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Rate of Foreign Students Staying to Work in US Slows

Students submit documents to University of Southern California's International Academy during a 2014 orientation.
Students submit documents to University of Southern California's International Academy during a 2014 orientation.

After rising sharply over the past decade, the rate at which foreign-student graduates are applying to stay in the U.S. to work has waned.

A record 276,500 foreign graduates received work permits through a U.S. program called Optional Practical Training (OPT) in 2017, according to Pew Research Center, an independent research group. That was in addition to nearly 1.5 million foreign graduates who received OPT work permits between 2004 and 2016.

But the rate of growth slowed, Pew found.

"The number of enrollees grew by 8 percent in 2017," Pew reports, "compared with 34 percent in 2016." ​

Trends in OPT generally follow international student enrollment on U.S. college campuses, says Rajika Bhandari, senior adviser for research and strategy for the Institute of International Education (IIE).

"It is not surprising that OPT enrollment would begin to taper as international student enrollment also began to slow," Bhandari says. "The slowing down of overall international student enrollments is attributable to a mix of factors, including competition from higher education systems across the world and changes to government-funded scholarships in Saudi Arabia and Brazil – both among the top 10 sending countries to the United States."

The number of international students -- including OPT students -- grew by 3.4 percent in 2016-2017, according to IIE's Open Doors annual report on international students in the U.S. Compare that to increases of 7.1 percent in 2015-2016, and 10 percent in 2014-2015.

Also, in 2016, the U.S. government introduced a travel ban on immigrants -- including student immigrants -- from seven Muslim-majority countries. It later removed Iraq from the travel ban, leaving six countries -- Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Libya -- restricted from entering the United States. But most of the 1,078,822​ international students enrolled in the U.S. come from China (33 percent) and India (17 percent), followed by 5 percent or less from South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, Mexico and Brazil, respectively.

OPT program

Foreigners who study full time in the U.S. typically have F-1 and M-1 visas and are restricted from working off campus, according to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services website. The F or M visa expires three months after graduation, unless extended for additional study. However, the OPT program offers graduates a temporary work visa, as long as the work is in the graduate's field of study. Other employment is prohibited.

Before 2008, most OPT visas were issued for 12 months of temporary work. But in 2008 and 2016, the federal government expanded OPT rules, which greatly increased student availability in the workforce.

For science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degree holders, the government in 2008 extended the OPT visa to 29 months. Then, in 2016, the U.S. government extended the OPT duration to 36 months for STEM students, which increased the number by about 400 percent.

This made those international graduate OPT holders more desirable to employers, says Neil Ruiz, lead author of the Pew report. At the same time, it made STEM degree programs more desirable to international students.

Except for business and management degrees, STEM is the No. 1 program of choice for international students, according to the Institute of International Education, which reports each year about the state of international students in the U.S.

“Those are the majors of foreign graduates who are staying in the U.S. that have seen the biggest growth,” Ruiz told VOA.

Recent changes to OPT

But in January 2017, President Donald Trump's administration changed the rules governing the program. The change limited OPT participants to work directly for an employer, excluding employment as contractors, who are not hired directly by a company, but by a service or agency.

Ruiz says the rate of growth of foreign graduates staying in the U.S. to work posted its largest drop in 13 years last year.

Bhandari, the senior adviser for IIE, argues that this will do little to stop international students from seeking jobs in the U.S.

She says the terrorist attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, led the government to take a much stronger position on immigration. This led to one of the biggest decreases in international students at U.S. colleges and universities in the country’s history.

But students returned a few years later, Bhandari adds, citing the high demand internationally for American higher education. The U.S. is not only known for quality of education, but freedom of thought and innovation.

“The U.S. really provides this perfect environment for people who want to stay on and … be innovators and really contribute in a meaningful way to a knowledge economy,” Bhandari says.

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Decline of American students in China could mean fewer experts

FILE - A view of a portion of the campus of Wuhan University in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, April 11, 2020. The number of American students studying in China has dropped dramatically in recent years.
FILE - A view of a portion of the campus of Wuhan University in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, April 11, 2020. The number of American students studying in China has dropped dramatically in recent years.

The number of Americans studying in China has dropped dramatically in recent years from around 11,000 in 2019 to 800 this year, and the slump is so bad that some China scholars worry the United States could lose a generation of "China experts" as a result.

David Moser, an American who has lived and worked in China for more than three decades and is the former academic director of China Educational Tours (CET) in Beijing, said that “I haven’t seen an American student in years.”

CET, which was launched in 1982, is a Washington-based organization that recruits American students for short-term language and culture studies in China. Moser said that his position as academic director recently went away and that the organization continues to struggle to get more students to return to China.

CET once carried out short-term study-abroad programs in several cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Harbin and Hangzhou. Now, the program is only available in Beijing and Shanghai. Harbin's page on the website shows that programs are "suspended until spring 2025."

"We have already lost a very crucial generation who would need to be continuing right now in China with studies or whatever,” Moser said, “so that 10 years from now, they would already be ... very experienced China hands [experts].”

During the 2011-12 school year, the number of American students in China was around 15,000. Since then, with Xi Jinping’s rise as China’s leader and growing frictions between the two countries, the number has declined, dropping dramatically after the pandemic to about 200 at its lowest point.

Loss of understanding

Moser said the lack of talented people who understand China is undoubtedly a huge loss for the United States.

