China U

The Most Chinese Schools in America

Here’s where all those Chinese students are going — from New York to Silicon Valley to the American heartland.

Helene Foellinger Auditorium - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - 17 May 2009
Helene Foellinger Auditorium - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - 17 May 2009

In the 1970s, they came from Iran, riding the wave of the oil boom. Then in the first decade of the second millennium, they came from India, filling up graduate programs in business and science. Now, it’s Chinese students who comprise the largest group of international pupils in the United States, buoyed by a growing Chinese middle class that’s willing to pay top dollar for their children’s educations. According to an annual report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), in the 2014-2015 academic year more than 304,000 Chinese students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, an almost five-fold increase from just a decade earlier.

China U. is an FP series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?

This means Chinese students have become a far more visible presence on U.S. campuses. But which ones, exactly? It’s a simple question that is surprisingly difficult to answer — there is no complete, publicly available data set that documents the origins of international student populations by school, at every college and university in the United States. Via the Freedom of Information Act, Foreign Policy requested information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which collects statistics on F-1 visas, the most commonly issued student visa, including the students’ countries of origin and which institutions they attend. FP received a complete set of data on the F-1 visas issued in all of 2014 and until late March 2015, which indicated the schools for which each was issued. (FP did not receive this data from DHS until late October.) Those numbers are a strong proxy for the most Chinese campuses in America, and provide an apples-to-apples method to compare them. In the rankings* below, toggle to see school F-1 visa numbers weighted by total (main campus) enrollment; in that regard, Illinois Institute of Technology ranks first.

Rank (by # of visas) School
1 University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 7982 7
2 University of Southern California 7917 6
3 Purdue University 7428 5
4 Northeastern University 7342 2
5 Columbia University 7063 4
6 Michigan State University 6642 12
7 Ohio State University 6134 19
8 University of California, Los Angeles 5740 10
9 Indiana University 5563 14
10 University of California at Berkeley 5543 9
11 New York University 5466 20
12 Pennsylvania State University 5157 16
13 University of Minnesota 4967 24
14 University of Washington Seattle 4755 21
15 Arizona State University 4725 22
16 University of Michigan Ann Arbor 4447 18
17 Boston University 4362 15
18 Illinois Institute of Technology 3957 1
19 Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey 3842 25
20 University of Texas at Dallas 3791 8
21 University of Wisconsin-Madison 3760 23
22 University of California, San Diego 3646 13
23 Carnegie Mellon University 3634 3
24 State University of New York at Stony Brook 3578 11
25 Syracuse University 3534 17

F-1 visas are not a perfect metric. Some international students and scholars come to the United States on visas other than the F-1; others get an F-1 visa, but don’t enroll, or later transfer to another school.

Yet the numbers reveal much. According to DHS data, the campus with the largest number of Chinese students is the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, pictured at top. That campus, part of the University of Illinois system, has worked hard to welcome thousands from mainland China, holding clinics introducing the basics of the sport, and in 2015 initiating Chinese-language broadcasts of football games. (“We have a strong historical relationship with China that goes back more than 100 years,” Reitu Mabokela, Vice-provost for International Affairs and Global Strategies at Illinois, told FP via e-mail.) Other schools with large Chinese student populations are taking similar steps. Purdue University, third on the list, holds pre-departure orientations for students before they even leave China. With thousands of Chinese now enrolled at Indiana University, ranked ninth, the city of Bloomington, host to Indiana University’s main campus, now boasts a new Chinese-language newspaper, the Blooming Times.

Most of the universities in the top 25 are large public institutions, with a few exceptions including Columbia University, Boston University, and Carnegie Mellon University. This is due in part to the large overall student population of the schools, but also perhaps to the more modest tuition at public institutions — Chinese students are often ineligible for federal financial aid. Some public schools, short on cash, actively recruit international students, who typically pay tuition at the higher out-of-state rate.

A look at the geographic distribution of Chinese students studying in the United States indicates that they are likely to attend schools in coastal states and the eastern half of the country. The interactive heat map below shows the locations of the 150 colleges and universities connected to the most F-1 visas for Chinese nationals:

FP also ranked the eight Ivy League schools by Chinese student population. Among the Ivies — a well-known and coveted group of schools even among many everyday Chinese — Columbia University has the largest number of Chinese students. In the ranking below, toggle to see school F-1 visa numbers weighted by total enrollment; on that score, Columbia still ranks first.

Rank (by # of visas) School
1 Columbia University 7063 1
2 Cornell University 3362 2
3 University of Pennsylvania 2981 3
4 Harvard University 1660 8
5 Yale University 1410 4
6 Brown University 817 5
7 Princeton University 603 6
8 Dartmouth College 421 7

Liberal arts and women’s colleges typically have small overall student populations, and thus relatively small numbers of international students. But liberal arts education has become increasingly well known within China, even as domestic institutions have been slow to adopt the practices. That has made U.S. liberal arts colleges an increasingly popular choice among young Chinese. FP has also created a ranking for the Seven Sisters, a loose grouping of historically women’s liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, which now numbers only six, after Radcliffe’s official absorption into Harvard in 1999. (Vassar is now co-ed.) Among the Seven Sisters ranking, below, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts has the most Chinese students, while Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania tops the weighted rankings:

Rank (by # of visas) School
1 Mount Holyoke College 284 2
2 Bryn Mawr College 277 1
3 Smith College 241 3
4 Wellesley College 106 4
5 Vassar College 83 5
6 Barnard College 71 6

Even with such astonishing growth — the Chinese student population has grown almost five-fold in the past decade — it still doesn’t seem to have hit its peak. The 2014-2015 academic year saw a somewhat slower rise than previous years, at 10.8 percent — but still above 10.1 percent, the average growth rate for all international students.

With reporting and writing from Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Alexa Olesen, Shujie Leng, and David Wertime. Graphics by C.K. Hickey.

*Notes on dataF-1 data: For Indiana University, Pennsylvania State University, and Rutgers: DHS data does not differentiate by campus; for University of Wisconsin-Madison: data does not include University of Wisconsin Colleges program; for Arizona State University: data does not include AECP program; for University of California Berkeley, data does not include extension school. Weighted enrollment data: F-1 visa numbers were compared against total final unduplicated 12-month headcount 2013-2014 data via the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Purdue University data for main campus only; Northeastern University data does not include Northeastern Global Network; Columbia University data does not include Teachers’ College; Michigan State University data does not include College of Law; Ohio State University data for main campus only; New York University data does not include polytechnic institute; Indiana University data for Bloomington campus only; Pennsylvania State University data for main campus only; University of Minnesota data for Twin Cities campus only; Arizona State University data for Tempe campus only; University of Michigan data for Ann Arbor campus only; Rutgers data for New Brunswick campus only; University of Wisconsin-Madison data does not include extension school; SUNY-Stony Brook listed as “Stony Brook University.”

Photo credit: JanetandPhil/Flickr/Creative Commons license

Tea Leaf Nation is Foreign Policy's China channel, focusing on internal sentiment and media analysis. Twitter: @tealeafnation

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola