US

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By Didi Tang Associated Press

Washington (AP) — In the Chinese city of Shanghai, two young women seeking an education abroad have both decided against going to the United States, a destination of choice for decades that may be losing its shine.

For Helen Dong, a 22-year-old senior studying advertising, it was the cost. “It doesn’t work for me when you have to spend 2 million (yuan) ($278,000) but find no job upon returning,” she said. Dong is headed to Hong Kong this fall instead.

Costs were not a concern for Yvonne Wong, 24, now studying comparative literature and cultures in a master’s program at the University of Bristol in Britain. For her, the issue was safety.

“Families in Shanghai usually don’t want to send their daughters to a place where guns are not banned — that was the primary reason,” Wong said. “Between the U.S. and the U.K., the U.K. is safer, and that’s the biggest consideration for my parents.”

With an interest in studying abroad rebounding after the pandemic, there are signs that the decades-long run that has sent an estimated 3 million Chinese students to the U.S., including many of the country’s brightest, could be trending down, as geopolitical shifts redefine U.S.-China relations.

Cutting people-to-people exchanges could have a lasting impact on relations between the two countries.

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“International education is a bridge,” said Fanta Aw, executive director of the NAFSA Association of International Educators, based in Washington. “A long-term bridge, because the students who come today are the engineers of the future. They are the politicians of the future, they are the business entrepreneurs of the future.”

“Not seeing that pipeline as strong means that we in the U.S. have to pay attention, because China-U.S. relations are very important,.”

Aw said the decrease is more notable in U.S. undergraduate programs, which she attributed to a declining population in China from low birthrates, bitter U.S.-China relations, more regional choices for Chinese families and the high costs of a U.S. education.

But graduate programs have not been spared. Zheng Yi, an associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University in Boston, has seen the number of Chinese applicants to one of the school’s engineering programs shrink to single digits, compared with 20 to 30 students before the pandemic.

He said the waning interest could be partly due to China’s growing patriotism that nudges students to attend Chinese institutes instead.

Andrew Chen, chief executive officer of Pittsburgh-based WholeRen Education, which has advised Chinese students in the U.S. for the past 14 years, said the downward trend is here to stay.

“This is not a periodic wave,” he said. “This is a new era.” The Chinese government has sidelined English education, hyped gun violence in the U.S., and portrayed the U.S. as a declining power. As a result, Chen said, Chinese families are hesitant to send their children to the U.S.

Beijing has criticized the U.S. for its unfriendly policy toward some Chinese students, citing an executive order by former President Donald Trump to keep out Chinese students who have attended schools with strong links to the Chinese military.

The Chinese foreign ministry also has protested that a number of Chinese students have been unfairly interrogated and sent home upon arrival at U.S. airports in recent months. Spokeswoman Mao Ning recently describing the U.S. actions as “selective, discriminatory and politically motivated.”

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said fewer than “one tenth of 1%” of Chinese students have been detained or denied admission. Another State Department official said Chinese students selected for U.S.-funded exchange programs have been harassed by Chinese state agents. Half of the students have been forced to withdraw, and those who participated in the programs have been faced with harassment after returning to China, the official said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

The U.S.-China Education Trust acknowledged the predicament facing Chinese students. “Students from China have been criticized in the U.S. as potential spies, and in China as too influenced by the West,” the organization said in a report following a survey of Chinese students in the U.S. between 1991 and 2021.

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Still, many young Chinese, especially those whose parents were foreign-educated, are eager to study abroad. The China-based education service provider New Oriental said the students hope degrees from reputable foreign universities will improve their career prospects in a tough job market at home, where the unemployment rate for those 16 to 24 stood at nearly 15% in December.

But their preferences have shifted from the U.S. to the U.K., according to EIC Education, a Chinese consultancy specializing in international education. The students like the shorter study programs and the quality and affordability of a British education, as well as the feeling of safety.

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Wong, the Shanghai student now studying in the U.K., said China’s handling of the pandemic pushed more young people to go abroad. “After three years of tight controls during the pandemic, most people have realized the outside world is different, and they are more willing to leave,” she said.

The State Department issued 86,080 F-1 student visas to Chinese students in the budget year ending in September, up nearly 40% from the year earlier. Still, the number remains below the pre-pandemic level of 105,775.

Under communist leadership, China only opened its doors to the U.S. in the late 1970s when the two countries established formal ties. Beijing, desperate to revive its economy through Western technology, wanted to send 5,000 students to American universities; President Jimmy Carter replied that he would take 100,000.

The number of Chinese students in the U.S. picked up after Beijing in 1981 allowed Chinese students to “self-fund” their overseas studies, rather than relying on government money. Generous scholarships from U.S. schools allowed tens of thousands of Chinese students to study here, but it wasn’t until 2009 when the number of Chinese students exceeded 100,000, driven by growth in family wealth.

In the following decade, the number of Chinese students in the U.S. more than tripled to peak at 372,532 in the 2019-2020 academic year, just as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. The number slipped to 289,526 in 2022.

The Institute of International Education, which publishes annual reports on international students, has found that U.S. schools are prioritizing students from India over China, especially for graduate programs. However, it also found that 36% of schools reported increases in new Chinese students in fall 2023.

In its most recent report, the Council of Graduate Schools said U.S. universities have seen a surge in applications and enrollments from India and countries in sub-Saharan Africa since fall 2020, while those from Chinese nationals have declined.

“Increasing competition from Chinese institutions of higher learning and the growing geopolitical tension between China and the United States may be contributing to this trend,” the council report said.

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