(Part I and Part II)

So colleges – at least the majority of higher ed institutions that are not swamped with amazing applicants like some elite schools are – take a lot of international students for largely economic reasons. What's the big deal? Why shouldn't they take them? Diversity is good!

The problem (and note, crucially, that it's not a problem for the entire university community) is that these students can be poorly prepared to succeed in a US classroom and very little is done to help integrate these students into campuses often located in rural areas that lack much diversity. Let's unpack that a bit, and note that not all international students and not all colleges are identical on this point. Obviously.

First, international students often have an educational background that amounts to intense math, science, and computer skill training with nothing resembling what we broadly recognize as a Liberal Arts type education here in the US. This means universities will do one of two things: either put international students in courses where some will struggle mightily, or alter their curriculum so Tech-oriented students don't have to take any liberal arts or humanities courses. Those are both bad outcomes.

Another big problem is basic facility with English, which I hope we can agree is a prerequisite to any student succeeding in a US college classroom. I don't care if immigrants to the US speak English or not, as history shows that over time they and future generations will learn it inevitably. But for a person coming to the US specifically for the purpose of taking college courses, not being able to speak, read, and understand English is going to be a big problem.

I hope that isn't parsed or misconstrued to endorse some sort of racist closed-door policy. The issue is that – OK let's be real, we're talking specifically about China here – international student applicants are certified to have English language ability in a process that is clearly flawed. I'm not saying Chinese state policy is to cheat standardized testing and fudge applicant backgrounds and qualifications, but…it totally is. This is common knowledge, not a conspiracy theory. Administering standardized tests in China is a nightmare issue for organizations like ETS or College Board, and applications from China regularly have certification of skills and degrees completed that are of doubtful provenance. This is not the students' fault in the slightest. This is a situation beyond their control.

Anyway, the 80s movie stereotype of the Exchange Student who no-speak English is generally false, but in recent years with the sharp rise in recruitment from China there are in fact some issues.

The second big issue is support and integration. You cannot accept a couple hundred Bengali or Ukranian or Chinese or Turkish students and just drop them in the middle of rural western Michigan and say "OK, good luck!" Support resources for foreign students might not be urgently needed in Chicago or San Francisco or Miami, but they definitely are in Rural Rust Belt, Missouri. Real efforts to integrate students with the larger campus are rarely attempted. Instead, schools more commonly take the "self contained biosphere" approach, setting up a separate living environment for all international students and just sort of telling them to make the best of it. I've never been an international student, but it's not hard to imagine how social, personal, and psychological issues could be a big problem. I imagine myself dumped not into Beijing but into some rural city in China where I might be one of only 100 English-speaking white people and I do not have a hard time seeing how that could be intimidating and alienating.

Let's be honest again and recognize that in some parts of the US, the non-campus community might also be hostile to the idea of universities (especially if public) catering to thousands of people speaking foreign languages. I don't need to elaborate here; suffice it to say that is a problem and it is rarely dealt with in a systematic and serious way.

International students are great. Don't get me wrong. It is ironic to me that every non-US citizen student who has ever taken my (often required) Intro to American Government course has passed it, often with an A or B. These are good students as a group; smart people and a pleasure to deal with. Unfortunately they are often (though obviously not always) put in situations where they are going to have a hard time succeeding through no fault of their own. Their government is telling them "Go, do this or you have no future" and on the American end we are saying "Yes, come, show us the money!" and it doesn't take an overwhelming amount of cynicism to see how that doesn't create the best set of incentives.

I don't see a likely solution so long as the vast majority of higher education institutions in the US compete for a stagnant or (in some states) shrinking population of college-aged people. Tuition will go up, but so will the discounts given in what is a very competitive environment for highly qualified students. Someone and something has to take up the slack.

32 thoughts on “SHELL GAMING, PART III”

  • I am limited in what I can say due to NDA, and even then I'm going to say it anonymously. I score the TOEFL and yes, one of our primary jobs is to catch Chinese students cheating. Chinese ESL students are taught outlines and they can fill in phrases from the question to make the essay seem quite convincingly fluent, to a naive reader. But we know better, we have seen it all. Many students have obvious fluency, but they still stick to the formula, they don't need crutches but they use them all the same. This is not surprising, since many Asian literary styles are formulaic and originality (at least in format and standard phrasings) is not considered useful. The American style of outlining a linear argument is foreign to them.

    I am reminded of a story by Kenzaburo Oe, alas I can't recall the title. A Japanese student goes to the US and is unable to handle the sheer pandemonium of American social freedoms. In Japan (and indeed much of Asia) social interactions are more ritualized. The student develops schizophrenia and must be shipped back home to the Happy Smiles Academy (mental hospital). I was skeptical of this story until I witnessed it firsthand. I was sitting in the student lounge and a Japanese friend of mine was sitting there staring into space. I asked him what's up. He said he was waiting for his lift to the airport, he's going back home. He spent the last 5 days in the psych ward and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

    Since I worked with lots of exchange students, I wondered what could be done to help them acclimatize. But the only solution that seemed to work for the students was to form a tighter community with fellow expats. Alas this did not work well for very small student populations like Japanese, but did work all TOO well for the larger groups of Chinese students. They would form "study groups" especially in comp sci to collaborate on assignments, that was basically tantamount to cheating. But the university can't kick them all out, they can't even catch them, since professors have no access to their secret chat rooms (even if they could read them). The students never really learn their classroom lessons, they merely learn how to cheat effectively.

    It is my general observation that there are two major types of Chinese students. Some are rich kids. You can spot them because they have a more deliberate downscale fashion sense. They are trying to pass as poor. Their parents are monumentally rich, otherwise they could never afford school in the US. They are "young mandarins," their parents acquired a fortune through corruption (basically the only way to become rich in China) and the parents are hoping to funnel their ill-begotten fortune out of China through their children, if they can get their degree and become permanent residents. To the Young Mandarins, life in the US can be well below their previous lifestyle and a disappointment.

    The other type of student is the general government funded student. They are all poor and studying STEM. The government is hoping to cultivate some of them as moles within US high-tech corporations, to rise through their career to the point where they can leak corporate trade secrets back to their homeland. But only about half of them are actual moles. The others are probably washouts, hey you have to keep the CIA guessing about who are the moles. If they were all moles, we'd know exactly who to follow.

    Certainly there are some Chinese students who want to come to the "Golden Mountain" of the US, seeking freedom and personal academic achievement in its own right. But I don't recall meeting very many of them.

  • I was going to ask about the TOEFL and how that worked.

    Ironically, I'm online browsing the reviews for two restaurants; we're going to choose which one to go to tonight. The reviews were written by native 'murkkkun speakers but it doesn't seem as if they understand English either.

  • Me again. I know, sigh.

    Ok, cheating. The biggest problem with cheating by Chinese students is that it's ingrained in their culture. They don't even see it as a problem. Cheating is just how school works. One of the biggest shocks students have when they enter any international program is how upset we all get when they cheat. EVERY piece of homework is done by copying the brightest kid's (usually 10 minutes before class). I've found so many cheat sheets during exams I could wallpaper a whole house. Asking them to write an essay is a waste of time; they just cut and paste from the internet. (Again, let me stress that, in competitive places like Beijing, this may not be a problem. But Beijing students make up a small percentage of international Chinese students.)

    Second, the TOEFL. These kids take TOEFL prep classes over and over and over again, and so just learn the formula. I've known tons of students who couldn't have an impromptu conversation about, well, anything, get 80+ TOEFL score.

    Third, Anon is absolutely right (about everything, actually, but specifically this) when she says that many/most come to the US to stay. I asked one class I had (with whom I had the best relationship, so they were actually honest with me) how many planned to come back to China. ONE out of the class of 30 raised her hand.

    Fourth, Ed is right that being a foreigner in such an alien place – harder without language skills, but still hard with – is incredibly difficult! None of us expats would last a month if our places of employment didn't give us our Chinese helper (or 4.) After 8 years here I can do most things by myself, but I still need my Chinese person for some specific tasks. What unis should do is to assign each Chinese student with a native to get the student out of the Chinese bubble, increase their language skills, help with culture assimilation and what not, but that's difficult and costly and, let's be honest – we all want to be with our own kind. Me too.

    Finally ("Finally" I hear) the best foreign students I had when I was teaching college in the US were the Nigerians. Every single one of them got an A in my class, and Dr. Death (a real nickname I was given by students) does not give out A's easily.

