Are students afraid to study in the United States?

After I blogged a story a couple of weeks ago about the declining number of Chinese grad students choosing U.S. universities, a couple of readers suggested that fears about safety after recent violenct incidents in the U.S. might be related. I thought the idea was a little farfetched. But Secretary of State John Kerry, at least, seemed to think this is something to worry about, during an appearance in Japan last week:

"We had an interesting discussion about why fewer students are coming to, particularly from Japan, to study in the United States, and one of the responses I got from our officials from conversations with parents here is that they're actually scared. They think they're not safe in the United States and so they don't come," Kerry said.

He noted Japan's restrictive gun laws – which prevent private ownership of nearly all firearms, including handguns – and said the country was safer "where people are not running around with guns."

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today (paywalled), asks whether recent incidents including the killing of Chinese grad student Lu Lingzi at the Boston Marathon and the murder of two Chinese USC students last year will lead parents and students to think twice about study in the United States:   

Even before the bombings in Boston, a series of high-profile mass shootings, at an elementary school in Connecticut and a movie theater in Colorado, as well as the deaths of two University of Southern California graduate students from China in an apparent robbery raised concerns abroad about safety in the United States.

Bob Gilmour runs an academic and English-language center at Oregon State University that enrolls large numbers of Chinese students. On the day of the Boston attacks, he was returning from a 12-day, six-city trip to China. Mr. Gilmour, who previously held a similar position at a British university, says he was surprised by the regularity with which he was asked by Chinese parents about gun violence, a question he didn't get in his former job.[...]

American openness also can stoke perceptions, says Jonathan Weller, director of international admissions at the University of Cincinnati. American colleges are required by law to publicly report crime statistics. In the wake of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, many have developed rapid-alert systems to notify students and staff members by text message or telephone of potentially dangerous situations as they unfold. "Everyone else doesn't do it the way we do," Mr. Weller says.

When Sean Yu, a sophomore at the University of Virginia, was applying to American colleges, his mother exhaustively researched news reports for details about past crimes on or near the campuses he was considering. Violent crime is comparatively rare in China, and Chinese parents have reason to be protective, says Mr. Yu, who comes from Beijing: "We have the one-child policy. They can't take the risk."

So far, there doesn't seem to be much more than anecdotal evidence to indicate that safety concerns are discouraging students from studying in America (though British surveys show that safety is an increasingly important factor when students choose a country for study-abroad) and as one admissions director quoted in the Chronicle story puts it, students and parents probably aren't going to turn down Harvard just because it's in Boston. 

But one downside of the fact that violence in the United States gets a disproportionate amount of international media coverage is that the country can often seem scarier than it really is from the outside.