Why Are Fewer American Students Going to China?

When the author Michael Meyer moved to China in the 1990s as a Peace Corps volunteer, he was part of a trend of young Americans enraptured with the rising Asian country.

"American students couldn't wait to learn Chinese," he said at Asia Society on Thursday. "It was the language of the future. We had to learn the culture."

Twenty years later, Meyer is an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. But he says that today's students seem much less interested in going to China — or elsewhere in Asia for that matter.

"Peace Corps has opened up in [Myanmar] and in Vietnam, and I'll tell my students 'what an opportunity you have!' But they're not interested in going."

What has accounted for this disillusionment? Meyer suggested that one factor might be that two decades of increased media attention has removed a sense of mystery about China — "that the story about China has been written and that the ship has sailed," as he put it.

A more pertinent factor may be that today's college students face pressures that those of Meyer's generation did not. Passionate debates about free-speech and sexual consent have roiled American campuses like no other time since the 1960s. Students are also facing student debt burdens that dwarf those of their predecessors, a factor that lends a sense of urgency to a period of life historically considered carefree.

American students' relative lack of interest in studying in China has coincided with the opposite phenomenon: Chinese students are enrolling in American universities in record numbers. One-third of all foreign students in the United States now come from China, a trend that universities see as a tremendous financial windfall — even if some of the optics are a little unusual.

"Some of these students, I'm not exaggerating, have a thuggish guy sitting in class with them who never does any work," he said. "It turns out he's been assigned by Mom and Dad to come over and watch the student in class."

Meyer appeared in conversation with Jiayang Fan, a staff writer for the New Yorker. The complete video of their conversation is below.