When Michael Bai left China to study in Scotland two years ago, his family had investments in businesses ranging from hotels to media to property in a swanky part of Shenzhen. But soon after Bai wrapped up exams during his first semester, his father texted him with bad news: He’d gone bankrupt—a victim of a stalled economy and plummeting real estate prices. “You need to borrow your tuition from your friends,” his father wrote. So Bai, 21, started delivering groceries, washing dishes and waiting tables to continue at the University of Glasgow. “There isn’t a Chinese restaurant in this city I haven’t worked for,” he says, exaggerating only slightly.
Bai’s experience is increasingly common among the expanding ranks of middle-class Chinese studying abroad, whose families believed attending university or high school overseas offered a sure path to prosperity. In 2019 there were more than 700,000 Chinese students outside the country, about 18 times the number in 2000, according to the Ministry of Education. But for many, overseas tuition that seemed within reach only a few years ago has become unaffordable.