When Did Foreign Students Become ‘International’?

I take my posting title here from the book titles How the Irish Became White and How the Jews Became White, chronicling the gradual societal acceptance of ethnic minorities in the U.S.  I’d also cite the excellent memoir by my University of California, Davis colleague, King Hall Law School Dean Kevin Johnson, How Did You Get to Be Mexican?, telling us of his transformation from Anglo wannabe to a super Latino and a strident booster of expansive immigration policies.  (Kevin’s mother was Mexican.)  These books are not completely analogous to my post this evening, but they have the common theme of change in societal perceptions of certain groups, and as well as self-perceptions.  So far, so good, but it gets scary when positive perceptions are subtly created, by special interests who often have hidden agendas.

This is what Noam Chomsky famously called manufactured consent, in which powerful special interests would use subliminal PR techniques to build popular support for policies that would benefit those interests. This may be motivated by money or power, or in the case of some individuals, simply a craving for the limelight, but typically the motivation is not apparent to the populace who are being manipulated.

As far as I know, the American people have had a positive perception of foreign students over the years, not just passively but even engaging in activities such as serving as host families and so on. But somewhere along the line the lobbying groups’ PR experts decided that the word foreign was a negative, connoting, say, “alien” and worse, “not one of us.”  Thus the term foreign students was dropped, for example, in the media, in university administrator statements,and in the pitches made by political lobbyists and their allies.  The foreign students became international students.

This subtle linguistic movement has been in progress for some time now.  I remember being interviewed on CNN in the late 1990s, and the producer saying to me, “Oh, oh, you used the word ‘foreign.’  This is against CNN policy.  But it’s our fault; we should have warned you.”  If you want a bit of amusement, from now on, watch the statements by the lobbyists and their allies regarding the H-1B work visa; you’ll see that they almost always use the term foreign-born in lieu of foreign, and go to great lengths to avoid the forbidden word.

Look for instance at the paper by two academics, sponsored by an industry lobbying group, titled Talent, Immigration and U.S. Competitiveness.   The term foreign-born is used 27 times, often in such close proximity that it reads quite awkwardly.  All this effort, just to avoid using the word foreign at all costs!  And it’s also inaccurate; lots of my American students are foreign-born but became U.S. citizens or permanent residents long before entering college.  To lump these students in with the foreign students is very misleading (as is much else in that lobbyist-funded study cited above).

Even the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, one of the most active lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, decided it was better to avoid the F-word, and formally changed its name to their acronym, NAFSA.

Mind you, I’ve always strongly supported our nation’s foreign student program, and I still do.  But as I said in my last post, I don’t like being lied to.  We’re told, for instance, that the foreign tech students are typically brilliant, innovative and a boon to the U.S. economy if they stay.  But on the contrary, they are somewhat below the Americans in quality.  My study found that the foreign students in computer science who later joined the U.S. workforce file fewer patents per capita than do Americans of the same background; this jibed with a more general study by Professor Jennifer Hunt of Rutgers (see qualifier in my study).  I also found that the former foreign students were less likely than comparable Americans to be employed in R&D positions, and that they tended to get their degrees at somewhat less-selective institutions, similar to the findings of an NBER study.  Some foreign students are indeed of outstanding talent, having deep insights or great, creative ideas, people who greatly benefit the U.S. if they stay; but they are the small minority.

Even the usual claim that the foreign student program exposes Americans to people of other cultures is, sadly, way overblown.  Once the students of a given nationality reach critical mass on a campus, the amount of mixing with other groups tends to decline drastically.

So, why all this push to place foreign students in a positive light?  Just what are the vested interests here?  I explained in a previous post that employers love to hire foreign students because of their immobility.  Indeed, even some faculty like the “loyal” nature of the foreign students; Stephen Seideman, dean of the school’s college of computing science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, gushed in a 2005 interview that foreign students “will do everything they can to stay here.”

