U.S. Universities Souring on Students from China?

A reader called my attention to this Wall Street Journal article, titled “Heavy Recruitment of Chinese Students Sows Discord on U.S. Campuses.” My wife, a Chinese immigrant, also mentioned it to me.

The concerns described by the article are not new: Lack of mixing of the Chinese students with the Americans (more of a problem with the Chinese than with the other international students); lack of analytical skills; pressure felt by some professors to lower standards in order to accommodate; and so on. But the sheer volume of students from China today is really putting all this under the spotlight.

As many readers of this blog know, although I strongly support facilitating the immigration of the world’s “best and brightest,” I am strongly opposed to the “Staple a Green Card to Their Diplomas” proposals, which would give automatic green cards to all foreign students earning STEM Master’s or PhD degrees at U.S. universities. This WSJ article, on which I will comment below, illustrates why “Staple” is a bad idea.

As the article points out, universities, both public and private, are under great pressure to treat foreign students as cash cows, for instance because some schools charge them higher tuition than for domestic students. It should be abundantly clear that this will necessarily cause a lowering of standards, something usually whispered but here discussed openly by a major newspaper. I was told by a colleague at a mid-level university just yesterday that her Computer Science Department has 400 (!) international students in its Master’s program. Since China leads all nations in the number of foreign students in the U.S., the article is even more relevant to the “Staple” issue.

We do have some “best and brightest”-class students from China. Whenever I teach a graduate class, there is typically at least one Chinese student among the top two or three students. I actively help top foreign students find jobs in Silicon Valley. But most of my Chinese students struggle in my class, for the reason cited in the article, profound weakness in analytical skills.

This in turn is due to a lack of development of these skills in China. With a rote-memory educational system and an age-old culture that does not question authority, the sharp, insightful, innovative students will necessarily be in the minority.

But the article gets it wrong in some senses. For instance, it quotes Professor Nicol on the weakness of many Chinese students in expressing themselves, with the implication being that this is a language problem. That is true to some extent, but the much larger issue is that many of them can’t express themselves well even in Chinese. Traditional Chinese education simply does not develop that skill, and in fact arguably hinders it.

Coincidentally, I was just discussing the language issue the other day with a U.S.-native graduate student. It’s interesting that Nicol “excises colloquialism from his lectures to avoid confusing the nonnative English speakers.” I do use idioms, but explain for the non-native speakers, in a way I aim to be fun for all students, both foreign and domestic. But again, I wish to emphasize that the low analytical abilities should not be attributed to language problems.

In any case, the language deficiencies can be attributed in large part to the failure of most Chinese students to mix with the Americans. It is real (and mostly special to the Chinese among all foreign students), but I must confess that in spite of decades of closeness to Chinese communities, both academic and personal, I have no idea what causes that failure to mix. Is it due to lack of interest on the part of the Chinese students, or lack of welcoming on the part of the Americans, or both? It is interesting that Mr. Shao applied to, and was accepted by, a fraternity; I doubt that this is common, but it is an encouraging sign.

Most troubling, though, is the article’s theme that many professors feel pressure to reduce the quality of their courses, to accommodate the Chinese “customers.” I have been told that this has occurred in Australia as well.

Again, the severe lack of proper analytical abilities is not a new concept, and East Asian governments have been trying to remedy it for years, without much success. But given centuries of tradition, changing this is “easier said than done” — precisely one of the idioms I recently explained to my graduate class.





24 thoughts on “U.S. Universities Souring on Students from China?

  1. I would guess that the fact that there are so many Chinese students on U.S. campuses is part of the reason why they don’t mix that much with American students. This is one specific of the greater problem concerning U.S. immigration right now: failure to assimilate. When there are so many of an immigrant’s fellow nationality around, there is little incentive to assimilate.


  2. In 2008, my daughter entered the U of Illinois. She was, as most 18 YOs, idealistic and interested in outgoing opportunities. She signed up for the international dorm, Global Crossings. She was matched with a Chinese student, as 90% of the American kids were. The first semester was fine. We invited and hosted this Chinese girl for Thanksgiving. Second semester, it all fell apart. The Chinese stopped mixing with non-Chinese. They revealed themselves as all haters of Koreans, Japanese, and Americans. They all hated Illinois. They seemed, to my daughter, to hate everyone. She finished the semester, and has never spoken to her ex-roomie. She now has a very different, and much less good, view of Chinese.


