A Second WSJ Article on Foreign Students

Back on March, I made a post here titled, “U.S. Universities Souring on Students from China?,” commenting on a Wall Street Journal article titled “Heavy Recruitment of Chinese Students Sows Discord on U.S. Campuses.” Today’s WSJ ran what amounts to a followup piece, “Foreign Students Seen Cheating More Than Domestic Ones.”(The article is behind a pay wall, but is summarized here.)

I will have quite a bit of commentary on this one, both on the issue of cheating itself and also on the general topic of foreign students. I’ll be a bit long here, but the matter is of high significance from a number of viewpoints, so I ask the reader’s patience.

I will discuss the issue of cheating below, but first wish to bring up the general foreign student issue, especially the point brought up in both WSJ articles about universities having financial incentives to lower the admissions bar for foreign students. I feel obliged to begin with a passage from my March post:

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.

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.

One theme of today’s WSJ piece is that universities are so anxious to get their hands on the foreign students’ cash that they aren’t doing much about that group’s cheating. I am rather doubtful of that, but there is no question that money is the driver in the universities’ quest to attract more foreign students. I my March posting I also noted:

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.

This was recently illustrated in information sent to me concerning the Master’s degree in Statistics (leading into jobs in Data Science, a hot field these days) at UC Berkeley. Like the programs described above, the UCB program seems aimed at foreign students, and no wonder! Each international student in the program brings in a total of $28,000 above and beyond what a domestic student in a nonprofessional program pays. (This breaks down to $6,122.50 in nonresident tuition and $7,875.00 for the “professional degree supplement” per semester. Domestic (CA) students are subject to the latter but not the former.)

Curiously, the department itself raises the question of the concentration of foreign students in the program, but then refuses to answer. But one can get a good idea from the department’s Web page listing its graduate students, where clearly the proportion of Chinese students (most or all of whom are likely foreign) is much higher at the MA level than the PhD level.

It should be clear that departments have incentive to lower admissions standards, especially for foreign students. Recently the California State Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a scathing report, accusing the UC system of lowering standards for nonresident students, most of whom are foreign students. The report’s subtitle, “[UC]s Admissions and Financial Decisions Have Disadvantaged California Resident Students,” caused quite a stir, but that is only half the story. The untold part is that graduates of the UCB Master’s program in Statistics, and a similar one at UC Davis, are getting jobs while equally qualified (and typically older) Americans are rejected by the same employers. In response to the Legislative Analyst’s findings, the State Assembly has recently passed a bill to reduce the number of international students — but only at the undergraduate level, thus no impact on the programs like UCB’s.

Thus the problems exist far beyond cheating, but what about that topic? In general, I find that most of the article to be accurate, but there are nuances that must be mentioned here. For example, the article doesn’t distinguish between undergraduate and grad students (I would surmise that the problem is mainly among the undergrads), and doesn’t distinguish between cheating on, say, term papers (plagiarism) and cheating on exams. The article quotes some people claiming that the foreign cheaters are often unaware of the term paper issue, but I guarantee you that they are keenly aware of the ethics of cheating on tests.

The WSJ, in analyzing the data from 14 major universities, found 5.1 incidents per 100 foreign students, vs. 1 per 100 domestic students. My own institution, UC Davis, had the “honor” of being at the top of the list, with a figure of more than 11 incidents per 100 foreign students. And by the way, at UCD, my own department, Computer Science, has the most incidents (foreign or domestic) among all academic units on campus, according to Student Judicial Affairs (SJA), the body that adjudicates cases in which a student is accused of dishonesty.

It must be kept in mind that the rates found by the WSJ are not high in absolute terms, though as pointed out by Wenhua Wu in the article, most cheaters do not get caught. But the interesting aspect is the fivefold disparity between the international and domestic students. Why the difference? Here is an interesting passage from today’s article:

Lanqing Wang, a Georgia Institute of Technology electrical-engineering student from Shanghai, who is distressed by the cheating he sees, said, “In China, it’s OK to cheat as long as you’re not caught.”

Paidi Shi, vice president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of California, San Diego, disagreed that it was all right to cheat in her home country but said, “In China, our culture puts a lot of pressure on students. We are more likely to find a shortcut to get a good grade.”

Qingwen Fan, president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of California, Davis, said some students in China get burned out by cramming in high school, and when they get to college “they want to enjoy life. They are busy with social stuff and everything they missed before. They start to cheat. They didn’t put in the time but they want to pass the test. That is kind of a cultural thing.”

