Students from China and India comprise half of all international students in the U.S., propelled by increased wealth in those countries and drawn by potential employment in America, education and immigration experts told VOA.
“The ratios are due largely to external demographic, geopolitical, and economic factors,” said Rachel Banks, senior director of public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “It is largely driven by who can afford the cost of studying in the United States, as international students are not eligible for federal financial aid.”
China’s economy has grown markedly since opening to international trade in the 1970s and now stands as the second largest with a growing and more affluent middle class that can afford a foreign education.
“Manufacturing growth in China has raised a lot of Chinese incomes,” said Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California-San Diego. “Now they can afford to come to the U.S.”
Chinese and Indian enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities swooped upward at the turn of the new century. In 2000, there were nearly 60,000 Chinese students in the U.S., and nearly 55,000 students from India. Student enrollment in U.S. schools from Japan and South Korea were not far behind.
By 2010, Chinese student enrollment had grown to almost 158,000 students in the U.S., with nearly 104,000 students from India, pulling far ahead of South Korea’s 73,000 students. Other nations sent even fewer.
In 2020, before drastic enrollment reductions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were more than 372,000 Chinese and 193,000 Indian students in the U.S., or 34% and 18%, respectively, of the 1,075,496 international students in the U.S., according to the Institute for International Education (IIE) headquartered in New York. Students from South Korea had dropped back to a distant third, sending close to 50,000, or 4.6% of the total in the U.S.
“China and India are the two most populous nations on the planet, and they generate large numbers of college-prepared students at a rate that their own higher education systems cannot meet,” Banks said. “So many students look abroad for higher education opportunities.”
“Until very recently, they didn't have kind of the next tier of good colleges in China,” said Khanna. “So students who couldn't get into the top, the top universities in China, would just say, let me go abroad.”
Bella Du, a recent Chinese graduate from American University in Washington, confirms Khanna’s explanation.
“More Chinese students want to study abroad, and America offers the opportunity of a very high-end university and resources that it provides,” she said.
When international students come to the U.S. for higher education, they bring billions in revenue — $41 billion in 2018-2019 — to the U.S., concentrated in regions where they are clustered: California, New York, New England (Massachusetts and Rhode Island), Upper Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan), Texas, Washington D.C. and Washington state.
Their career paths are clustered, too: 77% of international students specialize in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), which includes health professions.
“STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and health research are more advanced in the U.S. than in most other countries,” said Arun Krishnavajjala, an Indian student earning his Ph.D. in computer science at George Mason University in Virginia. “STEM jobs, in particular, are fueled by big tech, and most of the largest tech companies reside in the U.S., therefore, almost always requiring a U.S.-based educational requirement.”
A majority of international students, not only Chinese or Indian, cite immigration pathways to employment as one of the top reasons for studying in the U.S.
“A lot of Indian students essentially use the U.S. education system as a way to gain access to the U.S. labor market,” said Khanna. “If you come and do your education in the U.S., then you're going to get hired from the campus in the U.S. essentially.”
While H1-B visas are highly coveted by foreign workers, they are not easy to get. Last year, 65,000 were available, with 20,000 additional issued to foreigners with a master’s degree or who graduated from a U.S. university, according to the American Immigration Council.
Without an H1-B visa, international students who have graduated or exhausted the Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa — which allows them to stay up to three years after graduation — cannot legally work in the U.S.
“I think it is hard for international students to find jobs in the United States if you do not have a green card,” said, Du, referring to legal permanent residency in the U.S. “So I think it only depends on the resources and opportunities. If I find a job here then I will stay in the United States if I don’t then I will go back to China.”
Krishnavajjala, who is in the U.S. on a student visa, agrees.
“This is an issue a lot of immigrants face. Green cards take decades to get now and the government's banter about legal and illegal immigrants leaves immigrants who have lived here their entire life here in limbo about their future,” he said. “The government's incompetence in immigration in the last decade has put people like me in a situation of paying international tuition and fearing deportation every year.”
Some experts suggest that another reason the U.S. admits high numbers of Chinese students is to expose them to American democracy.
“Chinese and Russian students always learn a great deal about American democracy and other aspects of our society when they come here, and they take that knowledge back home with them,” wrote former Ambassador William A. Rugh in American Diplomacy in August 2020.
“Exposure to our ‘soft power’ has more impact on them than any imagined negative impact they might have on Americans,” wrote Rugh, who served as a U.S. foreign service officer from 1964 to 1995.
Critics, however, see allowing a large Chinese student presence as enabling espionage and the theft of U.S. intellectual property, especially in technology and medical research.
In June, a bipartisan bill, the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, was introduced in the U.S. Senate. The legislation aims to prevent foreign competitors such as China from stealing intellectual property developed at U.S. colleges and universities by mandating additional scrutiny of applications for U.S. visas as well as federal research grants.