MSU is a diverse university that hosts 6,260 international students from 140 countries. Such a variety of students impacts the university and community economically, socially and culturally.
However, according to statistical reports from MSU Office for International Students and Scholars, or OISS, fall enrollment numbers for international students have been decreasing since 2015. Among international students groups, the number of Chinese students, the largest international student demographic, has been falling as well.
In fall 2015, there were 4,700 Chinese international students attending MSU, making up 62.1 percent of the international student population. International student enrollment grew 28.3 percent over the previous five years, according to the report.
However, the population started to decline in the following years. In fall 2018, there were 3,688 Chinese international students enrolled at MSU.
OISS Assistant Director Elizabeth Matthews said there are a lot of factors that might impact the decline, especially for Chinese students. For example, U.S. policies, such as changes to visa policies.
“I don't think it helps that President Trump said over the summer that he was considering not allowing Chinese students to study here at all, statements or tweets that say that Chinese students are all spies,” Matthews said. “Those things don't help.”
Despite China having the biggest portion of international students in the U.S. during the 2016-2017 academic years, the U.S. considered banning Chinese international student visas, but didn’t because of other concerns, according to an article from Financial Times.
Parents in China are concerned about Trump’s comments, Matthews said.
International Relations senior Carl Ford II is a domestic student from Southfield, Michigan. In three years working for the OISS at the front desk, he has witnessed the decline in international students.
“We've definitely seen the numbers decline,” Ford said. “Even just generally walking around, interacting with international students, you can see that there's a very obvious decline in international students, especially from China.”
Ford had much to say about Trump’s comments on Chinese students.
“It's so inflammatory to put a blanket term on everybody like that,” Ford said. “I mean, that has no place in a country that prides itself on inclusion. He's affected a lot of the perceptions of internationals in the U.S.”
Ford said it’s wrong to question people based on how they look and Trump’s comments have normalized this.
“Now it's like a lot of people in his base, they're suspicious of Chinese people: 'are they a spy?' Or they'll have the feeling like, ‘oh, they're Arabic. Are they a terrorist?’ They have a lot of these preconceived notions and he's validated people like this,” Ford said.
Another possible reason for the decline might be the rising cost of tuition, according to Ford.
“I mean whether it's domestic students in-state or out-of-state and especially international students, college has become really only affordable to the elite,” he said.
According to a bar chart from U.S. News, tuition in all U.S. private, in-state and out-of-state colleges are increasing steadily since 1998.
At MSU, an in-state freshman's tuition and fees for 12-18 credits per semester is $14,522, out-state is $39,827 and a international student would pay $41,327, which is about 2.85 times an in-state freshman's costs.
“I know that it's very difficult to get major scholarships (for) international students, so funding (for) a lot of people, it's not an option,” Ford said.
Journalism graduate student Crystal Chen attended MSU in fall 2017. With a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Shanghai Maritime University in China, Chen came to the U.S. for more opportunities.
“One of the reasons I applied to universities in the U.S. is because my undergraduate university didn't allow me to change my major and it also didn't have a media kind of major,” she said.
Though she was very shy when she first came to MSU, Chen is now working at a local TV station and interns at the OISS to manage its WeChat platform.
In 2018, the Larry Nassar scandal news exploded on campus, affecting MSU’s public image.
Chen’s dad read about the Larry Nassar case and talked about it in Chen’s family WeChat group.
“I think some parents will pay attention to the updates of the case and they might become worried,” Chen said. “I think it will have (an) impact on their decisions because for Chinese students and Chinese parents, they have a lot of choices (for) which university they want their kids to go to.”
“I think that a lot of students, when they're abroad and they're looking for schools and the first thing that comes up when they search MSU, they see the sexual harassment scandals, I think that affects whether they apply or not,” according to Ford.
Physics freshman Lesheng Zeng is a international student from China. Zeng knew Nassar’s case from Chinese television before he made the decision to study at MSU.
Zeng said it is a serious problem, but explained why he chose MSU.
“So the academic and educational quality is the first thing I (would) consider, and the second thing is the facility or the equipment or opportunities for the future career, ... the most important thing is the security,” according to him.