"You really need people who understand the two academic systems, the two college systems, and the way these things work in order to not make a huge mistake,” he said.

Compared with China, however, CET's projects in Taiwan are in full swing.

Moser said CET started its first summer study abroad program at National Taiwan University in 2022, which attracted more than 120 American students. He said a program was set up in Taiwan because too few American students wanted to go to China.

He said he believed that starting around 2008, when Beijing held its first Olympics, China’s pollution and human rights violations turned some American students away, and that the trend has not reversed.

FILE - A Fudan University sign is seen on the campus in Shanghai, Dec. 18, 2019.
FILE - A Fudan University sign is seen on the campus in Shanghai, Dec. 18, 2019.

China's strict lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic was also a crucial turning point. At that time, many foreigners, including American students, left China. After the Chinese government suddenly lifted the lockdown at the end of 2022, most foreigners did not immediately return.

China's increasingly aggressive posture on the international stage under Xi, and its hostile propaganda against the West at home, is likely to have prevented foreign talents from visiting China for cultural and business exchanges.

A revised counterespionage law that took effect on July 1, 2023, has also made many Americans hesitant to travel to China, let alone study there.

As U.S.-China relations deteriorate, official academic exchanges have also been coldly received. Former U.S. President Donald Trump suspended all Fulbright exchange programs to China and Hong Kong in July 2020.

After the counterespionage law negatively affected China, the Chinese government sought to extend goodwill at the level of people-to-people exchanges. Xi announced during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in San Francisco in November 2023, "In order to expand exchanges between the people of China and the United States, especially the younger generation, China is willing to invite 50,000 American young people to come to China for exchanges and studies in the next five years."

High school students visit

In January 2024, more than 20 students from Muscatine High School in Iowa visited Beijing, Hebei and Shanghai. In March, 24 students from Lincoln High School and Steilacoom High School in Washington state also boarded a plane from San Francisco to Beijing.

Wenzhou University and Kean University in New Jersey signed an agreement to jointly establish Wenzhou-Kean University in May 2006. At the time, Xi was the party secretary of Zhejiang, home province of Wenzhou, and he attended the signing ceremony in 2006.

In a letter to Kean's president on June 7, Xi encouraged universities in the two countries to strengthen exchanges and cooperation. However, three days later, four American teachers who were giving short-term courses at Beihua University in Jilin, China, were stabbed by a Chinese man. Chinese officials quickly deleted the relevant content on social media, and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson called the incident an "accident" that would not affect relations between the two countries.

Meghan Burke, a former sociology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, said that although the attack on American teachers was a shocking and unexpected incident, she still hoped that it would not affect Americans' confidence in studying and traveling in China.

"I think it's always been there, but I think with the pandemic, there was some really racially loaded misinformation and fears that I wouldn't be surprised if that came into play in some students' and some families' decisions about where they were willing to go abroad," she said.

Asked about the 800 American students in China today, Burke said that was a big regret for the United States.

"Language is key to understanding culture. So, any limitations on learning Mandarin or other Chinese languages only hold back our ability to have a broader and more complex intercultural understanding and international perspective that I think benefits everyone who is involved in those conversations," Burke said.

In contrast, 300,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States.

"Asymmetry is bad for China, but it's much worse for the United States because asymmetry is in one direction, which is towards us,” Moser said. “The Chinese have very good knowledge of the U.S., of its culture, of its government, everything."

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

Campus protests cause some students to rethink US colleges

FILE - Students continue to maintain a protest encampment in support of Palestinians on the Columbia University campus April 24, 2024, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York City.
FILE - Students continue to maintain a protest encampment in support of Palestinians on the Columbia University campus April 24, 2024, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York City.

Campus protests at U.S. colleges, and the accompanying unrest and violence, are causing some international students to rethink their plans to study in the United States.

Writing in the Straits Times, Vihanya Rakshika reports that safety concerns are motivating parents to look elsewhere for their children’s higher education. (June 2024)

Which schools have biggest alumni networks?

FILE - In this March 14, 2019, photo, students walk on the Stanford University campus in Santa Clara, Calif.
FILE - In this March 14, 2019, photo, students walk on the Stanford University campus in Santa Clara, Calif.

In addition to considering the cost and reputation of a school, prospective students should consider alumni networks – connected graduates who can help with the job search once classes are complete.

Writing in University Magazine, Anwar Abdi takes a look at the 25 U.S. universities with the largest alumni networks. (June 2024)

Report: Number of college dropouts remains high

FILE - The name for the University of Southern California is displayed at a campus entrance in Los Angeles, April 16, 2024.
FILE - The name for the University of Southern California is displayed at a campus entrance in Los Angeles, April 16, 2024.

Enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities is increasing, but the number of dropouts remains high, according to a report in the Chronicle of High Education.

Amanda Friedman writes that more former students are returning to school, but many want shorter-term programs, such as certificate programs. (June 2024)

Xi wants more exchanges between US, Chinese universities

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping talks to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not seen) at the Great Hall of the People, on April 26, 2024, in Beijing, China.
FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping talks to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not seen) at the Great Hall of the People, on April 26, 2024, in Beijing, China.

Mutual understanding between China and the United States can be improved by having more university exchanges between the two countries.

According to Bloomberg, Chinese President Xi Jinpin told Xinhua News Agency that exchanges could develop young ambassadors who understand both countries. (June 2024)

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