PALO ALTO, U.S./TAIPEI/HONG KONG -- Tom Zeng's sophomore year at Queens College, City University of New York, began with a video message from the chancellor followed by days of video lectures. His fellow students, normally a rowdy and gleeful presence, replaced with a checkerboard of anonymous, disembodied Zoom icons. He left his apartment only once last week, for the rare chance to actually take a class in person.
Getting to the campus was no simple feat: Students and faculty have to fill out a wellness check survey and go through a health screening before entering any building. With the majority of classes held remotely for the fall semester, most buildings on campus are closed. Hallways normally full of laughing and hugging at the beginning of each semester were eerily quiet; classmates and teachers greeting each other with a distanced wave and a nod. In the classroom, less than a dozen students sit, spread across a large lecture hall, wearing a barrage of multicolored masks.
This was not what he had been expecting when he arrived in the summer of 2019, stepping off the plane from Shandong, a coal mining region of China. Zeng's head was bursting with excitement to study computer science, hoping to eventually get a job as an engineer. Raised in an average middle-class family in suburban China and the first member of his family to go abroad for school, he keenly feels the responsibility. He is aware that the $2,000 a month in rent and expenses is a large burden on his family, who also scraped together tuition money.
But it was worth it -- a chance to rub shoulders with classmates from around the world, to learn English and network with experts. The world was open to him. He felt confident that a U.S. degree would take him to where he wanted to go.
Now, Tom is increasingly torn about his decision.
"I've regretted coming to the U.S.," said Zeng, "How can I not regret coming here with everything that happened this year?"
The enlightened seclusion of the Queens College CUNY campus, it turned out, offered little respite from a wave of turmoil building across the country where Zeng began his new life. First came the U.S.-China trade war last year, which inflamed relations between the two superpowers, and led to restrictions on Chinese students studying in some high-tech fields due to espionage fears. Then came COVID-19: not just the physical danger, but the psychic cost of lockdown, and a lurch toward Anti-Asian racism fed by right-wing media and even the White House. COVID-19 is the "Wuhan virus" and the "China virus," in the words of U.S. President Donald Trump.
"Go back to China!" is a constant phrase Zeng sees on Facebook. To make an already stressful situation worse, the U.S. government has cracked down on immigration and visas, and there was a short-lived policy requiring students to attend physical classes. Foreign students faced deportation if they refused.
Instead of opening his horizons, Zeng feels shut in by American life. He shares a three-bedroom apartment in New York with Chinese friends; he and his roommates rarely leave because they feel unsafe. This week Zeng spent hours in front of a computer taking online classes and catching up on some English readings.
"It is a really difficult time for Chinese students like me being here. We need to worry about staying safe from COVID-19 like everyone else, but are also constantly on our toes because you never know if someone might say or do something hurtful just because you look Chinese, " said Zeng.
Zeng's concerns are typical of Chinese students studying in the United States. The largest group of foreign students by far, their numbers -- 369,548 last year -- have nearly quadrupled in the past 10 years on a wave of optimism about the future of U.S.-China relations and the value of an American education. Thanks to rising incomes in China, hundreds of thousands of young Chinese have studied abroad, experiencing a democratic political system and a drastically different educational culture that encourages critical thinking and self-expression. The wave of Chinese students offered a chance for the two potential hegemons of the 21st century to get to know each other a little better.
Chinese students have also transformed the entire business model of American higher education, a lucrative sector where tuition payments totaled $170 billion in the 2017-18 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. U.S. universities have come to depend on international students -- mainly from the wealthy Chinese middle-class -- to fill budget holes. Since the 1990s, state governments have pared back spending on state universities. Now, full tuition-paying foreign students, one-third of which are Chinese, are making up the balance of revenues.
At the University of California, Los Angeles, for example, the tuition and fees for out of state and international students in 2020 are around three times higher than those for California students, according to the university website. However, while out of state students are eligible for financial aid, foreign students are not. At some campuses, such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, students from China make up around 10% of the student body.
