Amid Uncertain Times, Reassuring Chinese Parents Matters

Speaking at a conference in Singapore this March, a senior member of a US-based education NGO joked that, “In higher ed, Trump has been America’s great gift to the rest of the world.” They had a point: today’s America is a more uncertain environment for international students, and it’s important for universities `to do more to reassure parents.

The Policy Background

While various flashpoints in the US-China trade war have dominated headlines recently, the international higher education community in the US has been eagerly watching news about proposed changes to US visa policies for international students. And policy toward no single country would affect US universities more than those that affect the 360,000 Chinese students studying in America.

The past year offers ample cause for concern for Chinese students and their families. Trump reportedly said in August that “almost every student that comes here from [China] is a spy,” a hamfisted echo of FBI Director Christopher Wray’s warning that whole of Chinese society represented a threat to the United States and that China is “exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have.” This summer, the State Department announced limitations on stay durations for certain STEM majors, a move applauded by Senator Marco Rubio among others. But the bombshell in China dropped in October when the Financial Times broke the story that Stephen Miller, a White House aide associated with the administration’s hardline immigration policies, called on the administration to ban all Chinese students from studying in the US earlier in the year.

What Chinese Parents Hear

After the Miller visa ban story broke, the Chinese internet went haywire with speculation about what this would mean for the quarter million Chinese students in the US and the 100,000+ headed to the US next year as college freshmen. A verified Weibo account with 8 million followers posts an article titled “Will the US limit visas to Chinese students? Will Chinese students be refused to study abroad in the US? Many parents are deeply worried!”

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Last week saw the recent controversy, involving a proposed rule regarding the duration of certain non-immigrant visas, will likewise enhance the perception that America is increasingly hostile towards Chinese students. This newly proposed rule removes the “duration of status” applied to certain non-immigrant visas and replaces it with an unspecified maximum duration determined by the duration of their program with options for extensions. The move is certainly less radical than a ban on an entire sending country, but concern persists that it would dim prospects for post-graduate employment, risk some students inadvertently overstaying their visas, and “would create uncertainty for students and scholars”, according to Bonnie Bissionette, VP for Policy and Practice at NAFSA. Quoted in the Diplomat, Leona Xi, a recent graduate in Beijing, states that she had considered a master’s degree in the U.S. but has now been put off the idea. “I get a little bit nervous because of Trump; I just don’t know what he’s going to do next.”

While no concrete policy has been implemented, stories and examples of proposed legislation are reflected as bad news for Chinese parents interested in sending their children to the US. While the US is still the top destination for study abroad, Chinese parents and students certainly have other Anglophonic options. Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, and Canada are all considerable options to parents and students seeking international education in developed, English-speaking countries. And English-language degrees are increasingly available both abroad and at home.

Chinese parents are frustrated with these newfound political risks for what is an expensive endeavor, as a weakening Chinese Yuan increases the already high cost of tuition at an American university. And their frustration spreads quickly: many people in China get their news from social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo, where one can find stories independently and interestingly written, in contrast to that of China’s bland state-run media. Yet bad information and fake news can spread quickly on Chinese social media, and, for a publisher looking for more clicks, it’s easy to airbrush over the difference between stories about technical adjustments to visa stays and a much more radical ban on Chinese students altogether.

What Can US Universities Do

For US university admission officials, this is certainly a tense time and a contentious issue. Fundamentally, parents in China are more sensitive to uncertainty in the education of their children, more so than parents in the US. And there are good reasons for this. The lingering effects of the one child policy mean that one student is often the future of an entire family. Government centralization and the tight relationship between the media and the state leave little doubt that newly-announced policies will be implemented. The need to extensively prepare for the gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, means that families must commit to study abroad, and changing tracks back to a domestic curriculum is difficult.

For universities in the US, there are things that can be done to reassure parents. Using Chinese social media is helpful to inform parents of recent political developments while reassuring them that the US and their institution will continue to welcome Chinese students, regardless of the rumors they encounter. Below are some points worth emphasizing when these immigration policy questions come up:

  • Proposals to limit or ban student visas unlikely to be implemented. Big policy changes in the US take a significant amount of time, this specific proposal would be reviewed and challenged in US courts. Ending Chinese student visas would likely meet a successful Constitutional challenge and widespread protest among the Asian and Asian-American communities.

  • This proposed rule would limit student visas to the duration of their academic program, not ban Chinese students outright: If a student is doing a 4-year degree, they can legally be in the US for the 4 years specified by their program; it would only be an issue if they overstayed their visa. This rule would define the status of unlawful habitation as staying beyond the duration of a student’s program.

  • Be wary of fake news and gossip and to verify allegations with a trustworthy news source. Encourage them to pay attention to your information channels and be vigilant of illegitimate sources.

  • Tell the story of how your institution welcomes international students: include personal testimonials from students from around the world and how they feel respected, included, welcomed, and immersed in your institution’s environment. Consider approaching the on-campus Chinese student organization for testimonials and including them in your international literature directed towards Chinese applicants.

  • The #YouAreWelcomeHere movement is representative of higher ed: use the hashtag in on social media when relevant.

  • Remind parents that there’s many strong voices supporting foreign students in the US: from mainstream politicians on both sides of the political divide, to your own ISSS staff who advocate for your students’ rights, to the overwhelming majority of your student body, America has many zealous advocates for student mobility and welcoming foreign students to the US.

  • If they are implemented, they will be reversed.  It may be the case that if executive actions harmful to international students were to be implemented in the future, it would be overturned when the Democrats assume leadership, which could be as soon as 2020. All of the current administration’s immigration policies have been bitterly contested by the opposition.

Gavin Newton-TanzerComment