In a typical year, more than 1 million students come from all over the world to study at U.S. colleges and universities. They’ve never had more reasons to reconsider. The coronavirus pandemic has brought health concerns, travel restrictions and shifting immigration rules; online classes and social distancing promise a diluted college experience at a full-strength price. Students from Asia, who make up three quarters of foreign nationals on U.S. campuses, have yet another concern. Anti-Asian bias and hate crimes are at an all-time high.
Foreign students contributed an estimated $41 billion to the economy in the 2018-19 academic year, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The intangible benefits to the U.S. are harder to measure but no less real: By one count, more than 60 world leaders attended U.S. schools. Still, America’s near-monopoly on elite higher education is weakening. After 12 years of steady growth, the number of international students in the U.S. plateaued in 2019, Institute of International Education data show. Other countries including the U.K., Canada and Australia are eager to attract students from overseas.
Bloomberg talked to young adults from China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam who changed their minds about attending school in the U.S. this fall, even before COVID-19 clusters started breaking out on campuses from Cambridge to Chapel Hill. Most said they still plan to study abroad eventually — when the outbreak subsides, when the economy improves, when campuses reopen. But the pandemic also made them aware that their plans could change, and change again.
Airi Mishima, 20, Tokyo; Cancelled one year’s study abroad at the University of California, Davis
I’ve lived in Tokyo for a long time. Most of my high school friends also enrolled at Waseda University. I know the world I live in is too small. I thought going abroad could be a way to expand my horizons. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was a freshman, so I thought I would seek my future by seeing and learning from different kinds of people.
The epidemic hit Japan earlier than the U.S. I was worried that the U.S. would close its borders to Japanese people. I told my friend I was definitely going, even if I had to swim the Pacific. But I didn’t think it would last so long. Around mid-April, I began to realize if I get infected in the U.S., I don’t speak English that well, and I don’t know anyone there. That seemed pretty dangerous.
I’d been planning to live alone if I went abroad. I never have, and I’ve always been close to my parents. I wanted to put myself in an environment where I could become more independent. I think I lost that opportunity.
At the beginning, I was just sad. But during the self-quarantine period, I had plenty of time to look into something new. I did some research — now I would like to become a certified public accountant, so I’ve been studying for that.
— As told to Yasutaka Tamura
Alice Chen, 26, Beijing and New York; Deferred MBA at Wharton
I’m paying a lot for an MBA degree — the program will cost me about $240,000 to $250,000 including tuition and living expenses, and I plan to take out a loan. I could learn financial skills cheaper from online courses, but the greater value comes from the opportunity to network with different classmates from all over the world, talk to professors who are at the top of their field.
An MBA experience might not be as ideal right now, so I’m deferring. If I wait a year, the job market might be better when I graduate, especially if there’s a second wave coming on. I came to the U.S. in 2012 as an undergrad and I’ve lived and worked here ever since, but for me to get a green card would be quite hard right now. It would take at least eight or nine years.
My plan is to be back in Beijing this year to work for a tech company. I’ve never really worked in China, so I don’t even know if I can adjust to the work and lifestyle. This year will be a good test. My mom prefers that I stay close to home in China. She's also suggested I look at Singapore because it’s in Asia, or Canada, where immigration is friendlier. I used to not care about politics, but now I have to. Every day there’s a new development, and it’s affecting our lives.
I’m pretty open-minded about my future. If I like my job in China, I might not even need to get an MBA.
— As told to Lulu Chen
Eddy Lin, 23, Taipei, Taiwan; Deferred Master of Laws program at University of Pennsylvania
Our organization promotes young people’s participation in public policy, and most of our ambitions are law-related (Lin is founder of the Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy). I wanted to study in the U.S. because Taiwan uses lots of legal concepts from the U.S., including our concept of human rights and our rules on freedom of speech and media. One of the things our NGO advocates for is lowering Taiwan’s voting age from 20 to 18, which in the U.S. was achieved through constitutional amendment. So I aimed to build up a solid base for research.
But I decided to postpone the plan in May. Pennsylvania is close to New York, and COVID-19 cases were surging. Given how expensive health care is in the U.S. and the dangerous virus situation, my family and I grew concerned. My friends returned from the U.S. and told me the situation there was very serious. Taiwan has successfully contained the virus, so it’s safer and better to stay at home.
Also, it’s not cheap to study in the U.S. There’s no point if courses are held online with limited learning experience and classroom resources. I’ve already paid a deposit of $2,750. The school said in April that can be fully refunded, but I’m not sure whether the policy will change with the COVID situation. The school also said if most classes have to be online next spring, students can continue to postpone their enrolment. So I’ll just wait and see.
— As told to Cindy Wang
Chau Duong, 20, Hanoi, Vietnam; Deferred bachelor degree at Clark University. Major: Biochemistry
My original plan was so perfect. I was about to spend my whole summer doing my research project on amoeba. It would be part of my honors thesis and support my application for Ph.D. programs in cell biology. Now, instead of doing lab work, I’m in Hanoi writing a science blog.
My university provides online courses, but it’s hard to study biochemistry without being in the lab. Meanwhile, the tuition is still the same. I went to the U.S. because it has the most modern facilities, and you’re able to study human-based topics and animals as well. In Vietnam, we only have the facilities to study plants.
I’m scared that I may need to defer the spring semester as well, but I won’t regret putting my health first. I’ve recently thought about applying for Ph.D. programs in other countries, mostly because of the current immigration policies. I’m looking for opportunities in countries that are more welcoming to international students. I have a five-year plan — if it gets interrupted, that’d be bad.
I used to think I’d work in the U.S. after I finished school. But being in this COVID situation, I’m reconsidering. Now I think I’ll come back to Vietnam to contribute to my country’s knowledge.
— As told to Xuan Quynh Nguyen
Clarine Lee, 19, Seoul, South Korea; Deferred freshman year at Carnegie Mellon. Major: Art
I recently graduated from Northfield Mount Hermon boarding school (in Massachusetts) and came back to Seoul due to the pandemic. We had our graduation online. I’d never been to a proper graduation so I didn't really know what I was expecting. But it was good to see all my faculty at the chapel, reading out our names and giving advice. Definitely disappointed I didn’t have a proper goodbye with my friends or anyone I met there.
I’m a more in-person, hands-on learner. I’ve never taken art online, but I think a lot of the inspiration and community lives in the studio when we’re making art with each other, and being in that environment and seeing each other and sharing our struggles. I’ve heard most online art classes give you a deadline for each art piece, then you talk together and then critique. I just felt that that was taking away the core of the experience that I wanted.
And in the back of my and my parents’ minds, there was concern that if I were in Pittsburgh, could I take care of myself and stay healthy? I initially wanted take a gap semester but I couldn’t do that. I paid the tuition, which will be applied next year.
I’ve never been to Pennsylvania. I’ve heard Pittsburgh is a great city. I’m so looking forward to it. I’m doing what I need this year so I can do a better job starting school in 2021.
— As told to Peter Pae
Max Huang, 24, Taipei, Taiwan; Deferred master’s degree in human resources at Purdue University
I want to work in human resources in the U.S. and the Krannert School of Management is the top human resource program in the country. Given the strong career center and academics, I was so excited to start the journey and hoped to equip myself with the tools to land a job in the U.S. after graduating.
It’s all fallen down since COVID-19 spread in the U.S. Taiwan has good control of the virus, so it’s not difficult to decide to stay. Nobody wants to risk getting infected, or graduating into a weak labor market. It’s hard for local students to get a job offer in the U.S. these days, let alone us foreign students, especially with the changing policies from the Trump administration.
Hopefully the U.S. economy will get better next year and they’ll relax any restrictions on foreign students. The U.S. is so strong partly because they import foreign talent, students like us. They get the best people from all over the world. For now, I’m looking for a human resources job here.
— As told to Cindy Wang
(Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.)
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