  • "I imagine myself dumped not into Beijing but into some rural city in China where I might be one of only 100 English-speaking white people and I do not have a hard time seeing how that could be intimidating and alienating."

    Speaking as one who has survived that situation quite happily, I would have to say that I never felt in danger in a rural Chinese city/town/village the way I often did in parts of rural America or when traversing some areas of the American cities I have lived in. I found people generally polite and reasonable and more tolerant of my mistakes in Chinese than I had any right to expect. Most people were curious about me, but usually because they couldn't quite understand what I was doing out in the sticks. Kids were often a bit more openly amazed to see a strange foreigner, but again in a fairly innocent and unalarming way. The greatest danger I faced? Frequent invitations to share baijiu, which is the Chinese version of moonshine and has a ferocity all of its own.

    On the subject of cheating being part of Chinese culture – I would remind people that there have been some pretty major cheating scandals in Ivy League schools over the last decade or so. I suggest that cheating is part of all cultures, because it is human nature to try and gain an edge in systems where the pressure is on and the rewards are high.

  • Asia simply doesn't have a strong tradition of IP / copyright. It's an open secret that many of the highest-ranking members of society in China, South Korea, etc., have Ph.D.'s that were simply lifted from existing sources. People do get busted for it (routinely!) but it's still pretty easy to get away with it. It's changing, but slowly.

    As for Korea, TOEIC is the big English proficiency test here. And it's crazy. Because any ex-pat in South Korea will tell you multiple stories of meeting someone with crazy-high TOEIC scores who literally cannot carry on a conversation in basic English. The English language isn't a tool for communication here, it's a status marker above all else. It's always about the test, never about the practical applications of actually going abroad and surviving / thriving in an English language setting.

    What's even crazier is that _Korea companies_ actually require high TOEIC scores to even get a job interview, often in jobs where not a single word of English is required.

    The result? Most Korean people hate English. They resent it. But at the same time, even standard middle-class, non-academic jobs require them to study this stupid fucking test which is basically 75% ultra-obscure bits of English grammar (Gotcha! questions, basically) and nothing that would actually help them out living in or visiting Australia, England, Canada, US, etc.

    I spend a good part of my day trying to convince my students that English is a language like any other and that practical communication is always the goal.

    Most of them don't believe me and never will.

  • @wetcasements "Most of them don't believe me and never will."

    I know, right? One of the most frustrating things about this…no matter what I tell the students about life and college in the west is met with this look of "yeah. right. suuuuure."

  • I think it was Cracked that ran an article on the academic paper mills that ghostwrite papers and dissertations for money; The person they interviewed specifically cited Foriegn (read: Chinese) students thrown in to universities who couldn’t write in english as a main or revenue stream.

  • Yes, every moment I spent China, rural or urban, seemed far safer than anywhere in the States. And many parts of the world, for that matter. MAGA

    I once had a Chinese student handwrite an egregiously long URL into the middle of a sentence on his in-class essay… "Were these your own thoughts, Xiao Deng? I thought not…"

    But then in the States when I failed an American student for plagiarizing a major assignment, he re-took the course the next semester with a different instructor and was failed for plagiarizing… the same assignment. His fraternity's essay factory had failed him twice!

    Oh, the vicissitudes of anecdotal evidence.

  • A school that caters to international students in rural west Michigan. Having gone to Grand Valley, I know exactly what you are talking about. Even with Grand Rapids in reasonable proximity, the problem remains, given the…less than diverse nature of the city. When I graduated in 2010 they were already well in to a massive push to recruit international students, and I can only imagine they've ramped it way up since then..

  • Yeah, I'd stick with Ed's observations about fucked up incentives and the behaviors that manifest from them rather than reading it as an invitation to regurgitate 'the culture' tropes. Not like the english-teaching post-grads we're oozing abroad are our best and brightest either, amirite?

    I'd also suggest a stern look at our 'strong tradition of IP' on its own and what it's metastasized into for those of us at home who actually build shit… but that'd reveal that whole non-sequitor for what it is… unless you're fine with how it stands as a club and fig leaf for monopoly. Wield away if you own it, I guess, but damn weird how people who have nothing to do with said owners fetishize the system that's more likely to get in their way than enrich them — as soon as they ever try and build something themselves (drug, song, cartoon mouse, software, hardware, take your pick).

    But also, if we're going to talk about these things, start with the asymmetry. If you must chime in with an anecdotal good experiences as an expat, it's not because Ed's incorrect in his assumption that being a foreigner is fucking hard, but it may have a lot to do with how being a certain type of foreigner is less hard. It's probably a symptom that we say 'expat' instead of 'my shit-for-brains third cousin who couldn't cut it here so he went abroad to play ultimate frisbee and bang underage girls and shit that's why we don't talk about him anymore' — like sure, probably all languages feature a pro-home bias (e.g. extended family of immigrants using phrases that translate as 'return home' to generations born here) but damn if our way of thinking, breathing, and speaking sucks the air out of any honest discussion.

    I'll admit I got nothing in our 'heal thyself' part of this though. The trend from public support to rising tuition and rebranding as 'research universities' in a sad clamor for an increasingly sad pool of grant money… ehhh, not great. That our system is buoyed by foreigners with more money than sense, welp, better them than taking bigger 'administrative' chunks/vigs out of dat grant money…?

    Ed's screed is a useful observation of how fucked we are and what's keeping things limping along, not an invitation to rationalize what we remember about being inherently superior. THEY LEARNED IT BY WATCHING US, dad.

    Fuck, it's a weekday, better get back to making my stop-motion mickey mouse/graeber/e-holmes 3-way porn / boner pill ad. Just one more successful smart-contract cryptocurrency payout from being able to afford a repurposed shipping container to live in, but I'm at least 372 away from affording my future medical bills, tetanus and all. Gotta keep rowing. What a time to be barely alive.

  • @AC Just for the record, I teach biology.

    Oh and reference to another thread, did you know Elizabeth Warren also got her start at a CC?

  • @April – Cool… but also don't mind me, I usually regret everything I post anywhere let alone on the internet, which is why that was only the second time here.

    additional separate sidebar: yo ed, if you read dis, last time I posted here was on that bit about express scripts — icymi, an illinois city is suing them for being really shitty at their alleged cost-control functions. Follow-up? Then again, I think this was on 60 minutes so… by then… maybe not new(s).

    Carry on, back to my well I go.

  • As you note, there's a lot of variation in the way foreign students are handled. I live near Harrisonburg VA, home of James Madison University. H'burg starts out by being a welcoming city for immigrants in general, despite being surrounded by a politically very red region. Not sure, but the large Mennonite community may have something to do with it. I think that's as important as what the University does with foreign students.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    Wow, so many interesting anecdotes here. Mine probably won't measure up, but here goes:

    I briefly befriended a Japanese student who struggled with English. I was behind him at a convenience store when he bought a carton of buttermilk without realizing what it was. I'll never forget the look on his face when he sipped it. I remember thinking, Jeez, if I tried to live in Japan or China, I'd probably get blindsided by weird-tasting foods like that all day long.

  • @A.C.

    "Not like the english-teaching post-grads we're oozing abroad are our best and brightest either, amirite?"

    I've encountered many so-called English teachers who made little effort to actually teach and were, I suspect, not capable of thinking through the syntax of an English sentence. I am not surprised at all that so many people in East Asia work diligently for years and never master English. How can they when too many of their teachers are of so low a standard? I've seen textbooks used in China and Korea that contained multiple errors on the same page – and no-one seems interested in imposing a standardized, high-quality curriculum. I've encountered numerous people whose pronunciation has obviously gone uncorrected by a series of tutors and teachers, even though they were supposedly paying for the benefits of instruction by a native speaker. I find this sort of lazy dishonesty/incompetence by ex-pats absolutely enraging and I suspect that many of them see teaching English as an easy gig to fund a year of tourism before they move on to a real job and leave their victims behind.

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  • You guyz!

    I never get to travel.

    I have to spend all of my time with people who don't cant speak english good–without leaving the city I live in.

  • Leading Edge Boomer says:

    As a faculty member in a STEM department, and chair of the Graduate Admissions Committee, I was summoned to a meeting with Egyptian military personnel and a student seeking admission to the PhD program. After reviewing the applicant's file, I told them that their student was totally unqualified to begin a PhD program. The meeting proceeded desultorily, and finally the attempt at a bribe hit the table. After I rejected it personally and on behalf of the institution, the meeting was over.

