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College students, campuses feeling effects of strained U.S.-China relations

Stony Brook University physics student Jiazu Zhang, from

Stony Brook University physics student Jiazu Zhang, from China, stands on the campus of Stony Brook University, Friday. Photo Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

ALBANY — Fractious relations between Washington and Beijing have cut into the once huge annual rise in enrollment of students from China that provides colleges and universities nationwide and in New York with tuition payments as well as intellectual and cultural benefits, experts and records show.

Nationally, a third of all international students attending U.S. colleges and universities come from China — 363,314, according to 2018 statistics.

But a boom in the number of students from China — the increase was 21.4 percent in 2012-13, for instance — has seen a sharp decline. In the 2017-18 academic year, when President Donald Trump began his harder line on China and immigration, the year-to-year increase was 3.6 percent, according to the Institute of International Education, an advocacy group based in New York City.

In addition, a national survey of 540 colleges and universities last year found that 48.4 percent of college recruiters saw decreased Chinese enrollment, while 80 percent of the institutions reported “elevated concerns” about recruiting students from China, according to the institute.

“It’s real, and probably for state universities it is probably a big concern,” said Mary Gallagher, a political-science professor at the University of Michigan and director of the school's Center for Chinese Studies. “I think the biggest issue colleges and universities are already worrying about is the loss of revenue.”

Students from affluent families in China are caught in the politics of two superpowers.

Washington is responding to corporate complaints that China is stealing secrets that could threaten national security and political concerns that Chinese students after graduation are taking Americans' jobs.

Beijing wants to lessen the influence of America on its top students while wielding an unconventional weapon in its trade war with the United States.

“It used to be 100 percent come to the U.S., but now students are also going to Britain and New Zealand and other countries,” said Jiazu Zhang, 21, from Beijing, a junior at Stony Brook University studying physics.

He said the school has been welcoming, but the international news can be disconcerting, and not just for students.

“Parents are worrying, so we may not feel it, but when parents see the news, they might react more than students,” he said.

Bentley University in Massachusetts, for example, reported a drop in new Chinese graduate students from 110 last year to 70 this year. The University of Vermont saw a 23 percent drop in enrollment of students from China and the University of Nebraska reported a 20 percent drop, according to The Associated Press.

“It’s declining, partly because the U.S-China relationship is much worse than a couple years ago,” Gallagher said.

“It’s gotten harder for Chinese students to get into programs they want, in particular to programs that have a national security overlap … and it’s gotten hard, under visa policies, for Chinese students once they graduate to get employment and stay and become citizens,” Gallagher said.

A survey in May by the Association of International Educators found 60 percent of U.S. colleges and universities blamed the decline among all international students on the “U.S. social and political environment” and a feeling of not being welcomed. Other factors included the U.S.-China trade war and fear of harassment as an immigrant or becoming a victim of mass shootings on campus.

Throughout the State University of New York system, primarily in the four university centers that includes Stony Brook, the number of students from China rose from 6,576 in 2014 to 7,206 in the fall of 2017. Enrollment dropped to 7,015 in the fall of 2018; SUNY hasn't yet released fall 2019 enrollment.  

Stony Brook University saw a drop in new students from China in 2018 — from 645 to 567 — and a steep drop in graduate students since 2016, records from the school show.

Overall, Stony Brook had 2,403 undergraduate and graduate students from China in the fall of 2016. That number dropped to 2,378 students in the fall of 2018. The number of graduate students within that total fell from 1,004 in the fall of 2015 to 822 in the fall of 2018 to 796 this fall, the records show.

Stony Brook made a renewed effort to recruit students from China and saw an increase to 2,497 total students from China this fall. The resurgence was because of an increase in undergraduate students that offset a further decline in graduate students, records show.

“Strained trade relations with China have been unhelpful, but with strategic investments and significant effort we were able to increase enrollment of Chinese students this year,” said Stony Brook spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow.

Experts nationwide say public colleges and universities are faring worse than Ivy League and other top elite schools. Among them are New York University, with the 10th highest enrollment of students from China in the United States; and Columbia University, which is ranked eighth.

Columbia said it hasn’t experienced a decline in students from China.

Shonna R. Keogan, an NYU spokeswoman, said “contrary to a lot of our peers, NYU hasn’t seen a decline in our applications or enrollment from China.” NYU had nearly 8,800 students from China last year and this year's enrollment will be "roughly equivalent," Keogan said.

New York’s picture is further obscured by the reporting practices of some of the colleges themselves.

Hofstra University, for example, has more than 2,700 students from China, which is more than half its entire international student population. Hofstra didn’t provide details on its international student enrollment or recent trends, citing a school policy.

The City University of New York has 2,009 international students from China, but the public system also didn’t release trend data from recent years.

“The decline is sensitive,” Gallagher said, noting a lack of transparency at many colleges when it comes to the competitive market for foreign students.

“It might reflect loss of revenue for programs,” she said.

What is clear is the fiscal, cultural and academic benefits of these top students from China, and the cost to the schools, state and general public if it’s lost or eroded.

"Having students from diverse backgrounds enriches us all, as we understand differing views and experience other cultures," spokeswoman Holly Liapis said of SUNY, were about 33 percent of international students each year come from China. "Our campuses strive to provide a microcosm of the world by working aggressively to attract students locally, nationwide, and globally."

Keogan of NYU said, "as institution, we do have serious concerns about increased barriers U.S. universities in general are facing in retaining international students, faculty, and scholars. We see it as vital to the future of U.S. higher education — arguably the best system in the world — that we continue to be able to attract the top students and faculty from both within the United States and around the globe."

“It really hurts in two big ways,” said Paul Musgrave, assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he specializes in U.S. foreign policy and international relations theory. “Having more international students — especially from the rising superpower — on U.S. campuses benefits both American and foreign students by helping to create person-to-person ties and greater cultural exchange.

“Second, the U.S. has been defunding higher education support from governments for a while, and so financially international students have been a bridge for many institutions which are struggling financially one way or another,” Musgrave said.

The difference in tuition paid by students from China, usually without any aid or scholarships, is considerable.

At Stony Brook, out-of-state tuition is $24,740 compared with in-state tuition of $7,070. With room and board and fees, an out-of-state student pays nearly $43,000 a year, or 68 percent more than an in-state student. At CUNY, in-state tuition is $6,930, but out-of-state students pay $18,600.

“Stony Brook uses tuition revenue to support operations because support from the state was cut almost $80 million in the late 2000s, and state support has not increased to account for inflation or enrollment growth," said spokeswoman Sheprow.

SUNY-wide, Chinese students are about a third of all international students at 64 campuses. SUNY has estimated the economic benefit of all foreign students statewide at $650 million a year.

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