Students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) who attend American universities, particularly at the graduate level, long have been recognized as a potential threat to the integrity of American intellectual property. When serving as research assistants to top professors or attending professional conferences, they have been in a position to glean information about sensitive scientific and technological developments that they can then forward to the Beijing intelligence apparatus.
In 2019 and 2020, there were nearly 375,000 PRC students at American universities, including around 325,000 graduate students. They were by far the largest single group of international students studying in the United States. In years past, many of these students who were educated in the United States chose to remain in the country. That is no longer the case. China can afford to pay competitive salaries to their grads — most of whom have earned degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Only a fraction of these students may be working directly for Chinese intelligence. Nevertheless, all take back home a body of advanced knowledge that certainly could assist China’s effort to overtake America’s technological leadership within a matter of decades.
Unlike many American students who would require financial aid, students from China pay full tuition and fees to the universities they attend, no doubt subsidized by the Chinese government. Not surprisingly, American universities are exceedingly reluctant to forego these fees, which, on average, amount to approximately $75,000 a year and whose total economic effect exceeds $15 billion. For that reason, as well as for reasons of academic freedom, universities have been reluctant to accept Washington’s involvement in their admissions policies. They reacted negatively to the Trump administration’s effort to reduce the number of PRC students attending their institutions, such as deporting students taking only online courses and banning graduates of colleges that have ties with China’s military. They have been just as unhappy with the delays in processing visa applications that resulted from both concern about the intentions of the students and the impact of COVID-19.
The United States government could reduce the number of PRC students attending American institutions of higher learning without the universities having to suffer a financial setback if Washington would offset the revenue that they otherwise would forego. The number of these students attending graduate courses in the United States began to decline in 2019, but the number still may total 300,000. Assuming that the average annual cost for graduate studies amounts to $75,000, the government could fully subsidize the universities at a cost of $22.5 billion.
The absence of students from China could open up more places for Americans who otherwise might not be accepted to top-tier graduate programs or might shy away from applying to graduate school for financial reasons. These students may require only partial scholarships, thereby lowering the cost to the government. Of course, having more Americans pursuing STEM at the graduate level would represent an additional bonus by further enhancing the nation’s security.
Such a program is feasible, and actually fits in well with draft legislation circulating in the Senate that seeks to strengthen the security of American science and technology. No doubt, the universities initially might resist what they might consider to be government interference. But as Stephen Trachtenberg, the former longtime president of George Washington University, points out, “American universities would take the scholarship funds and put them to good use. Some would do so with reservations, worried about institutional autonomy and academic freedom and other social agendas. But concerns would mitigate with time. America would benefit, and most particularly, young people from disadvantaged family backgrounds and, perhaps, students of color.”
It might seem that $20 billion to $25 billion, spent annually for, say, the next five years, represents an exorbitant expenditure for the U.S. government. Yet, leaving aside the benefits that Trachtenberg rightly notes, the money is but a drop in the bucket for a Biden administration that already has spent nearly $2 trillion to address the COVID-19 crisis and seeks to spend trillions more to accelerate America’s economic recovery, which it defines in the broadest possible terms.
No doubt, PRC students will look elsewhere for their advanced education — many already are doing so. Yet America’s top universities rank among the best in the world; otherwise, they would not take in as many students as all European universities combined and roughly one-third of the worldwide total of Chinese students studying abroad. It is true that China’s own top universities have made great strides in recent years. Even so, they have not been the first choice of top students from China. The only reason these students’ numbers have declined at American universities is that they are now subject to restrictions that did not exist five years ago.
The Biden administration and Congress should give serious consideration to the benefits, and not merely the costs, of granting subsidies to American universities that reject the applications of PRC students. In doing so, they would not only reduce the threat of Chinese intellectual property and technology theft, but also open the door for many young Americans to a top-level STEM education, and thereby help to maintain America’s technological edge for years to come.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.