US students are cooling toward China studies

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BERKELEY, U.S. Early in his presidency, Barack Obama set a goal to vastly increase the number of Americans studying Chinese and taking part in academic programs in China.

Eight years later, Obama is gone and so is much of the academic momentum. Though China looms ever larger in U.S. economic and security concerns, American universities are seeing a decline in enrollment for Chinese language courses and study abroad programs.

Stanford University in California announced in January it would indefinitely suspend its undergraduate program in Beijing as of May. The school’s student newspaper reported that enrollment had fallen by around two-thirds from 2004 to just eight last year.

The number of U.S. students in language courses in China began to rise ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Obama announced the “100,000 Strong” initiative in late 2009 to send more than that number of students in total to China within five years. Although the target was met, enrollment has dwindled since hitting an annual high of 14,887 in the 2011-2012 academic year.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics, for which Beijing National Stadium was built, spurred interest in learning Chinese among American students. (Courtesy of CET Academic Programs)

Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, said: “There has been a marked decline in the number of students studying Chinese at U. Penn, and generally across the country, and also in the number of foreign students studying Chinese in China and elsewhere. The [100,000 Strong] project has had no positive, significant impact on increasing the number of Americans going to China to study Chinese.”

Enrollment in Chinese language programs at the University of Pennsylvania peaked at 1,229 in 2009-2010; the current figure is 725.

It is a similar situation at Williams College in Massachusetts. Sam Crane, professor of political science, said that while his Chinese politics class once attracted 30 to 35 students, only 18 enrolled in the last semester.

Not all programs have seen a decline, however. According to the New York-based Modern Language Association, Chinese language courses at U.S. universities recorded overall enrollment growth of 2% between 2009 and 2013. But this compared with the 50.4% growth seen in 2002-2006.

SOURING VIEWS A key factor in the disappearing momentum is a souring of American views of China in recent years. “There’s a feeling of uneasiness about the deteriorating political situation in China, and in East Asia and Southeast Asia generally,” said Mair. “It’s also students not wanting to spend time in the polluted environment of China, with their parents also having a big say in this.”

Other observers say that many China study programs haven’t evolved with the changing needs of students. “I originally was planning to study abroad in China, but with an electrical engineering major, there were simply too many requirements,” said a first-year graduate student at the University of California, San Diego.

“We need to figure out how to restructure our programs to become more relevant and worthwhile for new realities,” said David Moser, academic director of the CET Beijing Chinese studies and internship program at Beijing’s Capital Normal University. “Students now are strapped for cash, apprehensive about their futures, and very pragmatic and conservative. They want classes and experience that will translate into jobs and CV-building.”

At the same time, however, full-time job opportunities for foreigners are becoming scarcer in China with the economy slowing. Some jobs that foreigners used to fill are being taken by Chinese students returning from their own overseas studies.

“I have gotten the sense that [American students] perceive that economic opportunities in China for recent graduates are not as dynamic as was the case in 2009,” said Williams’ Crane. “Competition from Chinese students, many of whom now have attended high school as well as college in the U.S., and who are comfortably bicultural, has become more acute in the past few years.”

By PAUL MOONEY

Nikkei Asia News

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