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International graduate enrollments are rebounding, but the number of foreign undergrads in the U.S. continues to fall. What’s going on? Plus, a survey unpacks the China Initiative’s impact on scientists, and I open up my reporter’s notebook.

A Tale of Two Trends

Preliminary fall enrollment data shows two very distinct and divergent trends for international undergraduate and graduate students.

International graduate enrollments rebounded sharply post-pandemic, climbing 13 percent after last year’s declines.

But the number of foreign undergraduates continued to slide, declining eight percent from fall 2020, steeper than for any other student group tracked by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The drop compounds last year’s enrollment hit, althought it is smaller — since 2019, international undergraduate enrollment has fallen cumulatively by 21 percent.

How should we interpret these disparate trendlines? A few thoughts:

First, the clearinghouse data makes it difficult to discern how much of the undergraduate downturn is the result of fewer first-time freshmen and how much reflects a continuation of enrollment decreases that started earlier in the pandemic. The center unfortunately lumps international students into a broader “other” category when breaking down freshmen enrollments.

We do know, however, that student-visa issuances in the critical summer months were on par, or even slightly ahead, of pre-pandemic levels. That suggests new enrollments were healthy — although visa totals may include students who were supposed to start in fall 2020 but couldn’t get to the U.S.

The same visa data shows a huge summer surge from one country, India. Through July, the number of visas issued to Indian students was actually 37 percent higher than in the same period in 2019. It’s a good bet many of those visa applicants were graduate students — excluding OPT, 75 percent of Indian students are at the graduate level.

Is a booming India enough to fuel the uptick in graduate enrollments? Maybe. Indian students accounted for almost a quarter of all graduate students in the U.S. in 2019, according to Open Doors.

Another possible explanation for the differing trends is Covid-19’s continuing impact. Some parents of undergrads may still be wary of sending their children to study abroad, whether because of a broader worry about having their children far away or because of specific concerns about the U.S. Graduate students are more likely to make their own decisions about international study.

I ran the enrollment data past international-education expert Rajika Bhandari who pointed out that Covid’s blow to many economies may be contributing to the undergraduate declines. In some parts of the Global South, “a whopping proportion of the middle class (which could have earlier on afforded an overseas education for their child) fell out of the middle class entirely,” Bhandari told me. “I would imagine that this made it very difficult for many families to send their children to the U.S.” Eight in 10 international undergrads relies primarily on personal or family funds to support their education. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that international enrollments reflect overall trends in U.S. higher ed, with graduate numbers increasing and undergrad enrollments underwater. 

The clearinghouse data is as of September 23, and represents about half of all colleges nationwide. I’ll have updates as more information comes in. In the meantime, what do you think is going on? How do these national trends compare to what you’re seeing on your own campus? Drop me a line.

‘A Clear and Distinct Pattern of Profiling’

A federal-government probe of academic espionage is casting a chill among scientists of Chinese descent, with fears of government scrutiny of their research leading many to cut off critical collaboration with colleagues in China.

Those are the findings of a new study by Jenny J. Lee and Xiaojie Li of the University of Arizona, who surveyed nearly 2,000 professors, postdocs, and graduate students at leading American research universities about the China Initiative.

Forty percent of Chinese or Chinese American scientists reported feeling racially profiled by the U.S. government, according to the survey, which was supported by the Council of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans. And half of Chinese scientists — the authors use “Chinese” as shorthand to refer to students and professors of Chinese descent, regardless of nationality — said they felt “considerable fear or anxiety” that they were being “surveilled” by federal authorities. As a result, a quarter of Chinese researchers said they planned to pull back from future projects in China.

By comparison, just 12 percent of non-Chinese researchers expressed concern that they were being watched by the government.

At an event to release the data, Zhengyu Huang, president of the Committee of 100, likened the current situation to “researching while Chinese,” where scientists of Chinese descent are singled out for scrutiny based solely on race or heritage. Lee told me, “there was a clear and distinct pattern of profiling among Chinese scientists.”

Yet, Lee noted there was a recognition of the importance of engaging with China among those surveyed. Overwhelming majorities of both Chinese and non-Chinese scientists said that limiting academic collaboration with China would hurt their own research, their discipline, and U.S. higher education as a whole.

I’ve got more analysis of the findings here. And you can download and read the white paper.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland told lawmakers as a recent U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing that he plans a review of the China Initiative. The official who would conduct that review, Matt Olsen, was just confirmed as assistant attorney general for national security.

