Chinese enrollment in America: One university’s attempt to create a better system

Society & Culture
Purdue’s first-year international students participate in orientation activities during the August Boiler Gold Rush International program. (Purdue University photo/Rebecca Wilcox)
/ Credit: Purdue’s first-year international students participate in orientation activities during the August Boiler Gold Rush International program. (Purdue University photo/Rebecca Wilcox)

Last week it was reported that the Trump Administration is considering limiting the number of visas issued to mainland Chinese students as part of a larger package of tariffs and trade restrictions.

While details on the proposal and its motivations remain scant, some educators took to Twitter to support limiting visas to Chinese students on the grounds that it would rein in problems associated with the rapid growth in their enrollments at American universities in recent years, including pedagogical challenges in the classroom, self-segregating social “bubbles” that exacerbate alienation and disillusionment, and the financially motivated admission of underqualified (sometimes fraudulent) students. But others argued that restrictions of this sort could devastate financially-reliant universities, and that addressing issues of over-enrollment, student acclimation, and proper screening should come at the university level, not the federal government.

Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana may serve as a case study in self-limiting the number of Chinese students, as its once massive Chinese student population has shrunk by more than 20 percent over the past three years. “It was deliberate,” said Michael Brzezinski, Purdue’s dean of international programs. “It has nothing to do with a bias against China, it’s about having a more diverse international enrollment.”

The number of Chinese college students in the United States has ballooned from 67,000 in 2006 to more than 350,000 today, as an emerging Chinese middle class willing to pay full sticker price for a foreign education has coincided with American universities struggling to make up for drops in state funding and declining domestic student applications. That growth trajectory has been even steeper at schools such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Southern California, Columbia, New York University, Michigan State, the University of California Irvine, and the University of California San Diego, which each now have more than 4,000 students from mainland China.

At its peak in 2014, Purdue was among their ranks, with a Chinese student population of 4,617 — the culmination of four consecutive years in which Chinese students made up more than 62 percent of the school’s incoming international freshmen. But over the past two years, Chinese students have been limited to 34 percent of the international freshman class, and the university’s total Chinese enrollment has subsequently fallen to 3,696.

Brzezinski says an inflection point for the university came after more than 1,300 international freshmen were admitted for the 2011 school year (nearly two-thirds from China) — a 67 percent increase over the previous year. “It was a very challenging time for classrooms, and the campus wasn’t ready,” he said. “I think the classroom dynamics were the biggest issue. Many departments saw many more undergraduates from abroad in their classrooms, and that changed how you form teams and conduct classroom discussions.”

Another concern that arose was the risk of being financially over-reliant on Chinese students and vulnerable to an unexpected economic or political event that reduced applications from the country. The large pool of students from China was also making it easier for them to retreat into all-Chinese “bubbles,” Brzezinski said.  “Students can very easily be insulated by their fellow countrymen,” he added. “Despite efforts by many entities on campus to offer opportunities to engage with the host culture or nationals, not all students will do that. They’ll stay within their comfort zone — they don’t want to get out into a learning zone to engage and learn from others. That’s a challenge for any school that has more than a thousand students from any one nation.”

Caught in a crossfire: Chinese students abroad and the battle for their hearts

Over the past few years, Purdue has started utilizing new admissions software to assess and sort international applicants with the goal of having a more representative international student body that’s roughly one-third from China, one-third from India, and one-third from the rest of the world. “In the past, Purdue cared about diversity, but there was no strategic way of making it happen,” said Bryant Priester, Purdue’s director of international admissions and recruitment. “Applications just came out of the printer and staff read them in order. When the majors are full, we’re done. But with the new software and working with enrollment management and having data, we’ve set more targets.”

But not all universities are in a position to be as selective in achieving international diversity. Purdue usually has around 12,000 international undergraduate applicants from all over the world vying for roughly 1,000 spaces now allotted for them. “There’s no point in [strategically setting international targets] when 80 percent of your applicant pool is from China,” Priester said. “For some schools, that’s all they have. But we can do that when we have more to deal with.”

Furthermore, budget woes — which have hit many universities particularly hard and sent them scrambling to recruit more full-tuition-paying international students — have been less acutely felt at Purdue. Indiana state funding on higher education per student, while dropping nearly 6 percent since the 2008 financial crisis, has fared much better than most regions. Twenty-six states have seen their comparable funding drop by 20 percent or more over the same period. “Do the international student tuition payments help with the bottom line? Of course,” Brzezinski said. “But [Purdue] has always been fortunate to have top leadership that understands that diversity of students is a good thing…They don’t view international students as cash cows.”

Since that 2011 inflection point, Purdue has made changes in how it assesses international students and how it helps acclimate them to American university life. Widespread classroom challenges prompted the university to put more emphasis on the writing and speaking scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), rather than the overall score, which Brzezinski says has led to a “marked decline” in staff complaints about students with insufficient English ability. The same software and data collection that’s enabled better international representation in the students admitted has also enabled Purdue to better recognize patterns of admissions fraud and identify red flags that prompt further scrutiny of an application.

But admissions practices have only been part of the puzzle in addressing issues stemming from the influx of Chinese students. Serving the students once they are admitted has been an even greater challenge. “We missed the boat [in 2011],” Brzezinski said. “But we’ve [since] been very purposeful in how we’ve increased the resources in the international student office, across campus, and invested a lot of money to make sure we as a campus can meet the demands and services [international] students need.”

The university has created or supported a number of initiatives aimed at helping international students better adapt to campus, including faculty training on managing diverse classrooms, volunteer programs that match international students with locals, pre-departure orientation sessions in China, and hiring a Mandarin-speaking psychiatrist. But one of the biggest challenges has been not with international students themselves, but with their American classmates, who are often disinterested in engaging with students from other countries or understanding their divergent viewpoints. This prompted a greater emphasis on study abroad for domestic students and more “intercultural competency” integrated into the curriculum that encourages them to be more empathetic, open, and curious with international classmates.

Brzezinski says these measures have made inroads at addressing growing pains associated with the influx of Chinese students, but he doesn’t believe any university has yet “cracked the nut” of how to successfully make the group feel fully integrated. “I wouldn’t say we have one massive program that is the magic bullet, but we have a lot of boutique programs that are reaching hundreds, but not thousands,” he said. “We’re in a very different spot than we were six or seven years ago, but we still have a long way to go.”

The author of this piece, Eric Fish, was a recent guest on the Sinica Podcast:

Sinica Podcast: The Chinese student experience in America, with Siqi Tu and Eric Fish