Young Chinese again want to study abroad, just not in the U.S.

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.

Published - March 18, 2024 07:57 am IST

In the Chinese city of Shanghai, two young women seeking 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) ($2,78,000) but find no job upon returning,” she said. Ms. 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,” Ms. 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.

“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.”

Ms. 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.

‘Here to stay’

Andrew Chen, CEO 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, Mr. Chen said, Chinese families are hesitant to send their children to the U.S.

Beijing has criticised 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 described 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.

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