In early 2020, I published a book on the unprecedented growth in the number of Chinese undergraduates studying at American universities over the past fifteen years. I argued that for mainland Chinese students — most of them from urban upper and middle class backgrounds — studying in the U.S. had become a new kind of “education gospel.” Studying abroad promised liberation from China’s harsh, test-oriented college admissions process and new pathways to high-quality educational opportunities.
The data backs this up: From 2005 to 2019, the number of Chinese undergraduates enrolled at American tertiary institutions increased 16-fold. In some cases, the growth was even more dramatic. Michigan State University had just 43 undergraduates from mainland China in 2005; by 2014, that number had jumped to almost 4,000.
Much has happened in the year since my book was published. The combination of COVID-19 and rising Sinophobia has left Chinese international students facing unprecedented challenges. In the U.S., former President Donald Trump’s repeated use of the phrase “Chinese virus” subjected Chinese students there to both public health stigma and racism. In addition to its incendiary rhetoric, the Trump administration proposed and implemented several policies specifically targeting Chinese students, including revoking the visas of Chinese graduate students from institutions with ties to the military. The Biden administration has reversed course in some areas, but not all, as evidenced by the recent visa denials reported by over 500 Chinese graduate students in STEM fields.
At the individual level, the difficulties of the past year have caught many Chinese students off guard. Members of urban elite families took their right to a global education that would reproduce and expand their elite resources for granted — only to find that they are subject to unimaginable risks in an atmosphere of rising U.S.-China tensions and a deadly pandemic.
More broadly, the notion that the U.S. is the epicenter of globalization and cosmopolitan capital has been cast into doubt, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, which has revealed deep divides within American society. The mismanagement of the pandemic, coupled with the roaring re-emergence of anti-Asian hate, has irrevocably undermined American soft power.
So, is the new education gospel a thing of the past?
Not yet. At least, I don’t think so. Ultimately, the social forces that propelled so many Chinese students to study in the U.S. over the past decade and a half are too durable to be destroyed by a pandemic or geopolitical headwinds.
America still boasts many of the best universities and colleges in the world. Compared to China, which placed just three universities in the top 100 of the most recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the U.S. is home to almost forty such universities. Improving the quality of China’s higher education system will take time, as will a progression of attitudes and values like critical thinking and a commitment to academic freedom. Though they are correlated, the rise of Chinese higher education is not necessarily as predictable as the rise of the Chinese economy.
Relatedly, the competition to get into a good college in the U.S. remains far less fierce than in China, and American higher education still holds great promise for a vast number of Chinese students who desire a high-quality higher education but cannot beat the odds to test into one of the country’s top schools. Whereas the odds of getting into a first-tier institution in China are as low as 1%, the acceptance rate for some top-50 universities in the U.S. can be as high as 50%.
American higher education also offers many privileges that are appealing to Chinese students, including the flexibility to change majors or transfer schools. In the U.S., colleges and universities typically do not require students to declare a major until the third year of college, or even later. But it is still very hard to change majors at a Chinese university, as major options are linked to students’ test scores on the college entrance exams. Students’ ability to transfer schools is another advantage. Former U.S. President Barack Obama, for example, started his undergraduate education at Occidental College, then transferred to Columbia and graduated from there. This would be unfathomable in China.
It’s also worth noting that Chinese students remain a highly attractive applicant pool for American universities. At the undergraduate level, tuition paid by Chinese applicants helps cover some of the budget shortfalls faced by cash-strapped American universities, especially public institutions. At the graduate level, Chinese students in STEM fields provide key human capital for American professors’ research labs and feed into the country’s future STEM workforce.
That is in part why American higher education institutions tend to welcome Chinese students and even advocate for the rights of international students in the face of government restrictions. American higher education is largely self-governing and enjoys a relatively high degree of independence. For example, in the summer of 2020, over fifty American universities successfully sued the Trump administration to keep him from revoking the visas of international students who were taking courses online. More recently, the U.S. government withdrew strict new time limits on student visas, in part because of strong opposition from higher education stakeholders.
In short, Chinese students and American higher education still need each other. The logic of the new education gospel remains valid, albeit diminished compared to its feverish pre-pandemic levels. Some students may switch their preferred destination from the U.S to other western countries, such as Germany or New Zealand, but the U.S. is unlikely to lose its spot as the top destination for Chinese students.
If there is an exception to this rule, it may be Chinese graduate students in STEM fields. The Biden administration is committed to upholding Presidential Proclamation 10043, which recasts Chinese graduate students in certain sensitive fields as “nontraditional spies” eager to steal American technology and intellectual property. Many Chinese STEM students have had difficulty getting their visa applications approved in the wake of this proclamation. American higher education institutions, tech companies, and some politicians have lodged protests against the proclamation, arguing that it amounts to “shooting ourselves in the foot.” They also claim it is a betrayal of American national interests, since the stay rate of Chinese STEM doctoral students in the U.S in recent years is over 80%, down from a high of 90% in 2017.
Overall, the desire of Chinese students to study in the U.S. is strong and durable. Unless and until the U.S. and Chinese governments fully commit to cutting each other off, studying in the U.S. will continue to remain a popular choice for many Chinese.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A graduate attends a graduation ceremony at Revelle College in San Diego, U.S., June 12, 2021. People Visual)