"State governments have been cutting money for universities for the last couple of decades," said Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor of economics at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego. "So universities have been looking for a while into how to adapt to the drained funding. It's exactly at that time when incomes in China are rising really quickly."
A study by Khanna and four other co-authors for the National Bureau of Economic Research this year found a decline of about 10% in public funding at state research universities has been offset by a 12% rise in full-tuition foreign student enrollments.
They are so important to the revenue model of schools that in 2017, the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois took out insurance against a drop in enrollments by Chinese students.
Now, amid the pent-up anxieties of Chinese students -- fueled by COVID, a fraught U.S.-China relationship, racism, and the trade war -- the feared scenario seems to be unfolding.
"COVID-19 could wreak havoc with institutional finances," said Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer at Times Higher Education, the U.K. based global education data company. "With a number of U.S. colleges significantly relying on international students to supplement income from other sources, and with U.S. university leaders overwhelmingly concerned about a decline in international student numbers after COVID-19, some could be facing a funding black hole." 92% of U.S. education leaders surveyed by THE said they believed some universities would go bankrupt.
The American Council on Education, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, said in a report in April that U.S. universities are expected to lose $23 billion in revenue during the next academic year, dragged down in part by a projected decline of 25% in international students.
Even before the shock of COVID-19, according to Khanna, the flow of Chinese students had begun to slow dramatically, partly due to the building tensions between Beijing and Washington.
A survey by Nikkei, distributed among foreign student organizations on a number of U.S. campuses, showed that 24% of respondents were considering leaving the U.S., citing visa policies and the Trump administration as the chief reasons. A further 35% described themselves as "maybe" considering leaving.
For the first time since 2015, the U.K. this year surpassed the U.S. as the top study abroad destination for Chinese students, according to an annual survey published by the New Oriental Education and Technology Group, one of the largest educational companies in China.
Among the 6,673 survey responses collected from 34 provinces in China, 42% of Chinese students would choose the U.K. over any other country for overseas education, with 37% of responses saying the U.S. is their top choice. Recent tension between China and the U.S. was a major factor driving the shift, said the report.
"Keep in mind that other countries are trying to compete in this market now," said Khanna. "So Australia, Canada, and the U.K. essentially are trying to replicate the same business model [as U.S. universities]. ... Those countries are trying to chip away at this competitiveness that the U.S. has had for a long time."
Indeed, for Nick Wang, a Chinese student who studied hard to earn a graduate school spot at Brown University in computer science, the prolonged outbreak and rising hostility against Asian students have made him postpone his enrollment for a year to fall 2021. He is now applying to universities in the U.K., Singapore and Europe. Previously, the 23-year-old had only opted for American universities as he admired the U.S.'s supremacy in computer science.
"No one knows where U.S.-China relations would stand next year," Wang said, citing Trump's inconstant attitudes toward Beijing and the U.S. presidential election two months from now.
"I'm worried whether I will be able to secure my visa to the U.S. next year," he said. "Even if I can, there is still a question of whether I can work in the U.S. after graduation."
As Wang explains, most Chinese students view their U.S. education as a ticket to land a job and start a new life there. "Otherwise, the quality of education in the U.S. alone cannot justify its high tuition fees," he said.
The two-year graduate program at Brown University combined with living expenses would cost Wang's family roughly 1 million yuan ($142,500) -- a considerably large sum for people in a country where the annual disposable income per person averaged 39,000 yuan last year.
Hopes and fears
Born and raised in Beijing, Joyce Fan first came to the U.S. in 2010 to do her undergraduate studies at Northwestern University in Illinois. After graduating with a double degree in history and philosophy, Fan was drawn to the booming tech industry in China and worked for Tencent Holdings, one of the Chinese internet giants. However, she has dreamed of becoming a lawyer and decided to go back to the U.S., to New York University Law School school, in 2018.
