“Is it safe living in the US now? Safety has always been my biggest concern.” The mom of one of my students kept asking me some version of the same question for months.

Their son was admitted to the Darlington School in Georgia for the fall of 2021-2022, but now the mom was hesitating about sending her son over because of COVID-19 and hate crimes.

“I thought US education would be a ticket to land a job and start my life here. But now I have no idea whether I will be able to work in the US after graduation because of the visa policies and US-China relations. More than ever, I feel very insecure and uncertain now about my future. I am thinking about applying for a master’s program in the UK.” Kevin, who is doing his undergraduate studies at UPenn, told me.

“I am passionate about studying materials and MIT has always been tops on my list. I plan to go to the US for boarding school to increase my competitiveness for college applications. But now I may just go to an international school in Beijing and then apply for universities in the UK or Canada because the US government may not allow me to study what I am interested in. I don’t want to risk all the time and money.” One of my prospective clients shared with me his thoughts. 

I have been an independent education professional for more than 12 years. I have always worked with Chinese students who aspire to study abroad, mostly in the United States. I have never heard so many worries regarding visas, safety, and future employment. If you also work with Chinese students and parents at this moment, you may understand what I mean. Overwhelmed by all the concerns and anxieties manifested by Chinese parents and students, I can’t help wondering:

  • What exactly is the trend for Chinese students studying abroad?
  • Is the United States still their favored destination?
  •  How many of them are giving up on studying abroad given current global relations and COVID-19?
  • Will they adjust their thinking faced with these overseas realities? And if so, how?

To find answers to these questions, I did some research and conducted interviews. Let’s look first at some data. The United States has always been the top destination for Chinese students, who make up the largest group of international students studying in this country. Data show that in 2018, Chinese student enrollment contributed almost $15 billion to the US economy. Between 2009 and 2019, the population of Chinese international students surged from 127,628 to 369,548. However, since President Trump took office, these yearly increases started to level off and slowed to 1.7 percent between 2018 and 2019. Since COVID-19, various factors further dampened the appeal of American education. Parents and students are worried about the visa application process/delay/denial, the social and political environment, and safety and employment after graduation. In general, the entire atmosphere in the United States makes Asian students, especially Chinese students, feel unwelcome and unsafe. 

Do these and other disquieting issues mean Chinese students are giving up on studying abroad in general? Let’s continue with numbers. The latest report by QS, an international higher education network, shows only four percent of surveyed Chinese students canceled their study abroad plans because of COVID-19. As the US loses its appeal to Chinese students due to myriad factors, the solid demand for overseas education from China has created a huge market opportunity for other countries. According to data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the UK has apparently become one of the biggest winners this year. Chinese applicants to 2020 fall programs in the UK by July had actually surged by 30 percent. For fall 2021, the trend is only heading up. The US global dominance in higher education is facing historic challenges now. Institutions in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have also seen similar strong growth patterns among their Chinese applicants. 

“I aspired to go to the US for college while entering high school, but given the complicated situation there, I actually put seven universities in both Canada and the UK on my application list. I finally decided to accept an offer from the University of Toronto even though I was also admitted to UCLA.” 

We can see from the shift that Chinese students’ ambition for studying abroad remains strong even though they face many obstacles and uncertainties. But of course, they would weigh pros and cons while deciding their destination countries. After all, they have clear goals in their pursuit of these opportunities and want their gains to justify not only the risks involved but also the exorbitant tuition fees and costs associated with this undertaking.  

You may be wondering why Chinese families would be so intent on sending their children abroad in the first place. Let’s analyze three reasons behind the ambition. 

The first significant contributing factor is the booming middle class in China. Over the past three to four decades, economic development in China has liberated hundreds of millions of people from poverty, resulting in a rising middle class. Data show that the middle class swelled from 39.1 million people (3.1 percent of the population) in 2000 to roughly 707 million (50.8 percent of the population) in 2018. This amounts to an increase of 47.8 percent. Middle-class families have seen steadily growing yearly income, which allows them the financial opportunity to send their children to study abroad even though the Cost of Attendance is much higher for them than for domestic students and they have very limited access to financial aid and/or scholarships. During the past decade especially, more and more students from middle-class families have flocked overseas for education. The number of outbound students climbed from about 285,000 in 2010 to over 662,000 in 2018, according to official statistics.

The second reason is the pursuit of “quality education.” According to Hurun’s research, 83 percent of Chinese High Net Worth families see “quality of education” as the most important reason for sending their kids abroad. These aspirational wealthy middle-class parents are not satisfied with the country’s test-centric educational system. Gaokao results (Chinese college entrance examination) are the only criteria that determine which universities their kids can enter. Even though many of these parents succeeded in the Gaokao system and changed their destinies accordingly, they view this type of education or pedagogy as suppressing creativity and critical thinking. They hate the idea of having their kids suffer the pressure from ruthless competition only to become excellent test-takers. They aspire to liberate their kids from the system and provide them with platforms to receive a more well-rounded education. 

“I sent my daughter to this top high school in Beijing for better education. But over the past two years, I have witnessed my daughter suffer from overwhelmingly intense peer pressure. The only goal for students at this school is to get higher scores and enter top universities in China. My daughter has no time for extracurricular activities at all. She is just not happy and even getting depressed. I am giving up now. I have to send her abroad and educate her to be a better person instead of a better test-taker.” Those words may sound familiar to you if you too work with Chinese clients.

The lesser known but equally important reason behind their thinking is the Hukou system. In China, students can only access public education in areas where they register their hukou. It was estimated that there were 286 million rural migrant workers in China in 2020, comprising more than one-third of the entire working population. Migrant workers have been the engine of China’s spectacular economic growth over the last three decades but in reality, they and their children are subject to institutionalized discrimination because of the hukou. 

In order to attend public school, many migrant students stay behind in their hometowns, where their hukou was originally registered, and live with their grandparents. Their parents routinely have to reside in cities to maintain lucrative employment and make money. Another option for migrant students is to go to private schools, but there they must pay much higher tuition fees. Even so, they still must return to their hometowns to take college entrance examinations due to the hukou policy and restrictions. Therein a significant challenge arises. Due to real disparities in regional education and resources, some provinces have localized the college entrance examinations to reflect the education offered in the area. This has created additional barriers for migrant students who attend high schools in another province but have to take college entrance examinations where they have their hukou registered. Consequently, those students may have lower chances of being admitted to top universities in China. This complicated social issue indeed leaves many rural migrant parents no choice. 

What about migrant workers who are not from rural areas? They migrate from one city to another city for a better living environment and career opportunities. They are actually among the rising middle class. They are well-educated and affluent. And yet, because of the hukou system, their children cannot have equal access to the best local public schools. What should they do? Are they going to surrender to the system? The answer is no. As long as they do not have too much financial pressure and their kids are able to meet the requirements of studying overseas, they will usually choose to send their kids abroad for better educational options. Many of them even send their kids to secondary schools overseas. On top of that, the booming presence of international schools in China reflects the middle class’s aspirations to avail their children of a more child-centered, less test-dominant learning experience. So, the root reasons to study abroad never fade away completely from their minds since almost all of the Chinese students attending Chinese international schools at home will aim to pursue their college educations overseas.

By Jing Li, MEd, IECA Associate (MA)

Jing Li, Chengsilixue International Education Consulting Company, can be reached at [email protected]