So, who is right, Mr. Wang or Ms. Shi? Even the latter refers to “shortcuts,” and I have seen the attitude described by Wang a lot. This brings up the old (1946) book by anthropologist Ruth Benedict on East Asian (in her case, focusing on the Japanese) culture emphasizing shame rather than guilt, the latter supposedly being the basis of good behavior in the West. Benedict’s work has been widely discredited, and she paints with very broad strokes. Westerners certainly feel shame (just look at all those “perp walks” on the TV news) and Asians feel guilt. But there is a grain of truth to Benedict’s views, and my observations over the years indicate that Wang’s analysis jibes with those views.

In that sense, the issue goes beyond simply foreign-vs.-domestic status. Most Asian-American students are children of immigrants, the latter carrying their culture to the U.S. and presumably having some influence on the kids. The statistics on cheating at the University of Texas at Austin are rather startling in this regard: Ethnic-Asian students there are 1.89 times as likely to cheat than the average student, while for foreign students the figure is 1.80. Even assuming that the Asian foreign students are counted as ethnic-Asian, the figures indicate that there is a problem among the Asian-American students. Based on my experience both in encountering cheating in my courses and serving as a judge on SJA panels, I believe there is indeed a such an issue.

One interesting part of the article concerns the fact that if a foreign student is expelled from a U.S. school for cheating, his visa status is in grave peril. But a private agency can serve as a “fixer”:

Expulsion can be a business opportunity for Andrew Hang Chen, a Pittsburgh-based consultant who places Chinese students in U.S. colleges. If a foreign student is in danger of losing a visa, he can assist.

His company, WholeRen Education, charges $4,000 to help a student transfer to another U.S. school. The stakes are high because experience shows if a student has to return to China, he or she likely won’t ever go back to college.

“We have to act very, very quickly” to transfer the student to another U.S. college, Mr. Chen said. “When we get a call, we are counting by the hour.”

Last year, he said, a Chinese student at a large public university in New York sold test answers to a classmate for $2,000. Both had to leave the school. Mr. Chen said he got both into a U.S. community college, which they attended for a year and half before being allowed to return to the large university.

Given the extreme value many Chinese families place on their children getting an American education, and in many cases a green card, $4,000 is a bargain, I guess. But what does this say about the foreign student program?





26 thoughts on “A Second WSJ Article on Foreign Students

  1. Thanks for pointing out how shame vs guilt can inform behavior. This should be required reading at Berkeley’s I-House.

    P.S. I wonder if Janet Napolitano/U.C. experiences either?


  2. “Ethnic-Asian students [at UT Austin] are 1.89 times as likely to cheat than the average student…”

    Are they? Or are they perhaps just 1.89 times more likely to get caught?

    I, for one, certainly would not discount the possibility that we native-born U.S. citizens are among the most adept, most proficient, most clever, and most creative cheaters in the entire world.

    P.S. 78.93% of all statistics are made up. 🙂


    • What I always tell my students and my consulting clients is that both quantitative and qualitative analysis are important. In this instance, my qualitative analysis involves 30+ years of involvement with the culture. There IS a cultural difference involved here, as I said in my post. It doesn’t make one culture “better” than another, just different.


  3. Why don’t you look a little wider. I’ve run into at 3 graduate degree programs that were comprised nearly entirely of students from India and China. University of Florida, University of Texas A&M Tarleton and another I won’t name. This article points out what you and I seem to be seeing: http://www.ndtv.com/indians-abroad/25-indians-told-to-leave-us-university-after-being-given-admission-1416413

    Some of these programs turn to the grad students into fairly useless TA’s who do harm to the program. Some just take their money and let them slide through. Others evidently assess their actual skills. But even if they were competent to begin with, why should they be offered green cards for these elite professions?


    • The comments are interesting. The suggestion that the dismissed students sue the university speaks volumes about the sense of entitlement of international students and their believing the they are “the best and brightest”.


      • Do not accuse other people of “sense of entitlement” after reading a news paper. You do not know what these Indian students were told by the university recruiters. They may not know there is a risk of being dismissed if the recruiters lied to them and of course there is a natural sense of being betrayed felt by those students. They may feel the assessment process is not fair enough.

        Fighting for legitimate rights is not arrogance or whatever negative label you want to throw. International students have valid rights for legal defense because when we come into this country, we are subjects to the law of this land


          • If one pays the money, then the sense of entitlement is valid.(I am not talking about cheating in exam, I am referring to the news about “25 Indians Told To Leave US University After Being Given Admission”)


  4. I would love to know what these places say to the students and parents about getting jobs in America. I assume there are many school administrators that exaggerate about this. I know these schools are pressuring the government to change immigration to increase the students’ ability to stay on after graduation and to stay longer in the temporary jobs they usually find.

    There is a definite conflict of interest when state supported schools attempt to bring in unjustifiably high numbers of foreign students and then also try to get them jobs in the US — especially in their own states.

    It’s just a cesspool, really, including the fact that we Americans are no longer providing enough financial support to our own schools and our own students. Where is our shame and guilt?


