Popular international markets for US higher education: China and India

For decades the United States has remained a top overseas study location for students from China and India. More recently there have been reports of decline in these students’ interest in studying in the US.

Chinese and Indian students accounted for 48 percent of all active international students in the US in 2019, according to the US Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). So, what are some of the issues arising that could cause a problem for US universities recruiting from these countries? More importantly, how can they be overcome?

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The latest figures released by China’s ministry of Education still shows an increasing trend of Chinese students studying overseas - from 285,000 (2010) to 662,000 (2018). Since 2009, China has been the biggest source of international students for American colleges; one in three of the international students in the US are from China. However, it seems that 2020 has marked a slight change in Chinese students’ international study opinions and decisions.

Britain has surpassed the US for the first time as the preferred overseas study destination of Chinese students. According to a report by the Beijing-based New Oriental Education & Technology Group for the annual Report on Chinese Students' Overseas Study, the UK has become the most popular destination for overseas study this year, preferred by 42 percent of the respondents compared to 37 percent preferring the US.


Chinese student opinion on studying in the US

Politics and the covid-19 pandemic has played a large part in the changing views Chinese students have of studying in the US. A BBC article from August 2020 quoted Yingyi Ma, associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University, as saying ‘Chinese students in the US are now "politicised and marginalised at an unprecedented level", as Washington is sending "very unfriendly signals".’ 

Chinese students may be feeling like political tensions between the US and China are overspilling into their experiences of studying in the US; for example the new visa restrictions placed on Chinese students

In July, the South China Morning Post reported on a situation where a student gave up her place at an US Ivy League school last minute to choose a European alternative. Her perception of a string of policies introduced by President Trump, the focus on China as the source of the coronavirus, and the current security situation affected by the Black Lives Matter movement were all cited as affecting her decision.



According to The PIE, India is set to become the largest student market for studying abroad. The predicted growth in international student numbers is thanks to a growing middle class in the country, who are actively looking for opportunities outside of India. This is promising for US universities who have a reputation for high quality international education, particularly in fields like medicine and STEM subjects.

Students from India currently make up the second largest group of international students in the US, behind China; last year their numbers reached 200,000. Similarly to Chinese students, Indian students have some growing concerns that US universities could be affected by.


Indian student opinion on studying in the US

Much of the negative opinion of the US from Indian students is based around the country’s visa processes and requirements. The announcement in July from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement would have seen visas revoked for those taking online classes - a decision that was widely criticized; the policy was eventually amended due to the efforts of the education sector. These visa measures, teamed with the perceived difficulty of applying for a US visa, mean Indian students are increasingly looking to Canada, the UK and Australia as alternatives to the US. It’s believed that these countries could offer better visa terms.

Rumors surrounding the OPT scheme being scrapped are also contributing to making some Indian students reassess their options. The scheme allows STEM graduates to remain in the US for up to 24 months in a related job to their degree, which is a great draw to Indian students looking to widen their career opportunities post-study.


Re-engaging Chinese and Indian students

To overcome the worries Chinese and Indian students have surrounding their experience of higher education in the US, it’s important to address them head on. Explaining your support systems up front to interested students lets them know that an institution will assist them in any future periods of uncertainty or problems that develop.


Visa processes

Be up front with students about the highs and lows of the US visa process, including any purported changes that may affect them in their application or successive semesters. It’s also crucial that prospective students know how likely they are to be offered a visa, and what they need to do to ensure they keep it.

Most importantly, let prospective students know how you can help them. For example, will you remind them of deadlines? Who can they speak to if they’ve been contacted by immigration authorities? What can they do if they are generally concerned about changes to visa policy?


Support systems

For international students it is important to know what support systems are in place to protect them and help them in times of illness, uncertainty, and financial difficulty. Detail the mental health processes for your university, as well as the healthcare costs and rules for your state. 


Racism measures and process

With the Covid-19 pandemic contributing to racism, it's necessary to clearly outline and promote your policies and procedures against racism at your university. Explain what a student should do if they experience or witness racial abuse or discrimination, and what you as an institution promise to do as a result of it being reported.

Of course antiracism should be a constant work in progress for universities; A recent article by doctoral candidate Krishni Metivier at Duke University focuses on three levels (novice, intermediate and advanced) of recommendations universities can take to help close racial gaps in their institutions of higher education. Outlining these ongoing efforts to international students will allow them to see your commitment to making your campus an equal society. For example in light of global events, Oxford University released a statement reaffirming their stance opposing racism against Black and Minority Ethnic people.


US-specific education benefits

The US’ higher education experience is widely perceived as world-leading, but often in a more objective sense. When dealing with international students it’s important to focus on career aspirations and what specific opportunities the US, and your university, can offer them.


Covid-19 adaptation

What does the average day look like at your campus and housing options during the pandemic? Students have many questions and worries surrounding the Covid-19 and its effect on learning environments, access to tutors and academics, and housing arrangements. Consider having an easily accessible Covid-19 FAQ guide on your website to address the common information prospective students are looking for. Enhance this content with images, videos and case studies from students to give an overall picture of what your campus is currently like.


Appeal to parents

Many Chinese and Indian students have their international education funded entirely or in part by family. It’s important that you have content to serve this audience, as well as the students themselves. The current situation with visas and the pandemic mean that parents will also have more questions and concerns over the safety of their child or dependent.


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