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Many public and private institutions of higher education in Illinois have seen student numbers continue to drop over the last decade. Contributing factors include the state's ongoing financial instability, a shrinking population overall, and increased competition from other Midwestern colleges and universities offering lucrative financial aid packages.We are unpacking the effect of students leaving Illinois for college and what these schools are trying to do to buck the trend. Enrollment Exodus is a week-long collaborative reporting effort by public radio stations across the state.Special thanks to contributing stations: Illinois Newsroom, NPR Illinois, Tri States Public Radio, WBEZ, WGLT, WNIJ, and WSIU.

Enrollment Exodus: Why So Many Chinese Students Choose That 'Cornfield' School In Illinois

Zihan Wang says Illinois reminds him of his home in Heilongjiang province in northeast China, an area known for agriculture.
Dusty Rhodes
NPR Illinois
Zihan Wang says Illinois reminds him of his home in Heilongjiang province in northeast China, an area known for agriculture.

International students, especially those from China, play a crucial role in funding the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

How crucial? So crucial that, a couple of years ago, UIUC’s Gies College of Business and Grainger College of Engineering took out an insurance policy to protect against revenue loss if their schools suffered a significant drop in Chinese enrollment.

This story is part of the weeklong Enrollment Exodus series, produced by public radio stations across the state, about challenges facing higher education in Illinois.
Credit Kurt Bielema - Illinois Newsroom
This story is part of the weeklong Enrollment Exodus series, produced by public radio stations across the state, about challenges facing higher education in Illinois.

Jeffrey Brown, dean of the business college, says Chinese students bring two types of value.

“The first is that we’re trying to run a global business school, and we want all of our students, regardless of where they’re from, to have exposure to other cultures,” he says. “China is a big, major, economic world power, and so we value the students for that reason.”

But he’s not shy about stating the second reason: They bring money.

“The majority of the international students in the Gies College of Business are graduate students. The graduate students are a very important source of revenue for this college,” he says.

Brown says the college’s budget relies on tuition and private philanthropy, so certain programs have been developed to cater to international students. The college then invests those resources in faculty, research, and scholarships for undergraduate students.

“We have, in my college alone, approximately 500 master’s degree students from China. And, you know, many of them are paying $40,000 to $50,000 a year in tuition and fees, so you can do the math, and you see that it’s not a trivial amount of money, and you know, we do rely on that.”

That math works out to around $20 million. And the College of Engineering, which includes computer science, has even more international students — almost 4,000, according to enrollment figures released just last week. Those figures show that overall, UIUC has 10,809 international students. That’s a few dozen more than last year, but still almost 300 shy of the record set in fall 2017, when the school enrolled more than 11,000 — a trend line mirrored by other universities across the U.S. that have significant percentages of international students.

The reason that insurance policy mentioned only one country is that, for the past decade, the majority of these international students have come from China.

Martin McFarlane, director of the International Student and Scholar Services at the U of I, says Illinois’ flagship campus is well-known in China.

“When I’ve traveled to China, and we’ve spoken about Illinois, it almost becomes one word — UIUC. UIUC is known across the world as being a very good institution for international education,” he says. “We’ve been one of the leaders of international education for a hundred-odd years.”

In 2012, UIUC had more international students than any public university in America, and the second highest number overall. In 2017, the Institute of International Education ranked UIUC second among American public universities in its number of international students.

Karen Liu was born in California, but grew up in Shanghai. One reason she chose UIUC was because it's not in a city.
Credit Courtesy of Karen Liu
Karen Liu was born in California, but grew up in Shanghai. One reason she chose UIUC was because it's not in a city.

Karen Liu, a journalism student who was born in California but grew up in China, agrees that UIUC has a prestigious reputation, but mentions it also has a nickname.

“Well, I think first and foremost, it’s known as a very good engineering school. That reputation definitely trumps all,” she says. “It’s also known as the ‘cornfield’ school in China because of the geographic location. I think that’s pretty accurate.”

Coming from Shanghai — the size of Chicago plus New York City multiplied times two — Liu like the idea of a “cornfield” campus. 

“I think this reason would come as a surprise to a lot of people, but I eventually chose here because it is not in a city,” she says. “And growing up in the city, I kind of wanted a change of pace, and I also want to give myself an environment in which I can focus on studying. And I liked it here.”

Zihan Wang, another journalism student, says Illinois reminds him of his home in northeastern China, in a province known for its agriculture.

“Whenever I go to Chicago, take the Amtrak, the view outside the window is pretty similar to my hometown, just like when I take a train to some other cities, other towns, in Heilongjiang province,” he says. “It’s just like the same. The corn — you cannot see the edge of the cornfield. In my hometown that would be rice, but you can see in some way, it’s just the same.”

International Student Enrollment


Both students say they have to field questions from friends and family in China about new immigration and trade policies enacted by President Donald Trump, whose administration cut student visas by more than 15% during his first year in office and discussed barring students from China, according to the Wall Street Journal. Wang, who is a staff writer for the Daily Illini, published an article about some international students now having to wait months for routine visa approvals.

McFarlane said there’s no way to know why a student doesn’t show up on campus unless the student calls, and they would have no reason to call about visas since the school cannot help in the visa application process. He theorizes, however, that the days when Trump’s “travel ban” was in the news could account for 2017’s nationwide dip in international enrollment.

“They accept that — by studying in the United States, or studying in any foreign country — there will be certain visa rules and regulations that they have to follow,” he says. “But the uncertainty of not knowing whether they could travel and return, not knowing whether their country would be selected for the next round of sanctions or bans, that was very concerning. And I think that the uncertainty, in my personal opinion, contributed to that slight decrease in enrollment.”


If there had been an outright ban on Chinese students, the insurance policy purchased by the Gies and Grainger colleges would have covered the deficit. But it probably would not apply for another event that could have affected international students: the 2017 kidnapping and murder of Chinese visiting scholar Yingying Zhang

As journalism students, both Wang and Liu covered aspects of the case. Liu interviewed Zhang’s family for the campus paper; Wang covered the trial and conviction of Brendt Christensen for a Chinese news outlet.

“And when finally the sentence come, no death sentence but like only whole life in the jail, I feel… no. It’s not fair!” Wang says. “I mean, he took a life, and he almost destroyed a family, and now he can survive?”

But both Wang and Liu were impressed by the support the Champaign-Urbana community expressed for Zhang’s family, and they place all blame for her death squarely upon Christensen. 

“I will say, although I’m pretty angry about this thing, I will say it’s just one devil man. One evil man here on the campus,” Wang says.

McFarlane says he was surprised to get the same reaction from families in China, where UIUC hosts orientation sessions in three different cities every year.

“We were fully expecting to hear parents ask about that, to talk about that, and we were ready,” he says. “But on the whole, the general understanding was that this was a one-off incident that was attributable to just one person.”

One other factor that could affect enrollment was raised by both Liu and Wang, even though they were interviewed separately. Both said the popularity of guns in America was “a foreign concept” among international students.

“I grew up in a place where I guess danger can still happen, but you never expect the bad guy to have a gun,” Liu says. “But here, it’s something you see on the news a lot, and it happens here.” 

She remembers that, during her freshman year, a shooting on Green Street killed one man and injured four other people. 

“That’s the kind of danger I never had to deal with growing up (in Shanghai), and I think that’s the case for a lot of international students,” she says.

Brown, the dean of UIUC’s business college, says he’s still glad they got that insurance policy.

“Look, there’s no crisis here. The insurance runs out next summer. We haven’t needed it,” he says. “We’re pleased, though, because, as I tell people all the time, you don’t want a bad thing to happen just because you insured it. You insured it in case the bad things happen, and then you’re happy when you don’t need it.”

Brown said the College of Business and the College of Engineering are preparing to renew the policy for another three years.

This story is part of the weeklong Enrollment Exodus series, produced by public radio stations across the state, about challenges facing higher education in Illinois.

Copyright 2019 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS