How U.S. Immigration Policy Impacts Asian International Students

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  • International students have attended U.S. universities since the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
  • Asian international students — Chinese students in particular — have made up a large percentage of international students in the U.S.
  • Admissions and enrollment waves among Chinese international students have been related to anti-immigration sentiments and policies.
  • These have resulted in a decrease in new international student enrollment since 2017.

International students — students who attend educational programs outside of their home country — represent an important addition to the U.S. higher education landscape, both in terms of the student experience and university revenue.

Historically, U.S. schools have attracted international students for the breadth and rigor of their academic programs, multicultural learning environments, innovative curricula, and for the promise of better career trajectories.

Though international students come from all corners of the globe, Asian international students — particularly those from China — have made up the largest percentage for several decades.

Until now, that is. With changes to a series of U.S. laws and policies and rising tensions between the U.S. and China, universities are noting decreased applications and enrollment figures.

Below, we consider the history of international students attending colleges and universities in the United States. We also take a look at historical admissions trends among Asian international students.

History of International Students Attending U.S. Colleges and Universities

The first students to study abroad in the U.S. have been traced back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

One of the first known international learners was a Chinese student, Yung Wing, who graduated from Yale in 1854. Upon his return to China, Wing convinced the Qing Dynasty to send additional Chinese students to the United States as a way to modernize the country.

But a series of exclusionary immigration policies during the 19th century made America an unattractive destination for Chinese students seeking opportunities. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese nationals from entering the U.S. unless they had family members already residing in the country.

That trend continued into the first half of the 20th century due to racist immigration policies and China's involvement in World War I, World War II, and the Chinese Civil War.

During and after World War I, political tensions reawakened interest in how international education could facilitate positive diplomatic relations between other nations. In 1919, the Institute for International Education was established. By 1921, more than 8,000 international students enrolled in universities across the U.S., 1,440 of them from China.

The Fulbright Program was established two years following World War II to promote international education exchange. By 1949, the U.S. was home to 26,000 international students. That number grew to 135,000 students — primarily from Canada and India — by the late 1960s.

In the 1970s, the U.S. experienced another influx of students, primarily from the oil-rich OPEC countries. Students also came from China due to improved diplomatic relations between the two nations. There were a total of 260,000 international students in the U.S. in 1979. Fifty thousand of those students were from Iran.

By 2000, the total number of international students in the U.S. grew to half a million.

September 11 brought on a dramatic decrease in the number of international students for the first time in almost a century. The event also had a huge impact on U.S. immigration policy, including for international students — there was a massive increase in government monitoring of international students. However, the 2007 recession renewed pressure to recruit more full-fee paying international students.

Since then, U.S. universities have seen steady growth year after year in enrollment among Chinese international students. During the 2019-20 school year, Chinese international students alone accounted for 34.6% of all international students in the United States.

But will the upward trend persist?

Historical Admission Trends for Asian College Students

Although one of the first known international students in the United States was from China, admission trends among Asian college students have changed over time. Importantly, they have not always been dominated by Chinese students specifically.

The earliest known data available on Asian college students is related to a group of 120 male Chinese students who, facilitated by Yung Wing, traveled to the United States in 1872 as part of the Chinese Educational Mission.

While Chinese students did not attend U.S. universities in large numbers for the first half of the 20th century, students from other Asian countries did. At the end of the 1940s, Taiwan, India, and the Philippines were in the top 10 countries sending students to the U.S., comprising 21.6% of all international students.

At the end of the 1970s, Chinese students began studying in the United States at smaller rates than students from other Asian nations. During the 1979-80 school year, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, India, and Thailand were among the top 10 countries to send students to the United States. Students from these five countries totaled 56,000, or 20% of all international students in the United States at the time.

While students continue to study in the U.S. from many Asian nations, China sends more international students to the United States than any other country. Between 1978 and 2000, 220,000 Chinese international students studied in the United States. In 2000 alone, nearly 60,000 Chinese international students studied in the United States.

Just under twenty years later, a historic 372,532 Chinese international students attended college in the United States during the 2019-20 academic year, the largest number ever recorded.

Recent Legislation That Impacts Asian Students

As the history of Asian international students in the United States displays, enrollment trends among international students are often directly related to current events, laws, and regulations. That seems to hold for the decrease universities are beginning to see among their Asian international students.

Indeed, enrollment among new international students has shown decline since 2017. It is difficult not to partly attribute that trend to the racist immigration rhetoric, increased rate of visa denials, and oft-unfounded suspicion of international espionage placed on Chinese international students by Donald Trump's presidency.

COVID-19 only made matters worse. The deadly virus' emergence in China provided plenty of fodder for the Trump Administration to fan the flames of xenophobia among the American public and take that out on Asian international students.

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When colleges across the U.S. were forced to deliver courses online to limit the transmission of COVID-19 on campuses, the Trump administration moved to prevent enrolled international students from entering the country. Many international students who were already in the United States at the time were forced to attend courses in person, or to leave the country and complete online coursework from outside of the U.S. However, most schools provided hybrid courses so that international students could stay in the country.

But Trump's attack on Chinese international students was not limited to supposed COVID-19 policies. In the fall of 2020, the Trump Administration announced that it had revoked visas from 1,000 international students deemed as "high-risk" individuals for supposed ties to the Chinese military.

And while the current Biden administration seems more friendly to international students overall, the damage may have already been done.

Why This Issue Matters for Asian International Students

These policy changes have and will continue to impact Asian international students in both the short and long term.

One of the unignorable impacts on Asian international students is the increased number of anti-Asian hate crimes both on and off campuses before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

New York University, which attracts the largest number of international students each year, reported three separate attacks on Asian students in the last month. The continuance of less than hospitable policies for Asian international students looking to study abroad may also increasingly result in those students looking elsewhere.

The competition to recruit qualified international students remains high among other countries, providing students with multiple location options. As the cost of tuition continues to climb in the United States, countries with lower tuition rates and more welcoming visa policies may become better options for Asian international students.

Rising tuition prices may be particularly important for Chinese international students, as approximately 67% of them pay for college tuition out of pocket in any given year. For the U.S. economy, that's $41 billion at stake.

Conclusion

Immigration policies directly impact international students' access to educational opportunities in the United States.

For Asian international students, those immigration policies are often directly related to negative public sentiments against specific immigrant populations. Deciding to complete an education in the United States can be a question of comfort, safety, or even life and death.

Hate crimes are often committed based on a perceived race. The increasing number of anti-Asian attacks also directly impacts Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. College campuses should make public safety for these and other minority groups a top priority if they wish to continue to attract diverse student populations.