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Universities facing trend of fewer international students

Posted at 2:36 PM, Oct 14, 2021

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Andrew Zhang is a graduate student at Colorado State University. He's majoring in computer information systems. He’s from China and has been studying in the U.S. for five years.

“My family encouraged me to come to study in the United States,” Zhang said.

He says he’s seen the number of other Chinese students at the university decline.

“For example, CSU in 2019 had around 200 to 300 new Chinese students," Zhang said. "But this year, maybe only 20 to 30.”

That decline is being felt all over the U.S. According to a report by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, schools saw a 72% decrease in new international student enrollment in 2020 compared to 2019. Stene Verholst is the Director of the International Enrollment Center at Colorado State University.

“Our Chinese enrollments started to decline during the Trump administration, and then that persisted up and now through the pandemic,” Verholst said. “At CSU in particular, we did a complete reorganization within the pandemic to actually stand up this international enrollment center.”

He says universities all over the country are doing what they can to attract more international students, like hiring agents overseas for student recruitment. Without enough international students, David Di Maria says universities struggle financially. Di Maria is the Senior International Officer and Associate Vice Provost for International Education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He says China used to send a very large number of students to the U.S.

“A decline in Chinese students would mean a decline in STEM majors, a decline in business majors that would have a ripple effect, not just on their bottom line but on innovation on their research capabilities, teaching assistants and so on,” Di Maria said.

He says the pandemic and frayed relations between the U.S. and China are keeping lots of students from coming here.

“The past few years, the U.S. concerns about safety when you see media reports about mass shootings, xenophobia, immigration policies, and then the most recent challenge has certainly been the pandemic, along with all the travel restrictions and the closed consulate," Di Maria said. "So it's been a challenge to get visas for many students.”

Zhang can confirm last summer was very difficult.

“People are less friendly than they used to be,” Zhang said.

He says he and his friends had to keep reporting hate crimes to the international office. Most memorable to him is an offensive online post.

“He posted a page called ‘Chink Restaurant’ and they listed out dishes that had very, very rude names," Zhang said. "I don't think I even want to say.”

However, he says he’s felt very safe on campus. Generally speaking, he says Chinese people have a positive opinion of U.S. universities. Nonetheless, he thinks the pandemic and tension between the two countries could have a lasting impact.

“Maybe more students will just choose other agencies to be to in countries like the U.K., Singapore, Canada, Australia.”

Both Di Maria and Verholst remain hopeful numbers will rise once the pandemic is over, especially after a joint statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona that renews the country’s commitment to international students. They say international students are critical to a healthy and diverse academic culture.

“Certainly, our classes suffer, I think, from the diverse outlook that our international students bring in the way that they go about solving problems,” Verholst said.

“We know we can't be world-class if we don't engage with the world," Di Maria said. "So we need our international students."