    I expect that the touring Egyptians found some graduate program that would accept him and let him coast through.

  • @Nick China is really cracking down on such "teachers". When I came 8 years ago, just being able to breathe was still optional. Now one has to have a BA/BS from a reputable place, some sort of teaching cert (TEFL is still allowed for more educated candidates), at least 4 years experience teaching and they actually check refs and police records before giving a visa.

    Of course a lot of people are grandfathered in.

  • @Nick Oh, also "face" gets in the way. A couple of years ago I was the voice of the woman role in the providence's (state) national English exam. As we (the American guy doing the male role) were reading, we encountered some errors; small ones, but still, errors. When we came to them we told the Chinese guy who was the TOP ENGLISH PERSON FOR THE WHOLE PROVIDENCE. (Yes, we were polite about it.) He would have none of it! He had written the exam, dammit, and so it was PERFECTLY CORRECT! It's not always the fault of the skeevy English teachers from abroad.

    Also, this – in bio we were discussing food webs. The students told me that their Chinese bio teacher told them that decomposers (the organisms that break down dead matter into nutrients) were NOT part of the web, which is nonsense. Later they told me their bio teacher admitted it was wrong but because it was that way on the national exam, that's they way they had to memorize it, facts be damned.

  • @Misterben. I did. I are bio person, not English person. (And, to be fair, as not Canadian person, all I knows are states.)

  • Bob Slocum says:

    I teach at a very multicultural institution (e.g., I have had about 5 American students in the last 6 years) that holds to "Western standards" regarding academic integrity and scholarship. The language is English.
    The only way to get many students from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa to act according to those standards (in my experience) is to (1) explain the point of those standards, (2) enforce them *ruthlessly*, and (3) try to provide frequent feedback on writing assignments.
    The latter is like this: help them determine a topic and a thesis statement, help them learn to construct an argument, comment on a first draft and workshop it in class… this makes buying a paper difficult and teaches them to actually write a paper. More fundamentally, it teaches them that they *can* write a paper, since many have never done so before. Many find the very idea of writing a 2000 word research argument paper ungraspable. But they can do it, they just have to do it (however poorly) so they can see that it is possible.

  • Basically, the higher education industry has discovered out market segmentation in order to maximize, um, profits or whatever the academic concept of it is. Pretty common in other industries to ask for a base high price and then give discounts (or not) based on which market segment they think you're in. It's why matinees and coupons exist.

    I wonder how much this will distort higher ed though when the Chinese figure out they're the ones really paying the fiddler – and start calling the tune. I could see this becoming a question that gets danced around by both buyer and seller – how many Chinese students are you carrying as a % of the student body?

  • One of the Parkland victims was a foreign exchange student. How do you think that news will affect future applications?

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  • My school does not have these particular problems quite so much, since it is large, a college of Engineering, and in a real city, and the percentage of East- and South- Asian students, graduate students, and faculty is already high and growing. What I notice more and more is something different, that Chinese is becoming, sort of, a standard secondary language. Different approach to the language gap! Chinese-speaking faculty are mentoring their GRAs from China in Chinese. Or, say, my Chinese-speaking boss is in a meeting with me and a Chinese-speaking department chair, and I don't need to be there for the whole thing, and the language switches just as I'm halfway out the door. Which, I think, I'm OK with. I'm sure I'd do the same if working overseas. Although part of me is thinking, huh, this is University business, being discussed at a fairly high level of boss-ness, and the language is not English.
    To be clear, the Italian faculty speak Italian among themselves and with their Italian GRAs, the Iranians, Farsi, etc etc. And if you read faculty biosketches/CoA spreadsheets for at least part of your living, it's no surprise that the faculty disproportionally wind up as advisors to Ph. D. students from the same language background, I think this is normal and fine. It's just a lot more noticeable with Chinese speakers because they are by far the largest group.
    As a PS- the strategy of re-branding yourself as a research institution and admitting a whole, whole lot of foreign students who pay full tuition has worked out really well for my school. And, the clamoring after federal grant $ is not especially sad, it's going pretty well. In the hundred-million-a-year-and-growing sense of the term. Though it is a problem for faculty whose research area is not Currently Sexy to the NSF/NIH/DoD. Some really nice people, who are good teachers, may fail to get tenure.

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