More From My Notebook

At the Committee of 100 event, there was a lot of talk about universities’ role in the China Initiative. Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer who has represented researchers accused in the federal investigation, said universities have encouraged professors to expand their research collaborations in China, even leveraging those ties to set up ambitious university-backed programs. But when the FBI or federal-grant agencies begin looking into those relationships, Zeidenberg said institutions can leave individual researchers to bear the scrutiny alone

“Rather than standing behind their professors, they point their fingers and say, it’s him, not us,” he said.

Xiaoxing Xi, a Temple physics professor falsely accused of spying for China during an earlier federal probe, said some colleges are “aiding DOJ in weaponizing non-disclosure” and they “bear the same responsibility for damaging science.”

I dug into how universities’ handle China Initiative charges against their faculty members and the complicated factors that color their decisions. Read more: Two universities. Two China Initiative cases. Two very different responses

One of the cases I focused on was that of Anming Hu, a University of Tennessee professor who lost his job after he was indicted. A federal judge recently acquitted Hu of all charges.

I spoke with a number of members of Tennessee’s Faculty Senate who pressed for his reappointment as well as for a review of university policies. (Tennessee has offered Hu his job back, but he still must regain his skilled-work visa.)

Steven Pei, a University of Houston professor and a co-founder of APA Justice Task Force, which advocates for Asian American scientists, told me it was important that the Tennessee Faculty Senate spoke up. “Chinese faculty can feel too vulnerable,” he said.

His group is encouraging professors from across the country to sign onto a letter from 177 Stanford faculty members to the attorney general, calling for an end to the China Initiative. So far, faculty from Princeton, Temple, and the University of California at Berkeley have sent their own letters.

Still, there may not be a natural constituency to speak out in China Initative cases, even on college campuses. I interviewed Brendan Cantwell, a higher-education professor at Michigan State, about the political context for these cases.

Historically, there hasn’t been as much vocal advocacy around anti-Asian discrimination or racism on campus. And Cantwell noted there is broad skepticism about China, including its influence on colleges, among both lawmakers and the American public. Given the already-deep cultural divides around higher education, China Initiative cases can be a “land mine” for universities, he said.

I also spoke with Steven Kivelson who co-authored the Stanford letter because of the impact he could see the China Initiative was having on his colleagues and graduate students of Chinese descent. Kivelson teaches in physics, where there is a large presence of Chinese talent. But the University of Arizona research suggests that non-Chinese scientists often do not feel personally affected by the government investigations. They may not feel the chill.

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Join the Conversation!

I’ll be moderating a terrific panel, bringing together speakers from Australia, Macau, and the U.S. to discuss the future of global educational partnerships.

Co-sponsored by and the Asia Pacific Association for International Education, the virtual event will be held Wednesday, November 3, at 5 p.m. ET/Thursday, November 4, at 8 a.m. AEDT. It’s free and open to the public, but registration is required

Around the Globe

Higher-ed groups are asking the Biden administration to make clear that proposed changes to public-charge regulations will not affect student-visa applicants. 

Travelers from countries where less than 10 percent of the population is fully vaccinated will be exempt from new U.S. vaccine requirements. But many international students are from countries that don’t meet that standard but where there is not widespread availability.

Pass legislative fixes to a veterans education bill to allow the continued use of international-recruitment agents by Veterans Day, a coalition of associations urged Congress.

The Taliban has backtracked on its decision to appoint its own candidate as chancellor of Kabul University and will instead name a senior academic.

Germany’s education minister is urging universities to scrutinize their cooperation with Confucius Institutes.

A former professor at the Air War College has pleaded guilty to making false statements about his relationship with a government official in China.

A former chief of staff of ICE details allegations of fraud in OPT in a new podcast sponsored by the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes the work program for recent international graduates.

The Gilman Program has released a list of the colleges that have sent the most students abroad on its scholarships over the past two decades.

A global alliance of universities has endorsed a pledge on climate change and sustainability.

New data shows China publishes more scientific papers than any other country in the world.

Looking for the most up-to-date news on international education? Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

And finally…

The pandemic has continued to limit travel. In China, where border controls remain tight, social-media influencers who miss America are finding a way to include a taste of U.S. culture in their posts — by posing in front of the Shanghai Costco.

Some have tagged their posts, “pretending to be in Los Angeles” or “back to the West Coast.”

Melody Reichoff made my day by forwarding this important development. Thanks!

’Til next week —Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.