    • Note my point in my posting that UCB refused to say how many foreign students are in that Master’s program. The Master’s student Web page would suggest the proportion is 90% or more. And it is a safe bet that the department is informally helping connect these students with jobs (in order to tell prospective foreign students that the program has a good placement rate).

      But it is like everything else — “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Why aren’t outraged parents, or American workers, or the immigration-reform organizations protesting? Why aren’t they contacting the local media to investigate?


      • My experience with local media is that they are not going to be interested in this type of report. They have not yet pursued the leads I have given them (supported by with hundred of pages of documentation provided by the university via FOIA type requests) on financial activities by faculty members specifically prohibited by published university policies. There are several instances of activities when done by employees in other agencies are listed as felonies in the statutes. Universities are audited by university employees and have no external low level financial review.These abuses run into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars annually.

        Cheating by international students – or the faculty taking advantage of international students to obtain work without compensation or in violation of F-1 and J-1 visa rules or state statutes on behalf the faculty members’ own companies – are not of general interest.


          • There is a lot more to this story that will not be investigated and reported. The story is not enough to effect change. For those who care it is a “So what else is new.” and for others it is “I could care less because it does not affect me.”.

            The cheating in classes has less of a national significance that the improper conduct in research. While unqualified students being passed on is a problem, it is when data in critical experiments is created, misrepresented, and deliberately misinterpreted that the unethical conduct by anyone becomes a serious problem.


      • One of my congressmen sends no response whatsoever when I write her about it, the other responses with dismissive “business tells me there’s a shortage”. “That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.”, as my sister puts it.
        Local media has no intention of investigating.
        There are groups that protest. One targeted Yoder, for his bill to shift EB cards to India’s favor, for years. And he lost his election.


  5. As the parent of a CS major, I’m intensely concerned about the effect of cheating on the accurate assessment of student skills.

    If a significant fraction of students cheat successfully and raise the curve, the professor may be left thinking “everyone gets it” when they don’t, really. He or she may then have less patience for students who score poorly, and may not consider changes in content or pacing.

    The struggling students need to know if they are working within a system of reliable measures of their performance, as they sort themselves into or out of the CS program.


    • I apologize for the spelling in my post above. I used to be in the pharmaceutical science field. The universities I listed have specialty graduate programs in this field. Just 15 years ago this was exclusively an American domain. Now the grad programs are dominated by Indians and, a bit less, by Chinese. I was accepted to a program at AZ State U that turned out to be 26/30 directly from India. They were all on student visas and this was their first degree. In addition to the student body makeup, the domestic tuition was through the roof. I would suspect that the pharmaceutical companies in the US are sponsoring Indian students at these programs. Most of our manufacturing of drugs is done overseas anyways. But they could easily stay over here and take lucrative pharmaceutical company management or regulatory jobs. This only hints at the problem in the pharmacy field where the big retail chains have been importing 1500 H1B pharmacists into a saturated field for the past few years. Before 2007 they were importing 4000 plus H1B’s a year.


  6. Chinese grad student TA’s are notoriously tough graders. I had a TA who was female and under 25 and she handed out C’s and F’s to most of our online class. The professor had to regrade them after this happened several times.


  7. I’ve observed these mass admissions starting around 2012. From public universities perspective, they didn’t have many options. They were not allowed to raise tuition too much (like state of Florida). They either had to downsize significantly or admit more foreign students by lowering standards. That’s why I think both the Tech industry and university lobby were behind getting STEM OPT rule expedited by DHS. OPT makes graduate programs attractive to foreign students. If you got rid of OPT today, you’ll see a significant drop off in international students coming to US. You’ll still have students with the intention of getting good education coming to the US but there will be a drop off.

    You have to choose between protecting tech jobs and universities staying afloat in this tough economic environment where many states have been cutting public funding. There are some small private / fake universities who are profiting from this opportunity.


    • I don’t think so.

      The big increase in foreign student admissions occurred at the undergrad level, not of interest to the tech firms.

      And on the graduate level, YES, if OPT were banned today, plus a liberalization of policy for “the best and the brightest,” we would see a big drop in the number of foreign students coming to the US. We’d mainly get the good ones. But that would be too much to hope for.


  8. In GaoKao(China’s national College entrance exam), students who cheat will go to jail for 7 years.

    I oppose the idea that Chinese students in China face less strict rules about academic integrity


  9. Staple a green card to all those graduate students receiving full financial support. This avoids the problem of “buying” a green card via an easy master’s degree, or further encouraging universities using foreign students as “cash cows”. PhD programs are usually fine; master’s programs vary greatly. I am always shocked to see they are both called “advanced degrees” without differentiation. Most master’s programs are just a short extensions of undergraduate studies by taking a few more courses.


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