Chinese student enrollment at University of Illinois takes hit

CHICAGO (WLS) -- For the first time in more than a decade, enrollment is down for Chinese students at the University of Illinois. The downturn comes amid new travel warnings from Chinese officials and a crackdown on U.S. visas. The timing also follows a high-profile Chinese student murder case at U of I, one that that university officials say is not among the causes of the enrollment slump by students from China.

The decline at U of I's flagship campus comes after astounding growth there, from 37 Chinese students in the year 2000 to more than 5,500 in recent years. University officials Tuesday cited primarily an escalation in travel problems for Chinese students wanting to come here, telling the I-Team that "larger factors involving the ability to enter the U.S." are to blame.

Chinese ministers of tourism and education in recent days have warned that U.S. student visas are being cut by the Trump administration.

"For some time, some of the visas for Chinese students studying in the United States have been restricted," the ministry said. "The visa review period has been extended, the validity period has been shortened and the refusal rate has increased. This has affected the Chinese students studying in the United States normally or successfully completing their studies in the United States."

That is the primary reason cited Tuesday by U of I officials for 120 fewer Chinese students here at their flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign. The total number is down to 5,725 Chinese students in the current school year; a decline coming after a growth of more than 30 percent in Chinese student enrollment the previous five years.

Timing of the downturn also follows the kidnapping and murder of a Chinese national at U of I.

Yingying Zhang's disappearance and declared death stunned the Chinese student community here and was widely reported back in her homeland.

Chinese media have come to Peoria this week for the trial of Zhang's accused killer Brendt Christensen, a former physics grad student at U of I who allegedly picked her up at a campus bus stop, then tortured her in his apartment and secretly disposed of her body. Their reports on the U of I killing are being beamed back to China from Peoria.

During Monday's announcement by the Ministry of Tourism in China-while not mentioning the Illinois case by name-Chinese travelers to America were warned that "shootings, robberies and theft have occurred frequently in the U.S."

Chinese students from U of I following the Zhang murder say they are just focused on what happened to her.

"Scary at first and we just worry about her and then we just want to know how the case is going on," said Howard Yan, vice president of the U of I Chinese Students Association.

Anticipating that if Chinese students began a mass retreat from U of I it could cause the loss of millions of dollars, the university took out an insurance policy with Lloyd's of London. In July of 2017 U of I secured three years of insurance coverage at a cost of $424,000 as prevention from a "specific set of identifiable events" such as visa restrictions or a pandemic. The policy would trigger with a 20 percent loss in revenue from Chinese student tuition in a single academic year. The timing of the insurance policy contract, a month after Yingying Zhang was murdered, was a coincidence according to university officials, who say work had begun on the policy two years earlier.

So far, the loss doesn't appear to have been high enough to trigger a claim-but the 2019 figures will not be available until this fall, according to Martin McFarlane, director of International Student and Scholar Services at U of I.

CHINESE ENROLLMENT AT UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS
2013-4521

2014-4894

2015-5241

2016-5629

2017-5845

2018-5725

Source: International Student and Scholar Services, U of I
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