CHAMPAIGN — After a well-publicized drop in Chinese student enrollment at the University of Illinois last fall, applications hit a new record for the coming school year despite travel warnings from the Chinese government and talk of tighter restrictions on U.S. visas.
The UI — home to one of the largest Chinese student populations in the U.S. — received more than 7,000 applications for 2019-20, up from 5,950 last year and 6,728 the year before, according to figures provided by the Office of Admissions.
The number of international freshman applications overall is the highest on record, at 10,876. It had dropped to 9,765 for fall 2018.
It's too soon to say what the final enrollment numbers will be, but "we've seen trends that are much closer to two years ago than last year," said Kevin Pitts, vice provost for undergraduate education.
The UI's numbers dipped last year for the first time in more than a decade, and some higher education officials have predicted that international enrollment at U.S. universities, particularly from China, may plateau after years of rapid growth because of changes in visa policies and other developments.
In an unusual "study abroad alert" last week, China warned students and academics about the risks of studying in the United States, amid a trade war and other tensions between the two countries.
A year ago, the State Department said it planned to limit the duration of visas for Chinese graduate students in some high-tech fields to one year in response to concerns about intellectual property theft.
China's Ministry of Education said last week that some students seeking to study in the United States had encountered problems with visas being limited or refused outright, affecting their ability to complete their studies. It urged students and academics to "strengthen risk assessment before studying abroad, enhance prevention awareness, and make corresponding preparations," according to Reuters.
More than 360,000 Chinese nationals study at U.S. universities each year, a third of all international college students in the U.S., according to the Institute of International Education.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that a survey by the institute found more than 80 percent of colleges and universities that saw international enrollment drop last year also said the visa-application process had helped deter foreign students.
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At the UI, officials say they haven't seen a big problem with students obtaining visas.
"Every once in awhile, we have an individual student who has an issue due to their own situation," but that's always been the case, Pitts said.
"We're watching very closely. For all the bluster that we've heard to date, student visas have been, so far as I can tell ... largely unaffected by this," Pitts said.
Pitts said his first concern will be for students who are already enrolled at the UI. The university has recruits from all over the world, he said, and "once we get them here, we want them to be successful and get a great education and get their degree and go out and do great things."
The university is trying to communicate with students to reassure them that "none of that affects their experience on the ground," Pitts said.
Martin McFarlane, UI director of International Student and Scholar Services, said there has been an increase in "administrative processing" of international student visas over the past year, a catchall term covering any situation where an entry visa is not immediately processed. That can delay continuing students from returning to campus and sometimes cause them to defer studies for a semester.
"It's always been a thing," McFarlane said, and the student may not even get an explanation from the State Department.
The State Department says about 80 percent get resolved within a month, but "there are those 20 percent that take longer, and we have seen an increase in those," McFarlane said, adding that his information is "anecdotal."
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McFarlane, who is in China this week for a one-week orientation for new UI freshmen, said it's too early to see if the proposed policy visa changes will have any effect on this year's incoming class of Chinese students.
He said there are some misunderstandings about visa policies.
An entry visa is just a ticket into the U.S., and once students are here they have other documents to maintain their status, he said. Even with a one-year entry visa they could legally stay in the U.S. for four years, but they'd have to reapply for another entry visa if they leave the United States, he said.
Before 2012, Chinese students always had one-year entry visas, he said, well after the growth in Chinese enrollment in U.S. universities began.
"To think it's suddenly going to fall off a cliff if we revert back to that is unrealistic," he said.
McFarlane and Pitts also said it's too soon to make any conclusions about long-term international enrollment trends. While other schools saw their numbers drop last year, too, not all did, Pitts said.
And despite last year's decline, the number of applications to the UI was among the highest ever. The UI also admitted fewer international students from its waiting list because of a surge of in-state student enrollment.
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Pitts speculated last year's numbers may have something to do with college rankings.
The UI dropped out of the top 50 in U.S. News & World Report's 2018 rankings, which came out in the fall of 2017 just as application season was starting. The UI slipped from No. 44 to No. 52, though it was just behind six other schools tied at No. 46. UI officials blamed the state's budget stalemate.
The 2019 rankings, published last September as students were applying for the 2019-20 school year, had the UI back up at No. 46.
Southeast Asian countries put a disproportionately large emphasis on rankings, Pitts said.
Two new UI graduate students from China who just arrived last week, Denis Li and Daniel Liu, said rankings are important to Chinese students — and even moreso to their parents.
The students said they were attracted to the UI by the strength and reputation of the Gies College of Business. Liu, 23, is in the master's program in accountancy, and Li, 21, is getting a master's in technology management. Both earned their undergraduate degrees in China, finishing a month early — and missing graduation — so they could start their classes this week at the UI.
"The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a very famous university. It has a very high ranking," said Li, who was accepted by five other schools. "It's a nice thing for my career and for my life."
Liu, who hopes to be an accounting professor someday, said the accounting program at the UI is one of the best in the world.
"All the faculty and staff here genuinely care about students," Liu said, and Li agreed.
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Neither student said they had any issues with their visas.
But Li said he knew of a computer science student who planned to work in artificial intelligence whose visa was not approved.
They were more concerned about the exchange rate between the dollar and the Chinese yuan, which has made their everyday expenses — and their tuition bill due on June 28 — more expensive. Even a small change for a $50,000 tuition bill is significant, they said.
McFarlane said his office is getting more questions from students about whether they should travel and what documents they need.
"All we can do is advise about what the current legal situation is, and remind them there's always a risk with international travel," including under past U.S. administrations, he said.
At this week's orientation programs in China, McFarlane is prepared to take questions about visa restrictions and related issues.
But he finds that students and parents tend to be more interested in the same kinds of issues that families anywhere in the world care about: Will my child going to be safe? Will they get the classes they need?
Through the years
Freshman applications from international students for the University of Illinois dropped slightly last fall for the first time in more than a decade but are up again for next fall's class. Here's a look at the last five years, according to the UI Office of Admissions:
|Year||Int'l applications||Int'l enrolled*||China applications+||China enrolled*+|
* — About 25 percent come from U.S. high schools.
+ — The number admitted fluctuates depending on in-state enrollment and other factors.