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Maryland universities worry coronavirus outbreak in China could prevent foreign students from getting here

Officials at Johns Hopkins University say they're among the Maryland schools making contingency plans for students whose applications or travel are affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
Officials at Johns Hopkins University say they're among the Maryland schools making contingency plans for students whose applications or travel are affected by the coronavirus outbreak.(Patrick Semansky/AP)

As governments and health agencies shut down travel and limit public gatherings in an attempt to contain the deadly coronavirus, Maryland colleges and universities say the response could slow — or shut off — a pipeline of Chinese students.

Auditions at the Peabody Institute were more subdued this week as some Chinese applicants remained home, submitting their auditions digitally. The Johns Hopkins University scrambled to provide students on its China campus access to online courses more than a year ahead of schedule while its building remains closed.

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And Salisbury University is encouraging its Chinese-national seniors to apply for a student visa program that allows students to remain in Maryland and work for a year after graduation — giving more time to cope with coronavirus-related restrictions.

Still, some Maryland colleges and universities fear that all the disruptions, such as prolonged air travel interruptions, cancellation of standardized test dates in China and backlogs of visa applications, increase uncertainty for foreign students and the institutions they want to attend.

“There is going to be a lot of concern,” said David L. Di Maria, associate vice provost for international education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It could take quite a while to dig out of this and return to normal."

About 370,000 students from China are expected to stream into American universities, according to data from the Institute of International Education. Most are here for four years to get an undergraduate degree or longer for a master’s degree or doctorate.

Of the 20,000 foreign students in Maryland’s private and public colleges and universities, 40 percent come from China, a figure that has been growing in the past five years. It’s estimated that foreign students spend about $800 million a year in the state, according to a report by the international education institute.

The institute reports that the University of Maryland has the largest population of international students in the state. China contributed more graduate and undergraduate students to the university than any other country in 2018, the most recent year for which data was available. Chinese students comprise about 8% of College Park’s total enrollment of 40,000.

The university’s Robert H. Smith School of Business is exploring ways to accommodate students affected by a travel ban and is considering online courses and a winter start date if students are unable to secure visas by August, Dean Ritu Agarwal said in an email.

University officials declined requests for an interview about how its other schools were preparing. Officials have advised newly admitted students facing challenges caused by the coronavirus outbreak to contact the university.

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While the largest number of Chinese students are at the University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park, Johns Hopkins, UMBC, Morgan State University and Montgomery College also have hundreds of Chinese students.

Hopkins officials say they are aware of about 50 faculty, staff, students and scholars unable to return to U.S. campuses from China because of travel restrictions.

The university has assembled a team to address the potential complications and evaluate contingencies, said spokeswoman Karen Lancaster, adding that it is too early to speculate about alternative plans.

Di Maria said the question that looms is how long the coronavirus continues to disrupt normal life and business in China. If new cases slow and most business returns to normal, universities are not likely to see a big impact.

But if it continues far into the spring and summer, he said, universities may have to get creative.

The College Board and other testing agencies canceled both the February and March test dates for students in mainland China to take the SAT, GRE and other exams required to apply to U.S. colleges. Those tests are offered next in May — if they aren’t canceled — and there may be more students who need to take the exams than available seats. A backlog could develop. Students might also find that getting visas may take longer and flights may be more limited.

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Di Maria said UMBC has only about 100 students from China, and the university is not considering the coronavirus in deciding whether to admit students from China.

“There is going to be a lot of concern. It could take quite a while to dig out of this and return to normal."


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Universities take large numbers of foreign students for lots of reasons, but they also offer benefits to the United States over time. Because many foreign students will go back to their countries and rise into leadership positions in government and businesses, they are more likely to feel connections to the state that will be valuable.

“They develop friendships. In some ways they become bicultural. They understand the nuances of the language,” Di Maria said.

They also help subsidize other students. Foreign students don’t qualify for federal or state funds. And they pay out-of-state tuition rates, which means they pay far more than most students and help keep tuition for Maryland residents down.

Without their presence, “you would have a lot of empty seats in your classroom,” said Di Maria.

Another area of concern for graduate schools in the state is the long-term collaborative research conducted with academics in China, according to Amy Ramirez, director of international services in the center for global engagement at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

She said there are about 20 cases of researchers, post-doctorates and faculty who wanted to go to China, or were from China and wanted to come here, but are now stuck.

“We are thinking about it from a research frame,” Ramirez said. “Our ability to have foreign students has implications related to research.”

The UMB campus in downtown Baltimore, which is home to medical, dental, law and social work graduate schools, has about 200 Chinese nationals.

Officials at Frostburg University and Washington College say it’s too early to know whether the virus will have a long term impact on their admissions, but they will be monitoring the situation closely.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” said Brian Stigler, Salisbury University’s assistant provost for international education.

Stigler said the top concern is students at partner universities in China who planned to enroll at Salisbury in the fall.

“If the universities in China do not open as scheduled next month, which is a possibility," he said, "those students will not have the support of their international offices to organize the paperwork and supporting documents we need to begin their fall admissions processes.”

Even if the university partners resume operations, Stigler also worries about sufficient air travel for students come summer, and whether the federal government would grant student visas to Chinese students.

Brad Farnsworth, vice president at the American Council on Education, a higher education research and advocacy group, said he doesn’t believe the coronavirus will be a long-term concern for Chinese students who want to come to the U.S.

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“These are wealthy middle-class families in China who place great stake in a student earning a degree in a foreign country,” he said.

But it may make universities here look again at the dependence on China for such a large percentage of their foreign students.

“People have been saying for years it is time to diversify," he said. "I think it will get the conversations jump-started. This is the wake-up call.”

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