How Chinese student boom has kept US public universities afloat, and why Trump’s America First stance might affect that

Overseas students paying higher fees than their US counterparts have helped colleges avoid funding cuts, but some education experts worry fewer will come if policies change under President Trump

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 April, 2017, 6:33am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 April, 2017, 9:32am

When Qingqing Chui arrived in the United States five years ago as a master’s student, she noticed there were few other Chinese students at Florida Atlantic University. It’s not in the Ivy League of colleges preferred by most foreign students.

However, the 28-year-old native of Henan province says more Chinese undergraduates have been arriving during the past two years. She attributes this to the more structured university education found in the US, the growing middle class in China, and an increasing number of Chinese students discovering the rest of the world through films, music and pop culture.

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The trend isn’t limited to southeastern Florida, either; it’s nationwide, and the boom may be helping US public universities endure tougher times.

A recent working paper by the US National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that between 1996 and 2012, as state governments began cutting funding, public research universities enrolled more overseas students. The number of undergraduate students from China soared from around 20,000 in 2008 to almost 140,000 by 2015. The report concluded that if the universities had not enrolled more international students, who pay higher tuition fees than their US counterparts, they may have been forced to make steeper budget cuts or increase tuition fees for in-state students.

Sarah Turner, professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia, and a co-author of the report, says public universities in the US are able to buffer the shocks in state cutbacks by tapping a growing pool of foreign students.

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In 2015, the amount collected in students’ fees exceeded state funding for the first time, according to a report from the US Government Accountability Office. Even though state funding for students overall has since rebounded, states are still spending less on their students than before the 2008 recession.

Turner says universities could spend less and compromise standards, charge higher tuition fees for US students, or attract more students who pay the full tuition price.

The research shows schools have been choosing the third option, Turner says, adding: “It is reasonable to expect university leaders to think about which of those actions does the least damage.”

Or, as Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, put it in a public letter to the state auditor in 2016: “Nearly every state in the nation has faced this Hobson’s choice (‘take it, or leave it’), and they have all reached the same decision: open doors to out-of-state students in order to keep the doors open for in-state students.”

But fees from overseas students have not entirely covered the shortfall, Turner says. Colleges have still been forced to raise tuition fees; it’s just that the increase could have been larger.

Nearly every state has ... reached the same decision: open doors to out-of-state students in order to keep the doors open for in-state students
Janet Napolitano

Neil Ruiz, executive director of the Centre for Law, Economics, and Finance at George Washington University, says that even though the top destinations for international students are large cities, such as New York, Los Angeles and Boston, foreign students have increasingly been choosing colleges in small- to mid-sized places. His 2014 report for the Brookings Institution shows that the metropolitan areas with the fastest growth in the number of foreign college students between 2008 and 2012 are in Oregon, Ohio, Alabama and Kentucky, which have large public universities.

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Ruiz says colleges have to strike a balance to ensure local students can still get in. Some public universities have placed a cap on the number of out-of-state students they can admit. For instance, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill imposes an 18 per cent cap. In 2015, the University of California announced it would cap out-of-state enrolment at the popular University of California, Los Angeles and University of California, Berkeley campuses in 2016, amid criticism that state residents were being crowded out.

Kalpesh Kapadia, co-founder and CEO of SelfScore, a company that assesses creditworthiness of international students in the US, says these students are not only helping to keep public universities funded, they are also compensating for a shortage of talent in the US tech industry.

He points to prominent examples of international students who have established US companies, such as Instagram’s Brazilian-born founder Mike Krieger and South African-born Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

“The way we are attracting the best and brightest from all over the world is really an asset to America,” Kapadia says. “Universities are the new Ellis Island: give me your poor, your hungry, your sick; and now it is the universities saying, ‘give me your doctors, your engineers, your lawyers’.”

Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says more Chinese and Indian students have been heading to the US to study because it has become easier to get visas in recent years, but given US President Donald Trump’s pledge to put “America first”, Reilly wonders if international student numbers may have peaked. Countries such as Australia and Canada, which also attract many overseas students, would welcome more, he says.

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Jenny Lee, professor at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at University of Arizona, says that although the National Bureau of Economic Research’s working paper “underlines why international students are valued financially, I don’t believe they’re valued once they’ve paid the bills”.

Her research focuses on what she calls “neo-racism” – the idea that certain cultures are superior to others. Lee recalls one example from her 2007 study, where an East Asian female student was sexually harassed by a professor, using suggestive and sexual comments.

“She felt very threatened, she was afraid, she also felt powerless,” Lee says, adding the student attributed this to “her international student status, as being more vulnerable, more easy to deport, with less rights, and also because of this exotic appeal as an Asian woman”.

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Lee says other international students have told her about having bottles and rocks thrown at them, or being told to “go back to your own country”.

This isn’t specific to the US; Lee has studied the phenomenon in South Korea and South Africa as well. And it’s not just because the international students aren’t native to that particular country.

“I still have not come across a case where a white European, Australian, American has been treated negatively or worse than a student from Africa, Latin America, Asia.”

Lee concludes, from her findings about discrimination against international students, and rhetoric such as Trump’s “America first” slogan, that the boom in international students visiting the US may not last.

There needs to be a more serious inquiry and investigation into how international students can be made more welcome, she says. “I think that’s a very important question that needs to be asked.”