Biden lifts COVID-19 travel restrictions for Chinese students, providing a lifeline to U.S. colleges

On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced it would lift a pandemic-era travel restriction that prohibited Chinese students from entering the U.S., potentially providing a much-needed financial injection for U.S. colleges. But ongoing political tensions between China and the U.S. that predate COVID-19 may mean Chinese students are less willing to study in the U.S. than in past years.

“Students seeking to commence studies in the fall [from] countries affected by a geographic COVID-19 restriction may now qualify for a National Interest Exception. This includes qualified applicants who have been present in Brazil, China, Iran, or South Africa,” the State Department said in a statement.

The Trump administration imposed a travel ban on students entering the U.S. from China in January 2020, as the pandemic began to spread from Wuhan. Chinese students ordinarily account for the largest share of international students at U.S. higher-ed institutions, claiming 35% of international seats in the 2019–20 academic year. But visa restrictions, as well as the closure of U.S. consulates overseas, roadblocked the application process.

Data from the U.S. State Department shows the administration granted just 808 visas to students from mainland China in the six months through to September 2020—a 99% decline from the same period in 2019.

Travel restrictions enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly accounted for most of the decline in Chinese F-1 visas, although the 99% drop-off was steeper than the percentage decline for international students from other regions. The U.S. granted 88% fewer student visas to applicants from India, for example.

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Chinese student enrollment in U.S. universities started to decline even before the pandemic, as the Trump administration increased scrutiny of Chinese F-1 visa applications. In 2019, Chinese enrollments in the U.S. dropped roughly 1% compared with the year before—officially ending a decade of growth. Enrollments declined 2.5% in 2020.

The Trump administration also revoked 1,000 Chinese student visas between June and September of last year, citing the students’ alleged ties to the Chinese military. U.S. officials in the Trump administration reportedly perceived Chinese students as potential “spies” and a threat to U.S. interests—a view still held by some outside observers today.

“When serving as research assistants to top professors or attending professional conferences, [Chinese students] have been in a position to glean information about sensitive scientific and technological developments that they can then forward to the Beijing intelligence apparatus,” Dov S. Zakheim, an adviser to the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, wrote in an op-ed for The Hill last week.

Chinese enrollments generated $15.9 billion for the U.S. economy in 2019, according to International Educational Exchange. Despite the economic benefits generated by Chinese students, the majority of Americans appear opposed to welcoming them. In March, the Pew Research Center reported 55% of U.S. survey respondents supported limiting the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S., even though 80% of respondents said it was “good” for colleges to welcome international students.

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