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There are fewer visas, but Chinese students still want a U.S. education

Jennifer Pak Feb 19, 2021
Heard on:
"Contemplation in the afternoon," is one of the many pieces of art Li Jiayan has posted on social media in hopes of getting more freelance work while she figures out the next steps in her study plans. Courtesy of Li Jiayan

There are fewer visas, but Chinese students still want a U.S. education

Jennifer Pak Feb 19, 2021
Heard on:
"Contemplation in the afternoon," is one of the many pieces of art Li Jiayan has posted on social media in hopes of getting more freelance work while she figures out the next steps in her study plans. Courtesy of Li Jiayan

On a recent Tuesday, Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University freshman Bella Wang got ready for a computer science class, which she starts at 9 p.m. online. For other classes, she stays up until 4 a.m.

Wang is attending the online lectures from Beijing while her professors and classmates are in the United States because she has not been able to apply for a study visa.

“I will sleep through the whole day and then and wake up at night to [attend my] courses,” Wang said.

Since February 2020, the U.S. embassy and consulates in China have stopped processing nearly all routine visas because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, the number and share of American visas issued to students from China have fallen. In the last academic year ending in September, statistics from the U.S. State Department show only 15,000, or 12%, of study visas were granted to mainland Chinese students, compared to 107,000 or 28% from the same period for 2019.

For now, Wang has accepted an offer to study towards an undergraduate degree at Lehigh University.

Since Lehigh University has an international exchange program with a university in Shanghai, where the pandemic has been largely under control, Wang was able to attend classes in person during the recent Fall semester.

However, during the Spring semester, Wang has switched to remote learning done from her bedroom in Beijing.

Other Chinese students deferred their offers from U.S. colleges, including Li Jiayan who was accepted into an arts school in New York.

“Because of the virus, my graduate school [does not] offer in-person class. They only offer online class,” Li said.

Her one-year masters’ program costs $50,000, which is five times the average yearly salary in her native central Hubei province.

“I don’t think I should use a huge sum of money to pay for online classes.”

The pandemic has made Li reconsider switching her graduate program from arts to business or economics.

“I want to find a job that can give me a stable salary,” she said. “I don’t want to [be] too easily influenced by some uncertainties in the world,” Li said.

That could mean reapplying for a new graduate program, and likely in other parts of Asia where classes might resume in person before the U.S.

“I just feel uncertain about the future.”

Li Jiayan, student

Meantime, she has started posting her artwork online and taking freelance commissions.

“I’m kind of you know in a very awkward position. I just feel uncertain about the future,” she said.

Li is not the only one.

In addition to the pandemic, Chinese students are also under additional scrutiny because of the U.S.-China trade war starting in 2018.

Then in May 2020, the U.S. administration at the time under Donald Trump issued a presidential proclamation to restrict graduate students and researchers from China with military ties from entering the U.S. to “dismantle China’s ability” to “steal intellectual property and technology from the U.S.”

“President Trump is preventing China from acquiring critical American technologies that could boost its military and threaten our national security interest,” the presidential statement read.

The proclamation added that the action “will not affect students who come to the U.S. for legitimate reasons.”

Agnes Lu is getting work experience after she deferred her offer from UC Berkley. (Courtesy of Agnes Lu)
Agnes Lu is getting work experience after she deferred her offer from the University of California, Berkeley. (Courtesy of Agnes Lu)

Yet, education consultant William Yan said it has been hard for any Chinese students applying for graduate studies in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“Like, before, it was hard for them to get an F-1 [study] visa but now it’s impossible,” Yan said.

One of his clients, a graduate from one of China’s best universities in Nanjing got accepted into a top doctoral program in America with a full scholarship.

“That was great,” Yan said. “However, [the student] was rejected for his visa because he is studying chemistry.”

Yan said the student is deeply depressed and is now applying for other graduate schools in Singapore.

While Yan said he thinks the new Biden administration might tone down its anti-China rhetoric, he does not expect the tough policies against Chinese students to change a lot.

Bella Wang at Universal Studios. Her parents have always wanted her to study in the U.S. (Courtesy of Bella Wang)
Bella Wang at Universal Studios on a previous U.S. visit. Her parents have always wanted her to study in America. (Courtesy of Bella Wang)

He has expanded his consultancy business from mainly helping Chinese students apply for top U.S. colleges, to include schools in Australia, Singapore, the U.K. and Canada.

However, once the pandemic is under control, Yan sees a bright future for U.S. schools attracting Chinese students.

China remains the number one source of international students for the U.S. and those students contributed $15 billion to America’s economy in 2019, which was at the height of the trade war.

Chinese parents, who usually pay for tuition, are still keen to send their children to American colleges, according to Yan.

“Their evaluation on American education has never changed,” he said.

Yan said Chinese parents regard an American education as the best, given that U.S. colleges continue to dominate global school rankings and how Americans tend to nab Nobel Prizes.

Also, an American college degree, especially from an ivy league school is seen as a competitive advantage in the China job market.

“They think they will become very competitive and get really good jobs with really good salaries if they go to [those kinds] of institutions,” said Agnes Lu, who has deferred her enrollment to do a master’s program at the University of California, Berkeley.

Li Jiayan has been posting her artwork on social media since the pandemic outbreak last January (Courtesy of Li Jiayan)
Li Jiayan has been posting her artwork on social media since the pandemic outbreak last January. Listen to one of her musings that accompanies the artwork on social media. (Courtesy Li Jiayan)

Lu is getting work experience while she waits for the U.S. to reopen to Chinese students. Her family’s main worry, according to Lu, is the pandemic in the U.S. rather than the trade war.

Same for art student Li in Hubei province, who feels the trade war is far removed from her.

In part, because coverage of the trade war has been subdued in the Chinese state-controlled press. But also, students feel a bit helpless.

“I know there must be lots of influence [from the trade war],” she said. “It will influence my life but I don’t know how to change it. I don’t know … what can I do to make this problem less severe,” Li said.

While the trade war began in 2018, Chinese students who want to study in the U.S. have been planning years before that. Parents in China begin engaging education consultants such as Yan three years in advance of an application.

Wang said her road to study in the U.S. has taken even longer. Initially her parents wanted to send her to attend an American high school. Instead, Wang studied an American curriculum at a public high school in China.

Bella Wang pictured at Santa Monica beach. She feels an American curriculum has broadened her horizons. (Courtesy of Bella Wang)
Bella Wang pictured at Santa Monica beach on a previous visit to the U.S. She feels an American curriculum has broadened her horizons. (Courtesy of Bella Wang)

Wang said she was able to attend a lot of extra-curricular activities and pursue subjects she enjoyed, which was different compared to her friends who remained in the Chinese education system.

“The education in China is exam-oriented. Everything is for the college entrance examination. You don’t need to learn any knowledge that will not be useful for the exam,” she said.

Wang said her parents paid 100,000 yuan ($15,000) per year for her high school, spent several thousand dollars to hire an education consultant to apply for U.S. colleges, and are using a chunk of their savings to pay for her tuition at Lehigh.

“Despite the pandemic, despite the trade war, I still choose to study at an American university [remotely for now] because my family and I have invested too much time and money on this,” Wang said.

“I can’t change my path easily and I don’t have the courage to make another change.”

Additional research by Charles Zhang

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