Foreign exchange

Is the Asian enrollment boom at the U of I about to bust?

click to enlarge Altgeld Hall at University of Illinois in Urbana.
Altgeld Hall at University of Illinois in Urbana.

A college campus is a sleepy place in the summer, which makes summer a good time to go sightseeing. I’ve always enjoyed visiting the main campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana for that purpose. One sees things one seldom sees at home, such as people reading books in public. (And people say Angkor Wat is amazing.)

The sight that struck me as most novel on a recent day trip to the campus, however, was the young people I saw on the streets and in the cafes and bookstores. Three of every four were Asian by heritage if not birth – mostly Korean or Chinese by my guess. The impression was bolstered by the change in the campus restaurant scene. I dined at a Korean fusion restaurant, and could have had a meal at a different such place for two weeks before visiting any of them twice. Presumably their time in the classrooms and labs is improving the Asian student; certainly the Asian presence has improved the local food choices. Urban has always been east of Springfield, but never quite so far east.

Of course the kids who are on campus in August are not representative of the student population as a whole. Not all Asian students are children of wealth, and I suspect that a lot of the kids I saw can’t afford the long air flight back home for the summer. Nonetheless, the Asian presence is substantial enough. According to Department of Homeland Security data about student visas, the U.S. campus with the largest number of Chinese students is the UIUC. (If you count enrollment at all campuses of multicampus universities, Illinois ranks in the top five.) In 2000, 37 undergraduates from China were enrolled at Urbana; in fall of 2016, that number was 5,629. Of the 10,545 international students enrolled last year (an all-time high), fully 86 percent came from Asian nations (in order, China, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia).

The UI main campus has always been a diverse place by Downstate standards. I found it crowded with exotic species of human fauna in their turbans and saris, most of them graduate students. The place was never very cosmopolitan, however, and that remains true. Apparently the growth of the Asian presence has outrun the ability of the campus culture to adjust. By all accounts the student community remains largely self-segregated by social class and race and ethnicity.

Those who have written about life there explain that most huddle with their compatriots like bison against a blizzard, the bad weather in this case being the resentment, the ignorance, the arrogance of the American co-students. Korean students for example report that racism and language discrimination were part of their daily experience of life at Illinois (although it should be noted that some of that prejudice comes from other Asians). This is painful to hear. The international student-turned-entrepreneur has immeasurably invigorated the economy and culture of places like California; it would be a shame if their experience of this corner of it diminishes the odds that many of these kids will return to start businesses in Illinois after graduation.

No doubt many alumni who think of the Far East as Indianapolis are alarmed by the transformation of UIUC, but they will be more alarmed if on their next visit those kids aren’t there. Exploiting the Asian student makes it possible for the university to reduce its reliance on a parsimonious legislature. But the market is even less reliable a patron than the General Assembly. The gradual improvement of Chinese universities means that more kids (including Koreans, reportedly) are seeking cheaper schooling there; indeed one of the factors driving the improvement is the desire to provide Chinese kids with lower-cost educations at home. Boneheaded immigration policies also risk driving away international students. Enrollment at UIS is down nearly 9 percent this fall, a drop Chancellor Susan Koch attributed in part to international students’ concerns about possible changes to their visa status.

All are reasons why for some months now there has been talk that international enrollment in U.S. schools (and in particular enrollment from China and Korea) is a bubble that is ready to pop. What then for what web magazine Inside Higher Ed has called the University of China at Illinois? Administrators will have to go back to being the University of Illinois for Illinois, catering mainly to Chicago suburbanites who want higher education for their undergraduates that’s not too high. If our best and brightest are to compete in an internationalized economy, maybe we ought to send them not to Urbana but to a new University of Illinois at China.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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