For the past three years, Lulu Gong in China has been preparing to study abroad. Her excitement at getting into Penn State University was squashed when she realized she couldn't get to the U.S.
U.S. consulates haven't been processing visas during the pandemic, so she was stuck. Once the fall term starts, Gong will attend a freshman orientation on Zoom and then begin classes at a partner university in Shanghai. This is disappointing, to say the least.
"I thought maybe I can make a lot of friends in America also," she said. "I plan to do a lot of things for now. I just can't go there."
Gong's family is just one of many in China who have staked their futures on education in the U.S. — more than 360,000 Chinese students are studying at U.S. colleges.
They've invested lots of money and time to help their kids prepare: private high schools with American curriculums, summer school, SAT prep classes, English classes, and college consultants. It all adds up. Not to mention the cost of American tuition: Foreign students typically pay full price, with no financial aid.
The investment is huge, and more and more families in China are wondering if it's worth the risk. Last week, the Trump administration announced that it was barring international students from residing in the U.S. while taking an all-online university course load.
This past week, under pressure from universities and colleges, Immigration and Customs Enforcement rescinded the policy. But the anxiety it caused could do long-term damage to the ability of American universities to attract foreign students.
The Trump administration's latest policy shift is not the first one to impact Chinese students. Student visas have been harder to obtain, and their terms are limited.
Gu Huini runs an education consultancy in Shanghai helping Chinese high school students go abroad for study. When the announcement came out that foreign students risked being sent home because of the abrupt policy change, her phone started buzzing.
"It just went viral, it was everywhere," she said.
Gu says in the past couple years, she's noticed a trend.
"I've been receiving questions asking about Singapore, or European countries, or Canada rather than America," she said. So basically, they've been adding more options in their application portfolio. I would say ever since 2018, I've been constantly receiving more requests on this front."
Lily Zhao, another education consultant based in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, says she's also been fielding lots of questions from parents. Some families are thinking about applying to Chinese universities instead. Her advice for students? Diversify your options.
"I encourage the students to also prepare for the U.S. application because we don't know how it's going for the next year."
One of Zhao's clients is Rita Chen, a 10th grader at a private school that uses a U.S. curriculum. Her mom, Tong Xue Feng, says they've already gone too far to switch course. They hold U.S. green cards and need to focus on a U.S. education.
"We're stuck because it's really tough to get into a Chinese university after studying the U.S. curriculum here. So, she has no choice; she must go out of China for university," she said.
But other parents she's talking to are considering changing their plans.
"What they're considering is that China and the U.S. have a tense relationship right now, and visas aren't as easy to process as before. So, they're wondering whether they should switch to the U.K. or Australia," Zhao said.
Every day, Gu must manage the expectations and panic attacks of the families she works with. With each new announcement from the Trump administration or news clip that goes viral on the internet, she has to counsel her clients.
"I would say, 'Hold on, wait for at least a week before you get anxious. Basically, you don't know whether this is a final rule or [if] this is just something [to test the] water.' So, I usually advise them to wait. And wait for things to sit still and become crystal clear, and then we make the moves," she said.
For now, Zhao and Gu are still encouraging their students to stay hopeful. In fact, they see this as perhaps a time of greater opportunity. If others give up their U.S. educational dream, maybe doors will open for the ones who stick it out.
As for U.S. universities, they can scarcely afford to lose those foreign students. Chinese students alone bring in $15 billion of revenue for tuition — which could be one reason why these universities are fighting so hard to keep their doors open to them.