Study abroad: US students all but absent from China

While Americans return to institutions worldwide, Biden administration talks of post-Covid academic reset with political rival but largely prevents it

December 19, 2023
A woman sitting on an empty bench painted in a US flag in Beijing to illustrate Study abroad: US students all but absent from China
Source: Getty Images

The number of US students in China has remained negligible since the start of the pandemic, largely because of extended restrictions from Washington, but officials and other experts expect that to rebound soon.

Only 211 US students were in China this past academic year, down from more than 11,000 before the Covid lockdowns, according to the latest annual data compiled by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the US Department of State.

Even that pre-pandemic total was a fraction of the number of students going the other way – despite declines caused by Covid and political tensions, nearly 300,000 students from China are enrolled at US universities. But the much smaller US-to-China flow nevertheless has represented a key part of a relationship valued by the students as well as the two countries involved.

US State Department officials described the obstacles to resumption as a mix of chronic and rising political antagonisms with China offsetting what the US ambassador in Beijing, Nicholas Burns, has openly called a strong US government desire to see more young Americans learn Mandarin and Chinese culture.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has said that he too wants more student exchanges, declaring during a visit last month to San Francisco that he hoped to see 50,000 Americans studying in his country over the next five years.

For now, however, the Biden administration appears to be putting more emphasis on the distrust. The US government assesses nations by their perceived safety for Americans, and China ranks so low on that score that US students are currently not eligible for federal student aid if they are in China.

Overall, there was no need to panic about the very low numbers of US students in China, said one expert in US study abroad programmes, Rosalind Latiner Raby, the director of California Colleges for International Education.

“I’ve been in the field since the 1980s, and I’ve seen trends in locations going up and down, and up and down,” Dr Raby said. “We’re in a down mode, but in a couple of years, the interest is going to come back, and students will want to go back to visit China.”

And while many US students are disappointed at not being able to study in China, she said, many of the educational and employment benefits they can gain can be obtained elsewhere. “It’s the act of studying abroad that’s important,” she said.

US higher education largely appears to realise that, according to the IIE, which also promotes study abroad activity. The total number of US students abroad increased in the 2021-22 academic year to nearly 190,000, the IIE said. That is more than half of pre-pandemic levels, the institute said, with 82 per cent of US institutions participating in its annual survey saying they expected their numbers to rise even more this academic year.

China should experience that revival in students from the US once the Biden administration clears away the aid-based obstacles, Dr Raby said. “The second it’s open, you’re going to get students flooding in. It’s just a matter of the gatekeepers who are saying it’s open [or] it’s not open.”

A State Department spokesman, without giving details, suggested optimism on that front. “We expect those numbers to continue to climb in next year’s report,” the spokesman said of the US student presence in China.

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