The number of US visas issued to Chinese students for the new academic year fell from pre-pandemic levels, a worrisome development for American colleges that have come to rely on tuition from the booming Chinese market.
Nevertheless, the total number of new student visas issued by autumn 2022 increased due to growing demand from India. Chronicle Analysis of visa data collected by the US State Department.
In the critical months of May to August, more than 84,000 student, or F-1, visas were issued to Indian students, accounting for the majority of student visa issuance. This is almost 45 percent more visas for Indian students than in the same four months last year and a staggering 148 percent more than in 2019.
India far outpaced China in terms of new visas. Only about 47,000 F-1 visas were issued to Chinese students this summer, 40,000 fewer than were issued between May and August 2021, a 45 percent drop.
Despite the sharp decline in new visas, China remains the largest source of international students on American campuses. There were about 252,000 Chinese student visa holders in the U.S. in September, compared with about 241,000 Indian students, according to federal government data.
Most foreign students are issued a single visa for the duration of their studies. And while elementary and high school kids from abroad also come to the U.S. on F-1 visas, nine out of 10 student visa holders are college students, so the visa data largely reflects college enrollment.
From May to August, the State Department issued nearly 282,000 F-1 visas at consulates around the world, a 2 percent increase over the summer of 2021 and a 10 percent increase over the same period before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Softening Chinese demand
The continued post-Covid recovery among international students is a relief for American colleges — no other demographic group experienced such a large decline in enrollment during the pandemic.
But the apparent collapse of Chinese student interest in studying in the U.S., whether temporary or permanent, certainly reduces confidence in future international enrollment trends.
The decline marks a significant reversal: In the dozen years before the pandemic, enrollments from China rose 450 percent. At its peak, one in three international students on American campuses was from China. One analysis by the Institute of International Education estimated that college students from China added $15.9 billion to the American economy during the 2019-2020 academic year — and much of that benefited colleges, since most Chinese students pay full tuition. .
But during the pandemic, economic activity generated by American exports of educational services to international students fell by nearly 28 percent, or nearly $16 billion, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
The pandemic has severely limited Chinese students’ ability to travel to the US, more so than other international students. The early outbreak of Covid in China forced the US government to impose a travel ban on visitors from China, including student visa holders, in the early months of the pandemic, which was only lifted in May 2021. Those coming from China had to first travel to a third country and undergo quarantine. There were few flights between the two countries and American consulates were closed. In the summer of 2020, only about 500 visas were issued to Chinese students.
However, there are signs that the easing of Chinese demand for American education is not just due to the pandemic. For example, Chinese families typically save for years to educate their children, and many students who go abroad opt out of the national high school curriculum that prepares them to enter a Chinese university. As a result, students are committed to study abroad plans much earlier. For these students, the pandemic likely disrupted their American education, but did not completely ruin it—indeed, the number of visas issued to China last summer rose above pre-pandemic levels, a sign of residual demand from students who had delayed admission.
Even before the pandemic, China’s rapid growth in enrollment had leveled off and the number of new international students arriving in the US had declined. One big culprit: growing geopolitical tensions between the US and China. During the Trump administration, the White House considered banning Chinese students and President Donald J. Trump reportedly called them spies. There has also been growing public skepticism about enrolling large numbers of Chinese students. More than half of Americans in a 2021 Pew Research Center survey said they favored restrictions on students from China.
Students may transfer from the United States to other popular destinations. The number of applicants to Chinese universities increased by 10 percent compared to last year. And because of the pandemic, some families may want their children to stay closer to home, with Hong Kong universities reporting record enrollments in mainland China.
Jon Santangelo, a spokesman and senior consultant for the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association, a group of Chinese recruitment agents, said the pandemic may have exacerbated Chinese students’ concerns about the US as a safe and welcoming destination. “Covid was probably the catalyst,” he said.
Economic factors can also dampen interest, Santangelo said. The appreciation of the dollar against the Chinese renminbi and other foreign currencies has made an American degree much more expensive for Chinese students. China’s once-hot economy has cooled, especially the housing market, which many middle-class families used to finance college costs. And the job market for recent Chinese college graduates is bleak, which may make some students hesitant to gamble that the investment in an expensive overseas degree will pay off.
Interest in India grew
For American colleges, there is a record increase in issuing visas to Indian students to compensate for the enrollment loss of Chinese students. It is possible that the growth could have been even stronger if not for the significant backlog of Indian visa applications. Currently, the estimated wait time for student visa appointments at the American consulates in New Delhi and Mumbai is 430 days.
Several factors are likely at play in the increase in demand from Indian students, said Rajika Bhandari, an expert on international student mobility and author of the book. America’s Invitation: Foreign Student in a Prospective Country, which is about her own experience as a student from India. Such factors include a growing college-age population and too few top universities to meet that demand. Online resources have given students outside of India’s major cities greater access to information about studying abroad. And the increased availability of student loans has made it possible for students from lower- and middle-income families to pay for a degree abroad.
However, one of the biggest drivers of interest among Indian students may be the increased confidence that they can gain critical work experience with an American degree. A recent survey of potential Indian students found that career advancement and the opportunity to earn a higher salary were among the top three reasons for studying abroad.
Under President Trump, that road to work seemed rockier. He repeatedly threatened to end the program that allows international students to stay in the U.S. temporarily after graduation, but his loss to Joseph R. Biden Jr. put the program, known as a voluntary internship, on a firmer footing. In January, President Biden announced an expansion of the program to allow more students to work longer, and he has promised to make it easier for international graduates of America’s science and technology colleges to get green cards. Bhandari said Indian students now feel more optimistic about their future prospects in the United States.
Shivam Sharma already has a job lined up at Federal Express’ Memphis headquarters when he finishes his master’s degree in data science from nearby Christian Brothers University in December. Sharma, who hails from Pathankot, a city in northern India, has enjoyed his time in America, but said working abroad on his resume could give him a valuable edge over other job candidates when he returns home.
“With 1.5 billion of us in India,” he said, “the added experience helps.”
At Christian Brothers, a private Roman Catholic college, the number of international graduates has grown from 55 in fall 2020 to 382 this fall, said Daniel S. Harper, dean of the graduate school and vice president for international initiatives. Almost all foreign students are from India.
Indeed, growth in Indian enrollment is likely to benefit graduate programs, as nearly three-quarters of Indian students are enrolled at this academic level. The Higher Education Council announced last month that in 2021, India had more graduate and certificate students than any other foreign country.
Still, colleges may view the increase in Indian students with some caution. Indian enrollments have typically been more volatile than those from China, which have shown both large gains and modest declines over the past decade.
And the decline from China, which had long been such a dominant source of international students in the United States, is a cautionary tale, a reminder of how fragile enrollment can be and how it can change very quickly, Bhandari said. “I would say don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”