"It is only a matter of time before the Trump administration finds another opportunity to make it nearly impossible for international students to stay here," said Fan, now a second-year student.
Her experience of being a foreign student in the U.S. during the Obama administration is drastically different from her current experience in the U.S., Fan said. She was never concerned about her student visa being revoked or having any trouble securing an optional practical training (OPT) permit -- a one-year internship period that is granted to foreign students who have completed their study in the U.S. The Trump administration has repeatedly proposed reforming and even canceling the OPT program.
"I can't do any planning because I constantly feel we [Chinese] might be evicted from the country at any moment," said Fan.
Her fears are not unfounded. On Aug 26, for example, the University of North Texas cut ties with 15 Chinese researchers on scholarships funded by a Chinese governmental sponsor known as the Chinese Scholarship Council, without providing an explanation. The decision has left them with a month to leave the US, scrambling for expensive air tickets home. The University did not return a request for comment.
Fan lives in a short-term rental because she worries it might be difficult to end a yearlong lease if, one day, she is forced to leave the country due to another government policy change regarding visas.
She has also become more uneasy taking the subway, always keeping her guard up while using public transit amid news reports of Asian-looking passengers being assaulted in New York subway stations.
"Everything that's happened in the last couple of years since Trump took office has really made international students very nervous about coming to the U.S., and very nervous about their long-term future here," said Dan Berger, a partner at the immigration law firm of Curran, Berger & Kludt in Massachusetts.
"We are kind of at a tipping point right now. ... Even if some of the [anti-immigration] policies by the administration are eventually stopped in the courts, they will continue to discourage international students from coming here," he added.
Staying in the U.S. has become increasingly challenging for Chinese students, especially those majoring in science and engineering. In 2018, Washington shortened the duration of visas for Chinese graduate students in aviation, robotics, and advanced manufacturing from five years to one, citing the risk of espionage and theft of intellectual property.
More recently, Trump announced a series of executive orders to reform the H-1B visa -- a type of work authorization used mostly by Indian and Chinese nationals -- including increasing the salary, education and other application requirements, and prioritizing some federal jobs for American citizens.
Under Trump, the number of nonimmigrant visas issued fell to 8.7 million in fiscal 2019, the fourth consecutive decline from the 10.9 million in fiscal 2015. The denial rate for H-1B visas more than tripled to 33% in fiscal 2019 from 10% in fiscal 2016, according to an analysis by the Virginia-based National Foundation for American Policy.
Thanks, in part, to dog-whistle politics emanating from the White House and conservative media, white nationalism and xenophobia in the U.S. are on the rise. There have been more than 1,900 documented incidents of anti-Asian discrimination across the U.S. from March to May, according to a report by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, which linked the rise to the "spread of misinformation and anti-Chinese bias by key government officials."
In July, 73% of U.S. adults said they have an unfavorable view of China, up 26% since 2018, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Around one in four Americans also describe China as an enemy of the U.S. -- almost double the share when the question was last asked in 2012.
In the past two months, the U.S. government announced a series of policies targeting Chinese and other foreign-born high-tech workers. These include a ban on Chinese students and scholars with military ties and restricting H-1B and other work visa holders from entering the country.
In July, the Trump administration rolled out a short-lived policy requiring international students to transfer or leave the country if their schools held classes entirely online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The rule, though soon rescinded by the administration after facing eight federal lawsuits and opposition from hundreds of American universities, terrified foreign students, who saw it as an effort to use them as a political battering ram to keep schools open. Indeed, universities were, in effect, being told that the government would banish one of their main revenue streams if they did not agree to hold physical classes.
Zeng called it a "power play," one that revealed the administration's attitudes toward foreign students -- and potentially unfriendly policies -- if Trump is reelected on Nov. 3.
"The end goal of his policy is to use international students as 'hostages' to force schools to reopen in the fall semester," Zeng said. "The U.S. government doesn't care whether it is safe, it only cares about whether us foreign students can create more [wealth] for the country."
