Upon Closer inspection

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?