  3. Great articles. I’ve noticed that many Asians (especially those born here) and who grow up mixing with all ethnic groups (as in public schools) tend to be better integrated into America. Those who come here for study on F-1 visas tend to stick more with their ethnic group. My husband has noticed this in the business setting as well. He worked with Korean and Chinese colleagues who were great, very personal and willing to work with all Americans, because they considered themselves Americans first. However, those who are “fresh” immigrants tend to be more “suspicious” of Americans, do not integrate as well. When this latter group become become hiring managers in U.S. corporations (as many have become), our observation is that they tend to hire only people from their own ethnic backgrounds – hence what we see in the “monoculture” of many tech work environments. This is a huge factor in Americans of all ethnic backgrounds being displaced and/or
    not hired in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. >give automatic green cards to all foreign students earning
    >STEM Master’s or PhD degrees at U.S. universities

    I thought most such proposals applied to Bachelors as well.

    >With a rote-memory educational system and an age-old culture
    >that does not question authority, the sharp, insightful,
    >innovative students will necessarily be in the minority.

    LOL. Insightful, innovative students are *always* in the minority! Also, insightful and innovative are not properties that propel students to the top of most standard educational systems. If the filters are marginally worse in China I wouldn’t be surprised, but that’s a small quantitative difference not a large qualitative difference.

    I don’t have any first-hand experience with the current cadre of university students at all much less the Chinese contingent, but I do have my own set of cultural observations from seeing what happens out in the work world. I’m generally optimistic when I see some Chinese members on a team, the way I am not, frankly, with some other groups.

    I mean, China has a lot of money these days, and they want to buy education, and exposure, and status, and no doubt a lot of schools are happy to sell all of these that they can. And when you’re doing it for the money, well, other priorities suffer, right?

    And then, from another perspective, there is the way that virtually *everyone* treats STEM education and “skills” these days, and that’s as binary – you got them or you don’t. The idea that there are levels and subtleties is generally rejected. I could go on about this at (very great) length. It really merits some academic study, I think, except what academics really understand any of the issues involved, both technical and social. The “team” I’m working with recently has been carefully hired, and overall they’ve done a good job, and even seek and accept candidates from all over the country and the world to seek quality. They even pay a small premium for the honor, compared to prevailing wages. So, have they achieved this quality? Well, … yes and no. I’ve wondered at this, and usually just shrug and believe that if they tripled the salaries, they’d have all the quality in the world. Maybe not. Maybe it’s just not out there. In substantial part because the low wages have chased really talented Americans from the field for the last ten years, but maybe the problem is even deeper than that.

    So, Norm and all, maybe the group you’re seeing from China is as good as it gets.


    • I agree that if one has a very well-defined, straightforward task at hand, seeing Chinese members in the team is a cause for optimism.

      People who are truly insightful and innovative may indeed be rare generally, but those who advocate giving automatic green cards to all the foreign STEM grad students justify this on the basis of innovation, a claim which is woefully off the mark.

      And yes, the level of insight and innovation is lower among the Chinese students. As I mentioned, this has been a big concern in the Chinese government and in other East Asian nations as well. If you want to see quantified descriptions of this, there have been various studies, and those of us who teach STEM see it on a daily basis.

      To my knowledge, no “Staple” proposal in Congress has included the students as the Bachelor’s degree level.


  5. Norm, I have worked a fair amount in Asia and have watched Asian colleagues from several countries attempt to solve tough, practical problems (or not). What you are saying is correct. Less so in Japan, but more so in Taiwan and Korea (I never worked in China), there was among my native coworkers little ability to use analytical skills to solve problems, as well as reluctance to do anything that would be considered stepping outside the boundaries in pursuit of a solution. They lacked the ability to parse and solve a problem, and they did not want to risk any action that might draw negative attention of their management.

    My colleagues solved problems very slowly, if at all. They were quick to throw up their hands and call for people like me to be airlifted in from the US.

    Thus, I concur with your observations.


  6. It is not just the Asian students that choose to isolate themselves in their home country’s student group. In the main university in my town, the Middle Eastern and Iranian students do so as well. What I found to be a problem is the disrespectful way women were treated by the large congregations of those ethnic groups.

    I also was disappointed by the support the international students who arrive with a poor command of spoken English receive early in their program. Many of the labs I substituted in years ago had one student with a good command of English translating for his classmates. If the universities are going to admit the students, it should make sure they can be successful and are not detrimental to the experiences of the other students.


  7. First, thanks for all of your work and insights. After reading the article, not sure “prep-classes” will change much as the solutions lies very early in the mainland students experiences. When I went to college in the 1970’s I met and became good and life long friends with a number of ethnic Chinese students from Malaysia. Most were great students and were open to interacting with all types of people. They all said they came to America because at the time, it was impossible for ethnic Chinese to get into Malaysian colleges. Basically they were forced to attend college outside the country. Malaysia in a real sense was exporting some of its best and brightest.

