H-1B Meets Lake Wobegone

(I’m not supposed to “bury my lead.” If you must know right now, the bottom line is going to be that “the best and the brightest” is a slippery and often highly misleading term, so policy makers should approach it with the utmost caution.)

Last year at a faculty meeting, I mentioned Lake Wobegone, and got a mixture of smiles and perplexed looks. One of the perplexed looks was from a U.S. native, and one of the smiles was from a Chinese immigrant, who it turns out is a Garrison Keillor fan. Go figure.

Well, it turns out that in H-1B Land, as in Lake Wobegone, “everybody is above average,” which in the local H-1B-ese dialect is known as “the best and the brightest.” Case in point is an article by a Forbes intern, Xiang Wang. Ms. Wang has written a rather outside-the-box piece, Stop Panicking: H-1B Visa Reform May Keep More Bright Foreign Minds In The U.S.

I have been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the notion of facilitating the immigration of the world’s best and brightest. I’ve called for some broadening of the current visa categories for the B&B, specifically the O-1 work visa and EB-1 and NIW green cards, and have acted on that conviction, e.g. by urging Silicon Valley employers to hire some foreign students and other foreign nationals whom I knew to be brilliant. Last year I even wrote a letter in support of O-1 for one worker, which did result in issuance of the visa.

Yet I seem to live on the opposite site of the Lake from Ms. Wang. Her main example, Xiaozhi, has a master’s degree in statistics from Columbia University, but that doesn’t carry much weight with me. I will stipulate that Columbia is clearly one of our great American universities, especially in statistics, a field in which Columbia has played a major historical role. But this doesn’t mean Xiaozhi is in the B&B league, not at all.

As most readers know, many U.S. schools, both public and private, actively recruit students from China (no comma) who can and will pay full freight, no financial aid needed. The private universities were ahead of the curve on this, starting 20 years ago or more. I know of several specific cases at Columbia (in the field of computer science, not stat, but the principle is the same) in which applicants for grad school were rejected at UC Davis but accepted at Columbia.

One must look at online chat rooms with a skeptical eye, but these comments jibe with my own experience:

…most Chinese believe this program has quite low threshhold [for admission]…

***

I sense a growing trend of students going to Columbia solely for its name with no genuine interest in the study subject. Columbia is a premier name and you will pay a premium for it.

***

It may be a cash cow, but it doesnt mean that the program cannot lead you to success in the financial world.

And some similar comments:

I heard that the program is not on par with the reputation of the school and that over half the students are Chinese international students. I wonder if this is true?

***

I believe that many of the courses offered are taught be adjunct faculty and that the purpose of the program is to make money for the department.

***

It is not competitive, there was another post here that showed they had 280 graduates from the MA program in one year alone. It looks like if you have the basic requirements you will probably get in.

I mentioned last year that a CS faculty member at UT Dallas told me her department has 400 (!) master’s students, apparently largely foreign.

Basic economic principles imply that programs geared to international students who will pay full price will make some compromises in admissions standards.  I have discussed here the case of UC Berkeley Statistics, which also apparently has a master’s program of  this nature. In fact, this was so obvious that the department actually felt the need to deny it on their Web site!

In other words, Xiaozhi’s Columbia degree does NOT necessarily imply that she is of “best and brightest” caliber, and in fact is likely of ordinary skill, now doing ordinary work in industry.

And an important corollary is that if policy makers try to define B&B by the institution a student attended, the schools will be able to charge foreign students more and more, while dropping the admissions bar lower and lower. As many analysts have pointed out, any policy that makes universities the gatekeepers on the road to immigration will create severe perverse effects.

But there is more. I know some older American specialists in statistics, also with master’s degrees from prestigious schools, with up-to-date skill sets and so on, who have found it difficult to find work in their field, right smack in the Bay Area, home to Silicon Valley, the SF financial center, several big pharma firms and so on. Sorry to put this in bold face and caps, but YOUNG FOREIGN STUDENTS LIKE XIAOZHI ARE GETTING JOBS WHILE THESE AMERICANS ARE PASSED BY. I see this constantly. This is the bottom line, folks.

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35 thoughts on “H-1B Meets Lake Wobegone

  1. While I recently served as an adjunct bioengineering professor at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, I saw foreign students obtaining employment in engineering fields while highly-performing U.S. citizens were passed by. This observation informs my perspective that work visa programs such as H-1B and the OPT extension to the F-1 (student) visa now serve as government-sanctioned foreign hiring preference programs. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is not reasonable to judge a person’s qualifications for a position simply on the basis of the school attended. There are many reasons that a person enrolls at a particular institution:

    Money
    Family obligations
    Cost
    Personal situation
    Money
    Cost
    Money
    Cost

    For a student from a middle income family without a diversity priority, the most important consideration is the net cost of attendance and how he and his family will pay for it.

    The most adversely affected are students whose both parents are already employed. I mention this because I know a number of physically capable mothers (including at least one with a PhD) who choose not to work because doing so increases the family expected contribution more than their possible earnings when the unseen costs of employment are considered. There is also the attitude that because the mother does not work and is involved with charitable activities that their child “deserves” a scholarship more than the child of two working parents already overstressed by work, child rearing and caring for elderly or disabled family members.

    In my city, the options range from a top 100 private university for an estimated total cost of about $60K, going to the state university out of town for about $25-30K, going to a regional college for about $18K, or going to the local community college for the cost of books and fees for two years and then transferring. After the CC, the best “value” is the professional program at the regional college which is offered at only 20 colleges in the US.

