China becomes a harder sell for lesser-known US colleges

While some big-name US universities have seen more applications from Chinese students this year, lesser known institutions are less popular than before COVID. US recruiters working in China attribute the decline to the pandemic-related border closures as well as shifts in US-China relations.

Six months after China began allowing foreigners back into the country (January 2020) following the closure of its borders for almost three years because of COVID-19, American universities and colleges recruiters, especially those representing small colleges and lesser known universities, face much more difficult terrain than they did in the fall of 2019.

That year, 372,532 Chinese students attended American colleges and universities, an increase of 24% since 2014. In 2021, the last year for which we have complete figures, the number had fallen to 317,299 – a 15.2% drop in undergraduates and a 13.3% drop for graduate students.

The decline is driven by a number of factors, not all of which impact every college or university.

The first is that for three years most US college recruiters were unable to recruit in person because China’s Zero-COVID policy required that the country’s borders remain closed.

The second factor is the deteriorating diplomatic relationship between the US and China.

At the end of May, for example, the South China Morning Postquoted a report from Xinhua, China’s state news agency, in which president Xi Jinping is reported to have told the National Security Commission that China was facing “considerably more complex and much more difficult” security issues and to be ready for “worst-case and most extreme scenarios” that include “high winds and waves and even perilous storms”.

“It’s challenging,” says Shawn Moore, who is a recruiter for Bard College, a liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, 100 miles north of New York City, and has lived in China for eight years. “While some big-name universities like Harvard or Stanford have seen more applications from China this year, overall there has been a slight decline.

“The trend line is going to be continuing in that direction,” he predicts, “because of two things. In particular, one is that over the three years of COVID, university reps couldn’t visit China. Second, of course, are the US-China relations that affect parents’ decisions on where they’d like their children to apply to school”.

A further complication for small colleges and some smaller universities, both Shawn and other recruiters told University World News, is that they do not participate in the rankings of US News and World Report or the QS.

Educational quality

Even though Chinese students studying in the US will have access to media that is banned in China and will be exposed to an American political system that is heavily criticised by Chinese media, the government of China still supports sending students overseas.

According to Melissa Warehall, head of college counselling at Daystar Academy in Beijing, and as previously reported by University World News, in his New Year’s message, Xi said that both the government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) favour “students studying abroad because they then bring back technology, skills and intellectual work valuable for China’s continued development”.

Both Moore and Wang Shi (Shiny), vice-principal of Tsinghua International School Daoxiang Lake (Beijing) and special advisor of the United States State Department (Education USA), say that Chinese parents send their children abroad, and specifically to the United States, because they do not want to settle for second-tier universities

Universities like Tsinghua University (Beijing), Beijing University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Zhejiang University (in Hangzhou, 100 miles southwest of Shanghai) are first-rate. Access to them is, however, severely limited both because of the university’s size relative to the cohort, and because of the grades on the National College Entrance Exam (Gaokao) that are required to get into these elite schools.

While the Gaokao “tries to be meritocratic … it remains largely based on the old imperial examination system. It shuts out a lot of different ways of thinking and learning. So you have a very monochromatic type of student that makes it to the top of that system”, says Moore.

China’s second-tier universities, Shiny told University World News, “don’t have a very good reputation”.

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