Three Decades of
Chinese Students in America, 1991-2021

By Madelyn Ross, Harris Doshay, and Young Yang

Survey Design, Data Analysis, and Data Visualization by Trenton Marsolek, and Young Yang

This report is a collaboration between the US China Education Trust in Washington, DC, and the 21st Century China Center’s China Data Lab at UC San Diego. Below is the report overview. Click on Parts I,II, III, and IV below for detailed analysis of our four key questions in this report.

The number of international students coming from China to America has risen dramatically over the years. Since the first students from the People’s Republic of China came to the United States in the late 1970s, more than 3 million Chinese international students 1 have studied in the U.S. In recent years, however, rising tensions in U.S.-China relations and pandemic controls have slowed and then reversed student flows. The future is uncertain.

The changing profile and experiences of this large group of former students are poorly understood. To address this gap, the US-China Education Trust (USCET) conducted a survey of former Chinese international students in late 2022/early 2023, and the China Data Lab at UC San Diego’s 21st Century China Center consulted on survey design, analyzed the survey data, and co-authored this report. The goal of this joint effort is to add to our understanding of this important population, counter stereotypes, encourage dialogue, and further research by providing a fuller picture of this critical group of students over the years.

Source: IIE Open Doors,
Note: Total count includes undergraduate students, graduate students, OPT, and non-degree students.
Figure 1. Chinese International Students in America 1985-2023

Summary: Four Questions and Ten Takeaways (Click For Details)

This report examines critical aspects of Chinese international students’ experience by posing four questions — each of the links below leads to analysis, visual data, and key takeaways related to each question.

While a survey of this scope does not lend itself to simple or definitive conclusions, we were able to capture a wide range of Chinese international students’ experiences over time and to compare and contrast these with observable trends among the wider student population as well as between different subsets of respondents. The findings below represent the key takeaways explored in more detail through the four parts of this report.

  • Seeking a quality education tops the reasons why Chinese students come to America
  • Merit scholarships attract most Chinese international students, while Chinese government support has been negligible
  • Chinese students’ integration into U.S. campus life is changing, but not in one direction
  • Chinese international students now get most of their news from social media, drawing on both Chinese and American sources
  • Chinese international students feel caught between a rock and a hard place when discussing politics
  • Chinese students report more experiences of discrimination over time
  • A majority of students from China find Americans friendly and welcoming, but many still feel distant from American society
  • Traveling in America while studying in the U.S. makes fond memories
  • A large majority of Chinese international students would do it over again if given the choice
  • Significant numbers of Chinese international students stay connected to their U.S. schools and friends after graduation

Survey Scope

This anonymous survey is, to our knowledge, unique in its broad scope and timeframe. In contrast to most studies of Chinese students in America, which focus on current students or recent graduates from particular universities, this survey covers former graduate and undergraduate students from universities across the country, including those who remained in the United States and those who returned to China. All respondents were individuals originally from China who completed a college or graduate degree in America between 1991 and 2021. The broad scope of the survey allows us to discern longer-term patterns and changes in the students’ experiences.

The profile of Chinese international students in America has undergone major shifts over the decades. To better understand these changes, we divided respondents into three cohorts based on larger societal trends impacting the composition of the group.

  • The first cohort graduated from U.S. institutions between 1991 and 2003, and consisted primarily of individuals who came to America to pursue graduate degrees, relying on external financial support.
  • The second cohort graduated between 2004 and 2015, a time when the number of Chinese international students in the U.S. rose steeply. Self-financed undergraduate students from China’s growing middle class were the fastest growing segment.
  • The third cohort completed their degrees in the U.S. between 2016 and 2021, in a period when tensions between the two nations were steadily rising. The annual increases in student numbers began to slow and then reversed in these years.

Some 38 percent of our sample belong to the first cohort, 35 percent to the second, and 27 percent to the third. The demographic data on survey respondents in Figure 2 can be sorted by cohort and other characteristics.

Figure 2. Demographic Data on Survey Respondents

Other Links

Authors and Contributors

Madelyn Ross, President of the US-China Education Trust. She has worked for more than 30 years in China-related positions at US universities and non-profits. Her research interests focus on higher education links between the US and China.

Harris Doshay, Assistant Director of Research and Writing, 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. His research focuses on religion and civil society in the PRC.

Young Yang, Research Data Analyst, China Data Lab at the 21st Century China Center, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. His research explores how the convergence of emerging information technologies with government and platform policies affects the decision-making processes of individuals and organizations.

Trenton Marsolek, Programs Manager, US-China Business Council. He previously worked as program manager the US-China Education Trust, where he managed the 2022/23 Survey of Chinese Student Experiences.

1. In this report, the terms “Chinese international students” and “Chinese students” refer exclusively to students from the PRC and not to other ethnically Chinese students.

Click on the photo boxes below or the links in grey boxes throughout the text to explore the four questions posed in this report.