And many small private colleges with funding problems view foreign students as cash cows, people who will pay full freight.  These days public institutions view things the same way, especially since they charge foreign students higher tuition.  The obsession to get their hands on this money reached such a fever pitch at some California State University campuses that one of them, CSU East Bay, even closed Master’s degree admission at one point to domestic students, allowing only foreign students to enroll.  Indeed, even before CSUEB’s dramatic move, 90% of the graduate students in computer science were foreign.  Professor Maria Nieto of CSUEB also stated that the quality of the foreign students was low.

I’ve written many times about the internal National Science Foundation report that advocated expanding the foreign student program in order to hold down PhD salaries in STEM.  (The NSF is one of the two main federal science agencies.)

I’m bringing all this up now partly in response to a recent article by the flamboyant Vivek Wadhwa, a former tech CEO turned tech pundit.  Vivek and I have enjoyed friendly banter over the years, both in public and in private e-mail (in one case, a bit more than banter), and agree on a lot more than we disagree on, such as agreeing on the widespread (but legal) abuse of the H-1B program for cheap labor.

Nevertheless, Vivek has become an outspoken advocate of an expansive tech immigration policy, the main theme of this new piece.  After listing various recent technological advances, he states (without support for the claim) that “Foreign-born engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs are helping lead the charge in all of these areas.”  (Did you catch that magic phrase?)

Vivek, echoing the talking points of the lobbyists, claims that a shortage of visas (both H-1B and green cards) is causing “immigration limbo” for many recent foreign graduates of U.S. schools, and is causing many to return home–presumably a great loss to the U.S. economy, especially since these returnees will contribute to the economies back home.  As he puts it, “The loser is the United States, because it is limiting its economic growth and creating its own competition.”  He supports legislative proposals aimed at keeping them in the U.S.

Though this may sound plausible on the surface, it flies in the face of the facts.  The data show that recent stay rates are still quite high, and that jibes with my personal experience.  I teach graduate students in computer science, electrical engineering and statistics, and I’ve never known a single case in which the foreign student wanted to immigrate to the U.S. but could not do so.  And the much-ballyhooed long waits for green cards are for the EB-3 category, which is for the “ordinary” workers, in contrast to EB-1 and EB-2, the green card categories for the extraordinary talents, presumably the ones we want to keep.

And more important, keeping them in the U.S. doesn’t keep them from aiding the economies of their home countries.  Even the strongly pro-H-1B Berkeley professor AnnaLee Saxenian found that more than 80% of the Indian and Chinese engineers in Silicon Valley share technological information with firms in their home countries, with over half investing in tech back home.  (Please note:  This is NOT meant to imply industrial espionage.)  So, to use Vivek’s phrasing, we are “creating our own competition” anyway.

There are lots of good reasons to have a thriving foreign student program.  We “educate the world,” especially the Third World countries that need technical help; we expose foreigners to American culture–sometimes shocking them, but typically earning their respect–and there is at least some cultural transfer in the other direction.  And yes, in some cases it does bring “the best and the brightest” to the U.S.  But we should support the student visa program for those laudable reasons, not to satisfy hidden agendas.  We should not support the legislative goals of the special interests that are harmful to the national well-being. And please, no more CSU East Bay fiascos, OK?


15 thoughts on “When Did Foreign Students Become ‘International’?

  1. When we bid a fond farewell to manufacturing all we had left was health care, education, and the military/justice industries to take up the slack.
    All immigration related policies of the last thirty years have done nothing but feed those industries by providing external growth of demand while at the same time artificially restricting supply.
    It is more profitable to bring in Asian students whose parents can afford international tuition surcharges.
    Most public tax payer funded universities have foreign student percentages of 20% or more while at the same time creating more and more exclusion rules for American kids.
    Well at least our kids have the military or prisons to keep them occupied.


    • When median wage drops another ten bucks an hour (adjusted for inflation) manufacturing jobs will return because labor will have become an international commodity. The US will have the lowest net wholesale cost.


      • @bill wald July 30, 2014 at 4:36 pm: “When [US] median wage drops another ten bucks an hour (adjusted for inflation) manufacturing jobs will return [to the US] because labor will have become an international commodity.”

        Or … not. Two words: “aggregate demand.” The idea behind globalization of manufacturing is that the following process is long-term-sustainable:

        start: High-wage, high-purchasing-power workers in economy A purchase goods manufactured by other high-wage, high-purchasing-power workers in economy A.

        end: High-wage, high-purchasing-power workers in economy A purchase goods manufactured by low-wage, low-purchasing-power workers in economy B, and the manufacturer pockets the difference in wage bill.

        problem: how do workers in economy A maintain power to purchase goods once manufacturing moves to economy B?

        The “fix” for this over the period ~1978-2008 was financial: 1% in US (aka economy A) substitute credit for wages, so US workers maintaining aggregate demand for goods manufactured in economy B (e.g., China). We know how well that worked 🙂 Inevitably the 1% try to take profits by calling in the loans; inevitably the 99% cannot pay in full. This is not new[1].

        The problem for the 1% is, they can drive their production costs to zero, but who’s gonna buy what they’re selling? Will they buy robots to consume what their other robots produce ?-)

        In this case: suppose US median wage drops another 10 $/hour. If wages elsewhere don’t rise sufficiently to purchase the products, manufacturing won’t move–it’ll just shut down, because *no one* will have purchasing power. This is not new: a persistent aggregate-demand crisis made the Great Depression great/long-lasting.

        My question is, will we need a World War 2++ to escape the current aggregate-demand crisis? And, if so, how will that work with nukes?

        [1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_crunch#Historical_perspective (and that’s only for 1961-2011)


        • Thanks for the reply. I’m a cynical conspiracist. Who won WW 2? Germany is the strongest economy in mainland Europe. The remaining USSR Old Guard are running Russia. Japan got its Far East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere for 20 or so years but then lost ground. The US wanted a job in the city, a house in the suburbs, and a car & freeway to make the commute. Until the last 20 or so years we had it. I think most of the 1% in the US, GB, and Germany came out of the war OK. Don’t know about Japan.

          90% of US money is electronic transfer and most of the wealth of the billionaires who get their names in the press is paper (now electronic) profits. If the world economy crashes, the land, the natural resources and the infrastructure will still be there and someone will own or control them.

          Two years before the real estate bubble popped I was having breakfast in a Florida motel and got into a conversation with an old guy from CA. (I’m 74). He said he had been building spec houses in CA for the last 20 or more years and always financed his jobs through the same BoA money guy. His guy told him the market would crash and BoA was setting up offices all over the US to repo houses. The owners would then be permitted to lease the houses at whatever their payment had been and given 5 years to refinance them.

          The 10% already owns 40% of all the hard assets worth owning. When they own 80% should they keep the system going simply to get another 10%?

          “Middle class” is a statistical myth because wealth distribution is not a bell curve and mean income is at least twice median income. Thought experiment: Five guys sitting at the bar. Median income is $30K and mean income is $35K. Bill Gates joins them. Median income of the six is $37K and mean income is $???

          Middle class is income is median income +/- 20 percentile. At least the bottom half of are middle class working poor with good wages. I guess that the new economy will be 80% poor and working poor, 15% true middle class, and 5% rich, something like a 19th century economy. Will the the top 20% be able to keep the lid on?

          Bill Wald


          • Unfortunately there’s no UI to edit a post once made, and I dunno how the following will format, so I’ll just resend if it craps out:

            Tom Roche July 31, 2014 at 1:45 am
            >> suppose US median wage drops another 10 $/hour. If wages elsewhere don’t rise sufficiently to purchase the products, manufacturing won’t move–it’ll just shut down, because *no one* will have purchasing power.

            Note that “purchasing power” is usually defined as something like the ability to mobilize terms of trade, and trade is usually conducted in currency[1].

            bill wald July 31, 2014 at 3:58 am
            > 90% of US money is [EFT …] If the world economy crashes, the land, the natural resources and the infrastructure will still be there and someone will own or control them.

            Two problems:

            1. Who owns/controls “the land, the natural resources and the infrastructure” now? Umm … the same people who own the rest of the global economy ?-)

            2. “If the world economy crashes,” ya still gotta have terms of trade. Barter has never worked well.[2] Currency is good for trade, and EFT is great. Real estate and other real assets … not so much. Just because all currency is in some sense fictive or “faith-based” does NOT imply that liquidity crises[3] don’t hurt.

            [1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purchasing_power
            [2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barter#History
            [3]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquidity_crisis


          • The purpose of “money” is to simplify trade and commerce. The purpose of commerce is to accumulate wealth. When all the wealth is concentrated into the hands of 1% the serfs and slaves don’t need hard currency . . . neither do they need jobs. They need to do as they are told. Russia under the Tsars, for example. The problem is to distribute enough stuff to keep the lid on – bread and circuses.

            The French and Russian aristocracy went to far. The amount of stuff owned by the peasants could have been doubled with no reduction of standard of living to the top 10%.

            People crazier than I say the plan is to reduce the world population (AIDS&ebola?) to a billion people and the 1% will divide the continents into private self supporting estates.

            Successful revolutions are organized by the “middle class,” people with education and a higher standard of living than the economic middle class, those who are the social middle class. The phrase, “middle class,” was coined to mean the managing servants, the bureaucrats who served the upper class. In the “H. M. S. Pinafore,” written in the late 1800’s, a naval captain (now in the USN $5,870/month base pay plus benefits) is described by head of the navy as “lower middle class.”

            Before WW 2 the rich people dressed “rich” and acted as if they were better than, superior to, the rest of us. Our owners are much wiser and don’t throw their wealth in the faces of the working class. For the most part, they don’t us to know who they are or anything about them. When comes the revolution, whom shall we hang if we don’t know who they are?

            Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. The governmental problem is to keep the workers far enough off the bottom so they they don’t worry about their long term economic security and keep them entertained but not to well educated in history or philosophy. Most people including myself want peaceful stability. I have everything I want or need and my WA State pension pays the bills. The new hires will not do so well.


  2. I need more data, but I perceive the strongest driver of this particular propaganda to be the “university bubble.” ICBW, but ISTM:

    Over the past ~20 years the US tertiary-education sector expanded facilities and staffs (especially administrators) to accommodate increased enrollment, as the US-born children of the “baby-boom” aged into the tertiary market. That US “youth bulge” is passing; more importantly, US tertiary-education subsidies (especially in “red states”) are declining drastically. Thus most US universities (though not, apparently, community colleges) now seem to have capacity, or “supply,” increasingly in excess of US demand. What to do? There seem to be 3 alternatives: reduce capacity (to reduce supply), cut prices (to increase demand generally), or increase demand without decreasing price.

    I’m not seeing substantial capacity reduction (e.g., bankrupting institutions, selling real estate, firing adminstrators)–am I missing something? It seems to be “off the table,” at least for now. Whether US universities are unwilling or simply unable to cut prices is debatable; that tuitions in USD continue to increase much faster than US inflation appears clear[1]. Stagnant median incomes plus high tuitions plus low public subsidies will obviously depress US attendance.

    The obvious solution appears to be, import demand/students. So why not *just* do that? My hypothesis (again, admittedly under-data-fied) is that US tuitions are *so* high relative to both perceived return-on-investment and to “the competition” (foreign universities) that just “opening the doors” (e.g., increased foreign marketing) is produces insufficient marginal demand. US universities must therefore find ways to increase their ROI without cutting price … *or* offending the US corporate elites who staff their boards and control politics in most US states (still the “major player” in US tertiary education).

