The number of foreign students at U.S. colleges hit an all-time high of 1,095,299, with Chinese students accounting for a record of 34 percent of all foreign students.
The 2019 “Open Doors Report“ details that during the Obama administration for academic years from 2009/2010 through 2016/2017, the number of foreign students from China nearly quadrupled from 98,251 to 350,755. During the same period of surging Chinese attendance, the number of U.S. students attending Chinese colleges fell by 13 percent from 13,674 to 11,910.
In 2018/2019, China for the tenth year in a row remained by far the largest source of international students with 369,548 enrolled in undergraduate, graduate, non-degree, and optional practical training (OPT) programs in the United States.
India was a distant second source for international students with 202,014; followed by South Korea with 52,250; Saudi Arabia with 37,080 and Canada with 26,122.
Emerging market countries showed the strongest enrollment growth with Bangladesh up 10.0 percent; Brazil up 9.8 percent; Nigeria up 5.8 percent, and Pakistan up 5.6 percent.
51.6 percent of foreign students pursued science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors. The top focus for international study in the 2018/19 academic year was engineering with 21.1 percent of all foreign students. The fastest growing STEM majors for foreign students were math and computer science programs that grew by 9.4 percent to surpass business and management for the first time and move into second-place for international student study.
The Obama administration in its last year expanded the optional practical training (OPT) from twelve to 24 months. The program offers foreign STEM majors who have completed their degrees the equivalent of a “green card” to work in the United States. As a result, foreign student enrollment grew by 6.6 percent to a record 70,037.
OPT has been controversial as it encourages tech companies to dump citizen employees in favor of cheap foreign labor. But OPT has recently come under fire as a vehicle for Chinese spies to penetrate U.S. corporations to steal intellectual property and commit espionage.
According to a July 2019 fraud indictment by a federal grand jury in Chicago, Chinese national Ji Chaoqun, who studied engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, secretly worked for a Chinese spy agency that wanted to steal trade secrets from U.S. aerospace companies.
While staying in the United States under an OPT visa, Ji gathered biographical information for recruitment of eight key Chinese and Taiwanese nationals working as scientists and engineers for large U.S. aerospace and defense contractors.
An FBI national security investigation foiled the plot and led to Ji’s arrest. It also led to the arrest of Ji’s handler, a senior intelligence officer in China’s main spy agency who was extradited to the United States last year for criminal prosecution. It is the first time a Chinese spy has been brought to the United States to face charges.
Chicago U.S. Attorney John Lausch warned of the risks from OPT: “You have an individual who is here in the U.S. on a visa and stays afterward, and he’s being used as a source of information to an intelligence officer back in China.”
Chriss Street is an expert in macroeconomics, technology, and national security. He has served as CEO of several companies and is an active writer with more than 1,500 publications. He also regularly provides strategy lectures to graduate students at top Southern California universities.