The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In China, the dream of an American education loses some of its gleam

Students line up to enter a school for the first day of China's national college entrance examinations, known as the gaokao, in Beijing, on June 7, 2021. (Andy Wong/AP)
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Sharon Feng has dreamed of going to an American liberal arts college since she was 15. She applied to her top-choice school, Colgate University in New York, on early decision last year with the plan of majoring in women’s studies — and was accepted.

Then in January, from her home in the Chinese port city of Ningbo, she let the offer lapse.

Between the pandemic and worsening U.S.-China relations, the gleam of an American education is dimming in the world’s most populous country. Feng, 19, is only one of a large cohort of Chinese students choosing not to study in the United States despite having prepared for years to do so. An 18-year-old from Sichuan province turned down an offer from his dream school, William & Mary, for a university in Hong Kong. A 23-year-old graduate student gave up spots at four U.S. colleges, enrolling at a university in the Netherlands.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the total number of Chinese students in the government’s database declined by a fifth from 2019 to 2020. While international applications to the United States plunged across the board for the 2019-2020 school year, they rebounded this year — with the exception of China. Only about 19,000 Chinese students filled in the Common Application required to attend most undergraduate schools this winter, a 16 percent decrease from last cycle. In contrast, applicants from India jumped 35 percent.

Education, interrupted

Some experts say the trend is temporary, a pandemic-induced blip in a decades-long romance between Chinese students and U.S. colleges. But others believe the downturn is more permanent and could intensify, even after the vexing web of coronavirus quarantines and tests is dismantled.

Many families are already switching their children from the educational track that prepares them for U.S. college applications to the one that girds them for China’s rigorous gaokao exams, tutoring agencies say. Education firms have ended classes taught by foreign teachers amid a wave of new regulations. And last week, Shanghai banned English tests for elementary school students, sending some parents into panic over whether English language skills were being deprioritized.

These changes are being closely monitored in the intercontinental industry that has grown to serve wealthy Chinese families willing to pay for SAT cram sessions, interview classes, and — in a headache for admissions counselors — forged transcripts and ghostwritten essays. Most Chinese students pay full tuition when they enroll in American schools, contributing billions of dollars that help subsidize research and scholarships.

“Just two, three years ago, it was very in vogue for Chinese families to send their children to American institutions. We’ve noticed a decrease in that culture . . . and it’s unfortunate,” said Joseph Ingam, manager at the Los Angeles-based college consulting agency SOS Admissions. The agency’s Chinese clients have dropped to about a third of their pre-pandemic level, he said, adding, “The assumption is that when the pandemic is over, things will revert. But I’m not sure that’s true.”

Chinese youths have been traveling to the United States for higher education since the 1970s, though it was only in the 2000s that the student population surged from 50,000 to more than 350,000. Parents sent their children to study courses that they thought the United States was dominant in, like computer engineering or finance, or to graduate into an economy that they thought was more advanced. Peer pressure took hold among middle-class families experiencing upward mobility, casting an American education as, among other things, a status symbol.

“People started looking around at their friends, saw they were sending their kids abroad and felt like they should do so, too,” said Andy Xiao, managing director at the multi-city Chinese tutoring agency Tiandao Education. “This was a significant group. They were competing with each other, essentially, to get abroad.”

As schools reopen, Asian American students are missing from classrooms

Geopolitical tensions and a global pandemic burst this bubble, Xiao said, but it was bound to happen at some point, given the growth of China’s economy and education sector. He and others in his profession think these changes mark a new phase.

“People who were just influenced by those around them — they’re no longer there because people aren’t talking about taking the SAT or the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] anymore,” Xiao said. Some schools like those in the Ivy League have retained their cachet, he noted, but “everything that happened this past year has reminded families that going to the U.S. doesn’t just come with advantages, it comes with risks.”

Even before the pandemic, Tiandao was adding consultants with expertise in getting students to schools in Singapore, Canada and Britain, which research shows recently overtook America as the top-choice destination for Chinese students. The agency used to send about 5,000 students to the United States annually, but this has been dropping, especially at the undergraduate level, where parents are spooked by what they see as a rise anti-Asian and anti-Chinese sentiment, Xiao said.

“Under Trump . . . there have been some major incidents and even though in reality they are rare, they captured the imagination of parents,” he added.

In May 2020, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation barring entry to Chinese graduate students believed to have ties to the People’s Liberation Army and revoking the visas of some who had already been admitted into the country. The decision, which student activists have criticized as discriminatory and arbitrary, affected only about a few thousand visa applicants but contributed to an overall chilling effect.

“America may be good, but it’s not too friendly to us nowadays,” said Jeff Ren, a master’s program student from Hangzhou. He spent three years and nearly $10,000 to prepare his applications to U.S. schools but recently gave up his spot at New York University for an offer from the Vrije University in Amsterdam.

“Since [the United States] doesn’t welcome us to study there, we don’t need to be thick-skinned and still go,” Ren said. “For me, it doesn’t matter now.”

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Feng, the 19-year-old Ningbo student, was less impassive: “It’s really disappointing because ultimately, the U.S. school was the one I desired the most,” she said.

Like other high-schoolers on an international track, it was far too late for her to consider applying to Chinese colleges when the pandemic hit. She was woefully ill-prepared for the gaokao and in any case, she wouldn’t have wanted to stay. She identifies as lesbian, she said, and has felt depressed since China’s censors in July shut down dozens of chat groups and forums for LGBTQ students.

When her parents, who think that the United States has done a poor job of responding to the pandemic, pressured her to go to school in Asia, she chose the University of Hong Kong, where there’s also a gender studies program and where she still hopes to read Judith Butler and Michel Foucault.

“As long as I can still study the classes that I want, it’s like the second-best choice,” Feng said.

Chen Hongyan, 51, urged her son Tony Lian to apply to schools in Canada and the United Kingdom last year, but eventually obliged when he said he wanted to accept his offer to Brown University — a school that elicits “oohs” and “aahs” even in their small city of Longyan in Fujian province.

Chen, who works at a family business and did not attend college, said she was taken aback this past year by American scenes, from the frantic grocery hoarding at the start of the pandemic to the insurrection at the nation’s capital.

“This was not the U.S. I imagined,” she said, adding that many of her peers have redirected their children to other countries.

In the days before Lian’s departure this week, Chen continued to fret. She made him pull up the coronavirus data for Rhode Island and had him translate the latest metrics. She pondered the deteriorating relations between the United States and China, hoping that her 19-year-old wouldn’t somehow get caught in the crosshairs.

“We’re just common people. I’m not a billionaire and he’s not an heir,” she said. “He’s just going out there to study, to learn something.”

Lyric Li and Alicia Chen contributed to this report.

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