In the first six months of 2022, the number of student visas issued to Chinese nationals decreased by more than 50% compared to pre-COVID levels. Prior to the pandemic, Chinese students comprised the largest international student population in the U.S., accounting for 35% of all foreign-born students in the country. Pandemic-related visa delays, unfriendly political policies, and an increase in global competition have caused many prospective Chinese students to reconsider their higher education goals in the U.S.
The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the U.S. immigration system as a whole, and the F-1 student visa process was no exception. The temporary suspension of visa services at U.S. consulates in China during the height of the pandemic put many applications in limbo, as the State Department grappled with long processing times and interview scheduling delays. Students who did eventually receive visa approvals faced stringent travel restrictions, which made it increasingly difficult to enter the country and begin their intended academic programs.
In addition to the logistical challenges of the pandemic, political tensions between the U.S. and Chinese governments have also contributed to the decline of Chinese students interested in pursuing a U.S. education. In interviews conducted by the Wall Street Journal, prospective Chinese students expressed general safety concerns about living in the U.S., citing increased gun violence and anti-Asian sentiment in many U.S. communities. In 2020, former President Trump further exasperated the notion that Chinese students were unwelcome in the U.S., barring entry for Chinese graduate students and researchers with ties to military-related entities. Many U.S. universities cited that the discriminatory proclamation led to an increase in student visa rejections overall, even for individuals who did not have clear military connections. Although the Biden administration resumed visa processing for Chinese applicants in May 2021, the Trump-era bar remains in place and Chinese students’ interest in U.S. schools has continued to decline.
As unfriendly policies and bureaucratic hurdles in the U.S. increase, Chinese students are setting their sights on other countries or highly-ranked domestic options to obtain their degrees. Universities in Canada, Singapore, and the U.K. have seen an increase in Chinese students over the past several years. Many Chinese nationals are also opting for local universities, which have risen in global rankings and are often viewed more favorably by prospective Chinese employers.
In the 2019 academic year (before Chinese student visa applications started to decline), Chinese students contributed $15.9 billion in economic value. Declining numbers of Chinese students are likely to have a devastating impact on the revenue of U.S. colleges and universities, and negatively affect the U.S. economy as a whole.