How did it all begin? When did the first group of Chinese nationals make the decision to leave their home country to study abroad? To leave the comforts and familiarity of their homes to pursue an education in a foreign country where they likely did not understand or speak the language? Why did it all happen?
These are the types of questions that came up as I started preparing to write this article. During my research, it became clear that the evolution of Chinese nationals studying abroad has a fascinating history. Though a common misconception is that this practice began due to a belief that China’s education system is not "good" enough, a look at the history shows a starkly different reality. It was out of necessity rather than preference that Chinese nationals first began to make the difficult decision to seek education overseas.
During Mao Zadong’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the Chinese education system came to a standstill for a number of years, with higher education institutions taking the biggest hit as they were the last to be reinstated/reopened. As a result of the shutdown, as well as the persecution of intellectuals that occurred during this time, China’s would-be scholars faced some tough challenges. In a move to begin repairing the damage that the country’s education system suffered during this period, Zadong’s successor Deng Xiao Peng enacted a series of systemic changes beginning in the late ‘70s that would lead to the modern trend of Chinese nationals studying abroad. Most notably, he reinstated the national college entrance exams (Gaokao) and postgraduate exams in 1977 and 1978, respectively, and began arranging for students to be sent abroad to study. The latter was done with the hope that this would allow China to catch up with Western technologies. Following these policy changes and improved China-US relations, the door opened in late 1978 for 52 Chinese scholars to begin their studies in the US.
In the more than four decades since, the number of Chinese nationals studying in the US has grown exponentially. In fact, the current number of Chinese students enrolled in US universities has nearly tripled over the past decade, and they comprise the most significant percentage of the US international student population. During the 2018–19 academic year, about 369,500 Chinese students studied at American colleges and universities.
What can higher education institutions in the US expect from this lucrative student population amid COVID-19, deteriorating China-US relations, and increased competition from other countries?
A recent survey of 50 counselors working in China provides some insights. The survey was distributed in February through the International Association for College Admission Counseling Facebook group and the Beijing International Counselor Network (BISCN). It targeted counselors most likely to work with students seeking degrees outside of China, a group that includes counselors working at internationals schools as well as those working within the international divisions of Chinese local schools.
Though a small snapshot of a much larger population, the results showed that both types of schools have seen no decline in the rate of students interested in applying to US institutions of higher education from the class of 2021. For the class of 2022, the drop in students considering applications to the US was minimal (a difference of about 2 percent). In addition to this survey data, two interesting themes have emerged among Chinese nationals this past year. First, many students are choosing to stay closer to home for their undergraduate studies. And second, there is a growing interest in other Englishspeaking countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands.
This is our post-COVID-19 reality. The pandemic has forced many in our profession to reimagine the way to do things. Limitations on travel, for example, spurred us to turn to creative uses of technology to support recruitment of international students. While both parents and students have accepted the reality of having to study online for some part of their undergraduate studies, in conversations I have had with former students most have said they have not enjoyed it and are looking for alternatives. Despite the best efforts of colleges and universities to create engaging virtual options, students continue to crave and seek options for the face-to-face, in-person interactions missing from online learning.
This is our post-COVID-19 reality. The pandemic has forced many in our profession to reimagine the way to do things. Limitations on travel, for example, spurred us to turn to creative uses of technology to support recruitment of international students.
The cancelation of in-person campus visits has also impacted perceptions of safety among students and their families. Without the opportunity to visit, doubts and worries remain unaddressed. For Chinese nationals especially, the recent hate crimes against Asians in the US have negatively impacted interest in the region. Universities and colleges need to address these concerns to help ease the anxiety of families.
The post-pandemic world is faced with many uncertainties. One thing it did bring, however, seems to be a trend wherein international students are exploring more of the higher education options available to them and making the most of the university application process. Students now feel more empowered to explore other country destinations and decide what is truly the best fit for their future. Considering that Chinese students have been such an important international student population for US colleges and universities this past decade, this trend is worth watching.
Michelle Chow-Liu is a high school counselor and head of high school counseling at the Western Academy of Beijing (China).