Despite soaring tensions between Washington and Beijing, China continued to send more students to study at US universities last year than any other nation, according to an annual State Department survey made public on Monday. A total of 290,086 Chinese students came to US institutions of higher education for undergraduate study, graduate work and short-term postgraduate employment in the 2021-2022 academic year, the survey found. That number was 8.6 per cent lower than the previous school year – largely due to a 12.8 per cent drop in the number of Chinese undergraduate students coming to the US for college. Last year 109,492 Chinese undergraduates studied in the US. Yet the population of Chinese graduate students in the US grew by 3.6 per cent, up to 123,182. Half of the Chinese students came to the US to study maths, computer science, engineering and other “STEM” subjects, according to the survey. “Over time, the data has been pretty consistent, independent of the state of relationships or political tensions,” said Dr Allan Goodman, CEO of the Institute of International Education, a non-profit organisation that conducted the survey for the State Department. “Education operates in a different space, and we expect that to continue in respect to China, no matter what the temperature is.” Representatives from the IIE said they could not state with certainty why the population of Chinese undergraduate and graduate students had moved in opposite directions, noting their survey did not ask. In recent years, most Chinese students had come to the US at the undergraduate level, according to the data. But one possible reason for the shift, Goodman said, was that graduate students were typically adults who could make their own decisions about where they wanted to go, while undergraduates’ plans were often dictated by their parents. ‘Goddess scientist’ coming home to set up medical school to China’s delight “I know there are different parental concerns when it came to younger students coming here, given the travel restrictions early on,” he said. “But it was important that we noticed that graduate interest remains strong and remains high, and there are more adults in that population than very young students.” Goodman added that US campuses had not been able to carry out effective in-person recruitment efforts in China targeting aspiring college students due to Beijing’s strict Covid-19 policies . “I’m looking forward to the PRC opening its borders for US universities to recruit in person in the PRC very soon,” he said. Yingyi Ma, a professor at Syracuse University and author of Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese Undergraduates Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education , said another reason for the decline could be China’s weakening economy. “Undergraduate education in the United States is a lot more expensive,” said Ma, who was not involved with the survey. “A big part of not-so-wealthy Chinese students fund their education through their real estate, their apartments.” US ‘remains welcoming’ to Chinese students, 155,000 visas issued since last May “Given the struggle and challenges facing the Chinese real estate market, I would be convinced that parents are not so financially confident to take that risk using their apartment to finance their undergraduate education.” As for the uptick in Chinese graduate students, it came more than two years after a White House order in 2020 restricting graduate student visas for Chinese nationals deemed to be linked to China’s military . The State Department said the order, issued under then-president Donald Trump and renewed by President Joe Biden , only affected a “very, very small” number of Chinese applicants trying to study in the US. “There are some perceptions out there that are, perhaps, unfounded,” said Robert Batchelder, managing director for visa services in the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. “That particular proclamation … only applies to a very, very small handful of people,” he said. “Maybe a couple a week.” Ethan Rosenzweig, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, added that Chinese students “who have legitimate educational pursuits in the US” were welcome in the country “as easily as possible”. Apart from examining figures for inbound foreign students, the survey looked at the numbers of Americans studying overseas during the 2020-2021 school year – the first full academic year during the coronavirus pandemic . During that period, China was the 11th most popular destination for US students, with a total of 382 US students – an 84.6 per cent decline from the previous year. The number of American students studying in China had already been falling steadily over the last decade before it plunged during the pandemic, the data showed. Ma of Syracuse University said it was an “exaggeration” to say that geopolitics had nothing to do with the shrinking number of Chinese and American students choosing to study in each other’s countries. But she also said motivations generally tended to differ between Chinese students coming to the US and American students going to China. Chinese students do not necessarily come to the US because they love America or are interested in it, Ma said. “They want to get American degrees,” she said, and use them to get better jobs back home. “But for American students who study in China, they’re mostly curious about Chinese culture or Chinese society – and that could be very much influenced by the geopolitical tensions.” As US public opinion of China dips lower and lower, she said, “it’s playing a very important role in discouraging or making American students not as interested in China as before”.