    Linking enrollment to citizenship provides US universities with a cost-free (to them) way to both increase perceived ROI and *ally* with the 1%, who apparently support US population growth generally, and cheap labor particularly. (By contrast, reducing US student debt or debt service would increase ROI, but would *offend* US corporate elites.) The problem is then, in an increasingly notional “democracy”[2], how to attract sufficient support for this policy beyond the 1%, or at least passivate dissent? Manufacture consent …

    … about which one note. The concept of “manufacturing consent” probably begins with (certainly was advocated by) Walter Lippmann, was developed by Alex Carey, then further developed by Chomsky and Ed Herman. Chomsky is certainly one of the toweringly original minds of our time, but in this particular “vineyard” many have toiled.

    [1]: David Leonhardt argues in NYT @ http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/29/upshot/how-the-government-exaggerates-the-cost-of-college.html that tuitions are only up ~50% since 1992! rather than double that. Unfortunately his data is from the College Board …
    [2]: see final frame of Tom Tomorrow’s brilliant http://www.thenation.com/sites/default/files/tmw2013-09-11colorlarge.jpg


    • The most of the young people seem to be learning that they need a decent high school education and trade schools. 80% of the jobs need people who can read, write, do simple arithmetic, get to work on time, and have a trade.

      The labor unions need to re-invent themselves. Most everyone who works for wages needs a union contract and most unions should have an apprentice program. There should be two minimum wages, for those who know how to work and for those who need to learn how to work.


  3. Things are often more complicated than they seem prima facia.
    I have several US citizen relatives who are “foreign-born” to US citizen parents working over-seas (I think I heard Ted Cruz was another example).

    I’d love to get my hands on some reliable stats on those university enrollments and tuition and per-credit-hour fees and waivers and fellowships… The NCES enrollment stats I’ve are only once every few years, so not much use for close examination; the NSF SESTAT are inaccessible, and the Association for Institutional Research filled with odd holes (seem to be more for PR purposes than anything; disclosure: I did some data-base transition work for them once in my youth). How many of the foreign-born students get waivers and state subsidies? (For that matter, how many “native US citizen students” do?) How do the published tuition and fee and funding out of state and federal tax-victim revenue figures relate to actual reality? (For instance, some states have played the fiction that they charge no tuition, but they do charge a per-credit-hour “fee” to in-state students, and the fees and charges have multiplied over the years.)

    I’ve worked with very bright foreign students and ones who couldn’t handle the material, ones who cheated in ways they thought were widely accepted and ones who were scrupulously honest, ones who could handle American-English as well as anyone and ones who thought they could but in reality struggled.

    But really, 195,393 F visas issued in FY1989, and even more with over 564,137 F visas issued in FY2013, they’re extremely excessive. If someone had asked me about it as late as 1999 I would have guessed they gave out a reasonable 2K or 3K student visas per year. I had no idea how far out of reason they’d already gone.


  4. “1% in US (aka economy A) substitute credit for wages”

    “More than 35% of Americans have debts and unpaid bills that have been reported to collection agencies, according to a study released Tuesday by the Urban Institute.”


    • Until bank credit cards were invented and usury law eliminated in 1960’s most working class didn’t have a legal access to credit. Working people bought the schlock about buying toys and vacations on credit. “Sucker born every minute,” P. T. Barnum.


  5. “The purpose of money is to simplify trade and commerce. The purpose of commerce is to accumulate wealth.”

    i.e. to improve one’s quality of life. Honest and open trade, i.e. commerce, increases the wealth of all people involved in the trade. As GMU economist Walter E. Williams has repeatedly pointed out, under free market capitalism, the participants are all offering values, i.e. wealth, to the others; i.e. the way you become wealthier is by making others wealthier. Every trade increases wealth because the participants would not hand over the service or good that is theirs unless they valued the wealth they receive more.

    Dishonest “trade”, force and fraud, thuggery, extortion, robbery, thievery, decreases net wealth while concentrating wealth temporarily into the control of the most vicious, sneakiest.


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