“Maybe I would focus more of my attention on the criminal part and the gun control,” he said.
Education freshman Shengan Wang is a Chinese international student. He heard discussion about the case during the International Academic Orientation Program, or IAOP.
Wang said if there are two similar universities from all other aspects for a student, MSU might become the second choice because of the case.
“For me personally, it wouldn't have a great impact on me because I chose the education major, a very excellent major at MSU. And it's ranking in the world is pretty high,” according to him.
Every summer OISS hosts a pre-departure program in Beijing and Shanghai, China to welcome and answer questions from parents and students. There, families can join a group on WeChat, a Chinese social media app, to maintain communication with OISS staffers who know Chinese to seek more assistance in the future.
“I do not believe that Nassar has much to do with the decline at MSU,” Matthews said in a email. “It was not a topic parents asked about at pre-departure, on WeChat with us, or during international parent orientation.”
Some students told Matthews that the news was mentioned in China but the attribution was a “a doctor who happened to work at MSU” instead of relating closely to MSU as an institution.
Parents tended to ask more questions about safety: guns, school shootings and public shootings, according to Matthews.
“If anything, I’d say that guns/safety, increasing difficulties in getting F-1 visas for Chinese students, and Trump’s rhetoric regarding Chinese students as spies and musing about not allowing Chinese students to study in the U.S. are probably some of the primary causes for a decrease in enrollment of new undergrads from China,” Matthews said. “But that’s only my speculation. I don’t have hard data to back this up.”
OISS Educational Programs Manager Amber Cordell is the orientation coordinator for new international students. According to her, at least 50 percent of the orientation leaders she hires are Chinese.
There were 4157 Chinese international students enrolled at MSU in 2017, when Cordell started to feel the decline’s impact.
“As I was planning the orientation and (asking) 'How many small groups should I make, how many leaders should I hire, how many classrooms do I need to reserve and how many auditoriums do we need?' That was the first time I really realized ‘Whoa, I don't need so many leaders and we don't need so many classrooms because we have less students,’” she said.
In the past, Cordell would hire about 150 orientation leaders. This year, she only had 102. When she assigned groups, there would be 25 people per some groups, but this year, it became about 15 to 20 per group.
While statistics show a decline in Chinese international students, there are still a lot on campus, according to Chen.
“During the IAOP, I saw the majority of the upcoming freshmen are Chinese students,” she said.
The decline has not just happened in MSU, but through the whole U.S.
According to data from Inside Higher Ed, international student enrollment fell by 6.6 percent at American universities in the 2017-2018 academic year.
Matthews said the decline is bad for U.S. higher education economically, but it’s good for the world.
“We've been talking as a country, within international education, about how someday we won't have as many Chinese undergrads coming because of population, economics, the growth of educational opportunities within China, the growth of higher educational opportunities elsewhere in the world,” she said. “ The pie is much bigger now, I suppose you could say.”
“And so the U.S. is going to have smaller and smaller pieces of the pie because the rest of the world is developing excellent higher educational opportunities. And that's not a bad thing.”
According to an analysis from NAFSA, 1,094,792 international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $39 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 455,622 jobs during the 2017-2018 academic year.
“I don't like it when people just talk about international Chinese students like they are money,” Cordell said. “I don't like when people kind of boil students down to 'this is how much money they contribute.' But the truth is that international students contribute billions of dollars.”
International students (58.9% Chinese in fall 2018) at MSU contribute $324.5 million to the local economy through spending on education, housing, dining, retail, transportation, telecommunications and health care. This economic impact supports 4,675 jobs in the Greater Lansing area, according to the OISS’ 2018 fall report.
Cordell said the loss of international students would not only impact the community from a perspective of apartments, restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters and car dealerships, but also in the classroom.
“I think Chinese students can share their perspectives,” she said. “They can broaden people's minds, whether that's a roommate or a classmate or someone in a club together. And so I think when we have fewer Chinese students, that's fewer people sharing their culture and their perspectives.”
Cordell said it’s important to include diversity among international students.
“I think it would be more advantageous to MSU if we had not just students from 140 countries but more students from those 140 countries to have more diversity,” she said.