Old Version

To A Lesser Degree

ith the dwindling number of Chinese students heading to the US for college, many wonder whether degrees from American universities are losing their luster in China

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

I think it seems like America is becoming a more and more unwelcoming, expensive and unsafe country for Chinese students,” said Fang Yi, a 17-year-old student at Shenzhen Middle School. She is one of many Chinese students with changing views about the US as a top destination for studying abroad.  

The Trump administration has restricted access to student visas for Chinese, especially those studying science and technology over concerns of espionage, with an extended review process, shortened validity periods and an increased rejection rate.  

On June 3, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a warning advising students to “strengthen” their risk assessments before deciding to study in the US.  

Under the increasingly complicated political climate between China and the US, Chinese families are reassessing the pros and cons of sending their children to an American school.  

Not What It Used to Be
In the past decade, no country has shown more eagerness toward American higher education than China: more than 363,000 Chinese students studied at American schools at all levels during the 2017-18 school year, according to the Institution of International Education’s (IIE) annual Open Doors Report. In the 1980s, China represented less than 1 percent of international students in the US. Four decades later, Chinese made up one-third of the overall international student body. 

Chinese undergraduate students are an important source for tuition revenue for many US colleges, and Chinese graduate students make significant contributions to research at American universities.  

Chinese students injected US$14 billion to the US economy in 2017, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing US official data. 

According to the 2018 Open Doors Report, enrollment of Chinese students in the US declined by 2 percent. The report cited the political climate in the US as one of the major factors contributing to a drop in enrollment of international students. Out of 540 institutions surveyed for the report, 60 percent cited the present political and social climate as the major reasons for the slump.  

In June of last year, the Trump administration shortened the length of visas from five years to one for Chinese graduate students in the fields of robotics, aviation and advanced manufacturing. According to statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Education, 331 of the more than 10,000 government-funded Chinese students and scholars were denied a visa in 2018. 

“The US and the federal government have been politicizing normal exchanges between the countries and suppressing China in the name of the China threat and infiltration theory,” said Chinese Ministry of Education (MOE) spokesperson Xu Mei on June 3.  Xu Yongji, another MOE official, told State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) that 13.5 percent of all Chinese visa applicants were “unable to make the trip as planned.”  

“I can’t go back to China for vacation this year because if I do, there’s a high possibility that I’ll need to wait for months – even half a year – to get my visa to return to the US,” said a doctoral candidate in biology at Washington University in St. Louis, who insisted on anonymity.  “It means that I might miss ongoing and upcoming projects and conferences, and the price is too high for me since I only have one year to finish my PhD.”  

“The visa restrictions also might discourage professors from recruiting Chinese students in the future,” he told NewsChina. 

“The recent intensification of tensions between the two countries means Chinese families are reconsidering whether they should send their children to the US for university. Some families may eventually give up on the idea. But it should be noted that the trade war and the current political climate do not directly factor into their decisions,” said Pei Jiyang, 29, founder of JY International Education Service and an industry observer. 

“The high tuition and living costs of studying in the US have become a heavy burden on Chinese middle-class families. The country’s slowing economic growth and escalating trade frictions with the US in recent years have impacted the spending power of many Chinese families. Some may be unwilling or financially unable to send their children to the US, while some still struggle,” Pei told our reporter.  

According to Pei, a Chinese family pays an average 2.5 million yuan (US$361,000) for a four-year undergraduate program at a private US college, including living costs. Four years at a private high school can cost 3.5 million yuan (US$505,415).  In order to afford such prices, many middle-class families spend everything they have to fulfill their child’s dream of getting an American education.  

Wu Wanqing, 17, studies at Qingdao No.2 High School, the best high school in the coastal city of Qingdao, Shandong Province. A top student in her class, Wu hopes to get into one of the top 20 private universities in the US.  

Cornell University is her dream school. Wu comes from a typical middle-class family: her father is a civil servant and her mother teachers high school math. Studying at a private US university is a huge burden on the family, whose annual income is about 450,000 yuan (US$65,000).   “Sending my daughter to study at an American college would consume every bit of money we have. Covering the high tuition and living expenses in the coming years means we’ll have to sell our property – an apartment worth around 1.6 million yuan (US$231,000). And that’s still not enough. We’ll have to find other ways to save up for it,” Wu’s mother, Hu Ming, told NewsChina. 

Visa applicants line up to enter the US Embassy in Beijing

Declining Advantages  
It was a common perception around five years ago that an American university degree, especially from an Ivy League school, was a sure way to secure a top job in China. In recent years, it seems that more Chinese employers – even foreign companies in China – prefer local university graduates for entry-level positions. There are many anecdotal reports of Chinese students with a foreign university degree struggling to find good jobs when they return to China.  

And families are taking notice. Xin Ming, 18, attends Tsinghua International School, a prestigious private high school. Her father is general manager of a media company and her mother a traditional Chinese medicine therapist. Born in Montreal, Xin is a Canadian citizen who has grown up in China.  

 Last year, Xin applied to a number of top US schools, including Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. She ended up choosing Tsinghua University to study applied mathematics.  

“To be honest, it would seem a very natural choice for a teen like my daughter to attend college in the US or Canada. But over the last two years we’ve been reconsidering whether she should go abroad or stay in Beijing to study at a top local university,” Xin’s mother, Xiao Han, told NewsChina.  

Students with a foreign passport have a much easier time getting into China’s top schools like Tsinghua University and Peking University than locals. In China, international students do not have to compete with millions of other prospective students because they are not required to take the gaokao, or China’s national college entrance exam.  

“Tsinghua ranks very high in world university rankings. Graduates find favor on China’s job market – and in many circumstances are more competitive than Ivy League graduates,” the mother said. “Moreover, university not only provides education but also contacts.”  

Xiao said safety is another major concern. “I become more worried each time I hear news of shootings in the US, particularly when it happens on campuses. And the high-profile murder of Zhang Yingying terrified me. I only have one daughter. I’m not prepared to send her somewhere with safety risks,” she added.  

As part of a recent study, Chen Mingyu, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, reviewed more than 27,000 job applications for entry-level positions at Chinese companies. He found applicants who had graduated from US universities were “18 percent less likely to get a call back than applicants who had attended Chinese universities.” 

According to Chen, even graduates from the most selective US universities were only 7 percent more likely to get a call back over applicants from Chinese universities he ranked as the least selective. The study revealed that 80 percent of graduates from US universities reported lower starting salaries than they expected.  

“Employers believe, correctly or not, that applicants from US institutions have better options, making them harder to attract and retain than those educated in China,” Chen said.  

“Over the last couple of years, Chinese families have been reevaluating going abroad for education, particularly to a destination as expensive as the US. As more foreign university graduates return home to find jobs, the aura of holding a foreign university degree has somewhat dimmed. It might even be a disadvantage when job seekers apply to government institutions and State-owned enterprises,” said Wang Bing, 30, founder of international education consultancy DueDelight. 

 “Chinese families are becoming more and more realistic. They are weighing the costs and benefits to make a final, more reasonable decision,” Wang told NewsChina.  

Unstoppable Trend
Industry observers believe that the current climate is a short-term fluctuation, a result of the US-China trade war and political tensions, and will not impact China’s desire for overseas education. Beyond the US, students could still turn to other countries such as the UK, Canada and Australia.  

According to a 2019 report by EIC Education, a Chinese education consultancy, the UK, for the first time, emerged as the top destination for Chinese overseas students at 20 percent, with 17 percent opting for the US. The UK has seen a soaring number of Chinese studying in its universities in recent years with 106,530 in 2017-18, up from 87,900 five years earlier, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.  

“We can assess the entire Chinese student body overseas by two metrics: the spending power of the student’s family and academic ability. The truth is that US attracts the best of both: the wealthier the family, the better the student’s academic performance and the more likely they are to choose the US as their chief destination,” Yang Peng, Director of the North American Education Department of Shenzhen New Oriental School, told NewsChina.  

“While students who rank in the mid- to low-range of the two metrics are on the decline, most students at the top of either still regard the US as their top choice. Admissions standards for American schools are gearing more toward these groups,” Yang said. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, very few students from China’s top universities had the chance to study abroad without government support. The emergence of agencies providing overseas education services in recent years have made it a very real possibility for many students.  “Study abroad provides students with a solution independent of the gaokao-oriented educational system. The trend is unstoppable,” Yang said.