Back for more
However, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, Chinese students' demand for overseas education remains strong. The latest report by QS, an international higher education network, shows only 4% of surveyed Chinese students canceled their study abroad plan because of COVID-19.
As the U.S. is losing its appeal to Chinese students due to multiple factors, the solid yet unmet demand for overseas education from China created a huge market opportunity for other countries.
"Education is a huge industry and a big business for all the leading countries," Vivien Liang, director of Franklin International Education Group, who has more than two decades of experience in running an education consultancy, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "How to stand out in this pandemic depends on how you treat students and what kind of measures you introduce to attract students."
The U.K. has apparently become one of the biggest winners this year. Thanks to its favorable visa policies, the country has seen a spike in interest from Chinese students, according to the New Oriental group report.
Earlier this year, the U.K. reinstated the post-study work visa program for the 2020-21 intake of students, which offers a two-year visa for international students to work in the country after graduation. The suspension of the program in 2012 has led to a decline in international students, especially from India, in the past eight years.
"The news coming from the U.K. is generally much more positive than from the U.S. now. That, on top of the PSW [post-study work visa], [is] making it a positive choice to go," said Sean Jones, Taiwan Country Manager at UKEAS, an overseas education consultancy in Southeast Asia. For the first time, many leading universities in the U.K., such as the University of Nottingham, are offering programs that begin in January -- an aggressive move to attract students, Jones added.
To mitigate the risk of international travel amid the pandemic and attract enrollment in the fall, several U.K. universities are reportedly discussing with their government and travel companies to arrange flights from countries such as China and India so students can avoid potential complications caused by a disruption in scheduled travel services due to COVID-19.
Nevertheless, U.K. universities will likely have nearly 14,000 fewer enrollments from East Asia in 2020-21 compared to the 2018-19 academic year. That represents a loss of 463 million pounds ($617 million) in spending on tuition and living, a June report by the British Council's International Education Services estimated.
While overall enrollment might be dropping, however, Chinese applicants to 2020 fall programs in the U.K. by July had actually surged by 30% year-over-year to 19,760, data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service shows.
Even for non-Chinese students, there has been an apparent swing of interest from the U.S. to other countries in the past four years. Southeast Asia has seen its international students divert to Australia, along with Canada and the U.K., though America remains the most popular destination.
Some of the greatest damage, though, could be to the U.S.'s international reputation. With a wave of unfriendly immigration policies sending many international students reeling, "people will not go there because they have a great opinion of the U.S. anymore," said Shaun Rein, founder of Shanghai-based consultancy China Market Research Group. "That soft power is gone."
Times Higher Education rankings for 2021, published this week, show signs that U.S. universities are suffering. Although they continued to dominate the top ranks, "U.S. institutions outside the top 200 show signs of decline," said the company in a news release. Meanwhile, China's Tsinghua University became the first Asian university to crack THE's top 20 international rankings.
Economically, too, the effects of a shrinking pool of international students aren't limited to higher education. Foreign students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $41 billion and supported 458,290 jobs in the U.S. during the 2018-19 academic year, according to education trade group NAFSA. College towns, many with real estate markets centered around providing accommodation for overseas students, will be hard-hit.
Still, the brand names of U.S. institutions and the profusion of technology jobs continue to work in America's favor. And universities are trying to distance themselves from the Trump administration's hostility toward Chinese and other international students.
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit to oppose the Trump administration's July policy forbidding international students from taking all-online classes in the fall, and hundreds of colleges and more than 70 higher education associations filed amicus briefs in support of Harvard and MIT.
Tom Zeng at Queens College, City University of New York, told Nikkei that his school has been in constant communication with international students like him, helping them arrange legal and accommodation assistance. He still holds some faith.
"Although I've been regretting coming to the U.S.," he said, "there is no denying that the country still has the best schools, resources, and some of the best people."