A U.S. student who studies at Soochow University learn to make mooncakes with primary school children on Sept 15, 2020, in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. (Hua Xuegen/for China Daily)
The number of students from the United States heading to China to study is likely to increase in the years to come due to their sustained interest in the country, a U.S. State Department official said, as both Washington and Beijing agreed to ramp up people-to-people exchanges.
"We know there is continued interest of American students in learning about China, we are confident that interest will continue," Marianne Craven, acting deputy assistant secretary for academic program at the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said on Thursday.
The official made the remarks at a media briefing for the launch of the Open Doors 2023 Report on International Educational Exchange, that was released by the bureau and the Institute of International Education (IIE) on Monday.
In 2021-22, the number of U.S. students studying abroad for academic credit totaled 188,753. Three quarters of the students chose to study in Europe, and only 4.7 percent, or 8,892 students, headed to Asia, according to the report.
During the same period, there were 211 U.S. students pursuing academic credit in the Chinese mainland, the lowest number in a decade.
The situation has caught the attention of U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, who has called for bringing more U.S. students to China.
After a recent meeting with Wesleyan University President Michael Roth, who was in Beijing and Shanghai to recruit prospective students and meet alumni members, Burns wrote on social media on Oct 26: "We discussed the importance of (U.S.) universities, students, scholars returning to (China). There are currently only roughly 350 American students in China, compared to more than 11,500 in 2019."
In an online discussion with the Stimson Center on May 2, Burns confided that his "only personal goal" was to learn Mandarin, and he encouraged more Americans to do so.
"Despite the fact that our administration has really focused on the competitive aspects in large measure in our relationship, we do want to see students travel back and forth; we ought to want to see young Americans learning Mandarin, learning the culture and history of this country," he said.
At Thursday's briefing, Craven revisited the ambassador's remarks, saying, "We certainly concur."
Mirka Martel, head of research, evaluation &learning at IIE, said the COVID-19 pandemic had affected the number of U.S. students studying in China.
"But we do note that as travel restrictions have lifted and as travel is again available, that we likely may see that U.S. students will continue to go to China for their study abroad experiences," Mirka said.
She said that the interest of the U.S. students in pursuing studies in China "has been there in the past".
"This is quite different from the numbers we had before the pandemic. Before the pandemic, we had robust numbers of U.S. students studying in China," she said.
For example, in the 2016-17 academic year, close to 12,000 students were in China and nearly 15,000 American students were there back in 2011-12.
"That interest is not going to go away," Allan Goodman, chief executive officer of IIE, said.
With tensions between China and the U.S. showing signs of easing in recent months following a series of high-level engagements, more government support for studying abroad in each other's country can be expected.
During their meeting late last month in Washington, DC, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the importance of ties between the two peoples, and both sides welcomed strengthening people-to-people exchanges between students, scholars, and businesses, including working to increase the number of direct flights between the two countries, an official readout said.
China, with 289,526 students studying in the U.S., remained the leading place of origin for international students in the U.S. in the 2022-23 academic year, accounting for 27.4 percent of the total number of international students, according to the Open Doors report.
It said the number of students coming from China has fallen in the last three years predominantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overall, the U.S. hosted more than 1 million international students during the 2022-23 academic year, a 12 percent increase compared to the previous academic year, the fastest growth rate in more than 40 years, according to the Open Doors report.
It said the number of international students who enrolled for the first time in a U.S. college or university during the 2022-23 academic year increased by 14 percent year-on-year to 298,523, building on the 80 percent increase in the prior year.
International students accounted for 6 percent of the total U.S. higher education population and contributed nearly $38 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.