    I figured their openness was due to going to colleges with very little to no Chinese students, and that all of them having lived in a former British colony. And because they were a former British colony, they all learned English very early on. And all were proficient at it.

    I suspect many mainland students grew up in essentially an insular way and that is all they knew. No fault of their own: simply never lived in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and and multi-racial world, and when in America they naturally withdrew to themselves. It is one thing to know about the world, but another thing to have experienced a diverse society such as we have.


    • I’ve seen basically the same thing in other ethnic-Chinese students, from Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s not specific to China.

      I agree that prep classes probably wouldn’t do much good. But they would at least serve to inform the Chinese students that they are missing a lot, and that their self-imposed insularity is not viewed positively by others. It might encourage at least a few to broaden their circles.


  8. My research into languages led me to the conclusion that the technological advancements of western cultures – Rome, Spain, France, England and the US – is due to both Latin-derived language and incorporation of local and foreign dialects, idioms and expressions. Latin-derived languages have structure, declensions, and derivations that teach the mind to think deductively and synthetically while foreign language elements (Gaelic, Saxon, Celtic and old Germanic) challenge that structure and present “foreign” concepts to the thinker; thus inspiring innovative thought and suspicion of structure; critical thinking.

    Chinese languages are diverse. People in one province cannot understand their neighbors. Chinese languages are pictorial and ancient, similar to Egyption hieroglyphics. It is very difficult to invent new words or expressions. In contrast, the German language is able to append nouns into a long string to immediately invent totally new concepts.

    If you don’t have a word for something, it doesn’t exist.


    • Actually, Chinese incorporates new words in a manner similar to German, but more compactly.

      Once, though, I saw a Chinese newscaster translate “lame duck president” literally word for word. It was hilarious, especially when my wife asked me what on Earth the journalist had meant.

      The various Chinese languages — and I agree they should be termed languages, not dialects — are much closer to each other than you may realize. Yes, there is mutual unintelligibility in many cases, but there is a pattern, and something approaching a one-to-one transformation of sounds.

      Where the Chinese languages really differ from Western ones is grammar; the Western ones have a much more complex structure, as you suggest here.

      But did language cause culture or vice versa? I wonder if the Whorfian Hypothesis is still debated.


  9. There is also a huge Chinese clannishness that is unrecognized by Americans. In a previous university, there were a number of Chinese in my department. I came in one Saturday, and found all the Chinese in the library, including a number from other departments. This was an unannounced journal club open to Chinese only. If Chinese are writing a MS, other Chinese from across campus will often be invited, but non-Chinese from the same department seldom are. If a non-Chinese is writing a MS, Chinese and non-Chinese from the Department are invited. This pernicious practice enhances the CV of the Chinese at the expense of non-Chinese in the same department. No one says anything because it would be considered racist or nativist to accuse Chinese of their obvious racist, nativist behavior.


    • Yes, things like this do happen.
      The most famous example involves the huge influx of people from Taiwan into the LA suburb of Monterey Park beginning in the late 1970s. A number of them had belonged to the Lion’s Club in Taiwan, an activity which they wanted to continue in the U.S. But instead of joining the local Lion’s Club, they formed their own Chinese one. The mainstream Lion’s Club people were bewildered and upset about this. Similarly, the Taiwan immigrants formed their own Chinese PTAs in the local schools, separate from the mainstream PTAs, a practice that continues to this day (http://www.ahspta.com/chinese-parent-booster-club).

      The question, though, is why they do this. Is it a lack of desire to integrate, even a desire to dominate, or is it fear of not being accepted, lack of confidence in interacting well in English, etc.? This again is something I’ve never really resolved for myself.


      • I think that it is essentially a clannishness, which means that the clan is promoted and valued over the larger society. Chinese also have an attitude in many cases about non-Chinese, which is essentially a racism or nativism – non-Chinese are not considered as equals. If I were the Chair of a Department with Chinese in it, I would monitor them carefully, to ensure that Chinese attitudes about colleagues were fully professional. My chair did not do that.


  10. Universities solicit students from countries that can pay the higher tuition because US universities are in trouble because US students can not afford to go to school without crippling student loans. So, even if we have talented students, they really just get marginalized. I know the international students. In some ways they are admirable coming here to study. But they are no smarter than many of the US students. I have been a student and a teacher with them. On a person by person basis, I like some and dislike others. But, realize, in the end, it is just about money for the Universities and international students are taking spots in Universities funded by tax money and that is wrong. AND, some are here just to spy and go back home and use what they learned against the US. They can take tests well but that is really not an indication. Testing many times is just about memorization. It does not really reflect knowledge or the ability to use that knowledge.


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