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China’s economic crisis has local colleges on edge

Incoming Boston University freshman Michelle Lo, 18, of Hong Kong, hopes to finish her degree early because of concerns about China’s economy.
Incoming Boston University freshman Michelle Lo, 18, of Hong Kong, hopes to finish her degree early because of concerns about China’s economy.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The slumping Chinese economy is not only startling US stock traders; it is also causing jitters among another group close to home: admissions officers at local colleges.

Many universities in Greater Boston, and across the country, in the past five years have come to depend heavily on tuition revenue from international students — primarily from China.

As a result, education specialists say, continued economic troubles in that country could have wide-ranging influence on local colleges’ bottom lines if fewer Chinese students can afford to attend.

“Everybody in the higher education world that has a China program and that has counted on Chinese students to fill the coffers and make the bottom line look good is thinking of this,” said Marguerite Dennis, an international student recruitment consultant and former director of international programs at Suffolk University.

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Continued fluctuations in the Chinese stock market, which suffered a rout this summer, could disproportionately affect Greater Boston because there are so many colleges here. The region ranks third among US cities in the number of foreign students, according to a 2014 report by the Institute of International Education.

As of last year, more than 13,000 Chinese students were attending college in Boston, out of a total of 44,000 foreign students in the city. International students last year pumped $1.9 billion into the Massachusetts economy, according to the report. There are more than 275,000 Chinese students studying in the United States.

Chinese students often leave their country after high school, abandoning the country’s rigid education system for the more free-thinking world of US colleges. A degree from a US institution is a mark of pride for many Chinese families.

Local Chinese students expressed worry about their nation’s economy. Some said they plan to hurry their studies.

“It’s going to be hard; it’s going to be stressful,” said Michelle Lo, 18, a Boston University freshman from Hong Kong. She said her father started screaming when the market crashed in August.

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Another BU freshman, Yuanzhu Li, 18, from Shenyang, said she was relieved she paid her tuition and booked her flight before the recent crash.

She wondered: “What will I do if it stays this way?”

Garin Guo,18, from Shanghai, said his parents are hoping to purchase a house in the United States and establish residency so they can open a bank account and avoid the exchange.

“It’s really bad,” he said. “And I’m using a Chinese credit card so this affects me every day.”

Siyi Gu (left), 18, of Hangzhou, and Yuanzhu Li, 18, of Shenyang.
Siyi Gu (left), 18, of Hangzhou, and Yuanzhu Li, 18, of Shenyang.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Officials at BU and Northeastern University, the top two local destinations for international students, said they don’t expect the recent stock market fluctuations to keep any first-year Chinese students from starting school this month, but they are on alert.

“We’re monitoring it very carefully, and we’re reaching out to the students as they come,” said Willis Wang, vice president and associate provost for global programs at Boston University.

Admissions officers will know in October and November, once the admissions year is in full swing, whether families will be less able — or more desperate — to send their children overseas.

If history is any lesson, economic and political events in other parts of the world — such as the economic collapse in Greece and changing requirements for university admissions in the United Kingdom — have affected applications, college officials said.

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Officials at Northeastern, regarded as a leader among US colleges in international recruitment, said the university diversifies its pool of about 9,000 international students to protect against such aberrations. Overall, 6 percent of undergraduates are from China, according to the school.

“The impact will depend on where you are, where that institution is and its history of recruiting and enrolling international students,” said Ronné Patrick Turner, Northeastern’s associate vice president of enrollment and dean of admissions and marketing.

At BU, 41 percent of international students in 2014 were Chinese, up from 31 percent two years prior, according to the school’s website. In that same time period, the college’s overall international student population increased from 6,602 to 7,831.

Harvard and MIT have lower percentages of Chinese students, in part because they are more selective. The percentage of Chinese students among all undergraduates at Harvard and MIT is less than 1 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively.

Garin Guo, a BU freshman from Shanghai, said his family hopes to buy a house in the US in order to open a bank account.
Garin Guo, a BU freshman from Shanghai, said his family hopes to buy a house in the US in order to open a bank account.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

China experts said the recent market volatility should be a wake-up call, especially for small, tuition-dependent schools that have come to rely disproportunately on Chinese students as a percentage of overall international enrollment.

“China should be one of many countries that people are looking at, not the only one. And for years and years . . . people have looked at the China market to beef up their enrollments,” Dennis said.

Another specialist called dependence on Chinese students a “huge risk” that could have an effect as soon as next spring, if the country’s economic problems persist.

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“I think it’s one of those wells that will dry up earlier than people anticipate,” said Fanta Aw, president of NAFSA: Association of International Educators and assistant vice president of campus life at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Nationwide, the number of student visas issued to Chinese students more than doubled in the past five years, from 128,000 in 2010 to 259,000 in 2014, according to State Department data.

In what could be a sign of what lies ahead, graduate student applications from China were down this year for the third year in a row, while applications from India grew by double-digits, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.

A fluctuation in the number of Chinese students coming to New England could affect more than just universities. In recent years, Chinese parents have begun sending their children to the United States for high school and even middle school, to private prep schools as well as top public schools in wealthy Boston suburbs like Wellesley and Lexington, where many Chinese parents buy homes.

Dan Wu, a Boston-based college admissions consultant, said his Chinese clients so far are not changing plans to send their students abroad, though some have delayed purchasing real estate.

“While there may be a bit of panic about the instability . . . most of the wealthier families are now more motivated to move their assets abroad,” Wu said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz. Jacqueline Tempera can be reached at jacqueline.tempera@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jacktemp.

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