Event Recap: Chinese Students in America: Still Caught in the Crosshairs?

Washington, D.C. – The US-China Education Trust (USCET) hosted Chinese Students in the United States: Still Caught in the Crosshairs? on September 22, in partnership with the US Heartland China Association and the Carter Center. The webinar featured a panel of representatives from universities across the country, moderated by USCET’s president Madelyn Ross. Former Governor of Missouri Bob Holden opened the webinar with brief remarks on the importance of Chinese students to the United States and his role in building bridges between Missouri and China.

Karin Fischer, senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, provided a comprehensive overview of the most recent data and trends concerning Chinese students studying in the US. She pointed to the fact that, between May and July May 2022, there were 45 percent fewer US visas issued to Chinese students than in the same period of 2019, just prior to the pandemic. It will be important to see if this troubling trend continues.  She attributes the drop to a number of factors including COVID policy constraints and the perception of an unwelcome political environment in the US (new visa rules, Anti-Asian sentiment) beginning in the Trump administration. 

Yingyi Ma, Professor of Sociology and Director of Asian/Asian American Studies at Syracuse University, noted that Chinese undergraduates constitute the majority of Chinese students in the US since 2015 and will continue to do so. Ma proposes that American higher education should adopt a more proactive and comprehensive strategy to improve social integration of Chinese and other international students on campus, rather than the “swim or sink” approach. She applauds the Biden administration for extending OPT in STEM disciplines and recommends the policy be extended to students in all fields.

What can be done to stop the decline of applications from China? Frank Neville, Chief of Staff and Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at the Georgia Institute of Technology, explained that Chinese students had difficulty accessing US standardized tests in China during the pandemic, which he sees as one factor in their recent decline in their Chinese undergraduate applicants.  He noted that Georgia Tech was able to provide an in-person learning experience for some Chinese students at its Shenzhen campus during the pandemic.

Samantha McCabe, Director of International Student Services at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, discussed the ways that her campus is making Chinese and other international students feel welcome as they return to campus and pandemic restrictions ease. She pointed to the hardships faced by Chinese students who remained in China and had to take classes remotely during the pandemic. The time difference, digital gaps, and barriers to accessing e-learning resources all made it difficult for students to participate in online courses from China.  The diminished number of international graduate students on campus has also had a negative impact on US universities’ teaching and research capabilities.

Yong Chen, Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, reviewed the long history of US-China higher education exchanges, saying that educational interactions have always been a vital channel of the bilateral relationship. The presence and well-being of Chinese students in the US are an important facet of both US-China ties and US higher education. 

The audience raised many questions on hot-button issues including universities’ political engagement with China, and the long-term negative impact of the FBI’s China Initiative on Chinese scholars and researchers in the United States. USCET president Madelyn Ross pointed out that the 20th Party Congress in China and the US midterm elections in Fall 2022 may increase tensions between the two countries. Min Fan, Executive Director of the US Heartland China Association, made closing remarks. This webinar is a follow-up to the Carter Center’s spring 2022 report on “Finding Firmer Ground: The Role of Higher Education in U.S.-China Relations,” which can be accessed here. It also marks the launch of a survey and project on Chinese Students in America, being conducted by USCET in 2022–23.