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.
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.
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.
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.
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.