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  3. I don’t know how many are gardeners, or proud of their lawn or whatever, but I do want to ask a question.

    If we neglect our garden, what happens?

    The people of America, born here, raised here, and even those who legally immigrated here (not illegal or non-immigrant guest workers) are our garden.

    The policies in this article are destroying our garden by denying our people that very opportunity that founded America

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  4. UT Dallas is a degree mill. They used to self report the demographics of the engineering programs but stopped recently for some reason. I did find information from 2015 that showed that 93% of full time CS masters students at UT Dallas are foreign students.

    Interestingly the current website does show broad trends and one thing is obvious, either a lot more smart students started to apply to UT Dallas or they’ve significantly relaxed their admissions criteria…and only for the masters program. There isn’t a similar growth in the BS or PhD programs…

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    • It is obvious that a masters degree speeds up the green card process; it can be considerably for Indians and Chinese. Since it can be done part time, a STEM OPT worker can benefit for the income of a job and an EB-2 filing and the double try in the H-1B lottery.

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  5. “Best and Brightest” doesn’t necessarily apply to the intellect. It can also refer to the size of the student’s bank account.

    The ultimate bitter irony here of course is that these foreign students — especially Chinese — are coming from filthy rich families who grew filthy rich profiting from the wholesale gutting of the American middle class. And did so in a Communist nation.

    We Americans love to crow about our wonderful Democracy and how capitalism has enabled us to thrive, but now that massive government and mega-corp machine has used this system against its citizens for their own enrichment.

    Viva Globalization!

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      • Using Columbia per your example, according to their site
        http://sfs.columbia.edu/tuitions-fees-listing?trf_school=379&year-period=434
        undergrad tuition in the school of engineering is $26,239/semester. Assuming 8 semesters (no summer school), that’s $210K just for tuition, not even including junk fees, books, etc. Then there’s the cost of living in NYC for 4 years, plus any travel home.

        I’m not sure what counts as filthy rich these days, but I can’t imagine many families in the U.S. who could just write a check and send their kid off to Columbia. Maybe the top 5 or 10%?

        The other advantage that Chinese families have of course is the one child policy. Paying for a full ride for one kid is bad enough, most Americans have a couple at least.

        On a side note, the massive transfer of wealth from the U.S. middle class to China over the past couple of decades has more recently impacted Real Estate at least as much as it has academia. Chinese investors, eager to cash in yuan for pricey U.S. properties along the coasts, have further squeezed the average American.

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        • You are greatly underestimating the resourcefulness of Chinese people. Let’s look at grad students first.

          In most STEM fields, grad students can get some kind of support, TA or RA, as an earlier poster pointed out. But if such support is not offered right away, the student enrolls, and hopes that eventually such support will materialize. Meanwhile, the student will work both on and off campus, say as a homework grader and as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, and may also borrow money — many Chinese students who come to the U.S. for study do have relatives who have already immigrated.

          Another way, somewhat related to what the earlier poster said, is to enroll in the more prestigious university but not in the desired field. A typical example would involve a student who wants to study computer science at University X, and is strong enough to get accepted but not strong enough to get a TA/RA offer at the outset. The student then applies to the Math Dept. instead of CS, where he/she can get a TA/RA offer since math is less popular. Then after getting established at Univ. X, take CS courses, and then work toward an internal transfer to CS. (And by the way, in asking for the latter, the student would typically say, “I applied to Math first because I thought my math was not strong enough…”)

          For an undergrad student, he/she can do all this too, minus RA/TA but plus various scholarships. The thinking is 有办法, “There is a way somehow.”

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          • Thanks for the detailed response.

            I had interpreted your post as suggesting that foreign — and especially Chinese — students were given preferential treatment for admissions because of their ability to pay for the full ride and not depend upon financial aid or income from either the government or the school.

            Agree completely though that Americans have largely lost our historically strong resourcefulness, putting us at a disadvantage on the international stage.

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          • I did in fact mean that foreign students are given preference due to their ability to pay. The CA state auditor’s report shows it. And I don’t think Americans have lost their resourcefulness.

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      • See more and more stories of embezzling by Chinese nationals of Chinese companies and the government. Take the money and run. That is why the Chinese gov’t is on an anti-corruption campaign.

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  6. “As most readers know, many U.S. schools, both public and private, actively recruit students from China (no comma) who can and will pay full freight, no financial aid needed.”

    As you correctly mentioned a while back, many grad students do receive income from being a TA or RA. The amount is not insignificant. Obviously this factors in the decision of what school to attend. Some international students may choose to attend a lessor known school with a job offer (TA or RA) than a more prestigious school with no job offer. Plus having a job looks good on the student’s resume.

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    • I suspect most of these Chinese (and Koreans!) are going deeply into debt to pay for this. However, it seems that loans in China may not be meant to be paid back somehow. Is this the case?

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      • I suspect most of these Chinese (and Koreans!) are going deeply into debt to pay for this. However, it seems that loans in China may not be meant to be paid back somehow. Is this the case?

        Many of these people are outstanding individuals motivated to become Americans. Shouldn’t there be an easier way for them to immigrate than have to go through the school debt and study gauntlet? Would they accept work at retail or trades?

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        • National, state, local, corporate, pension, personal – you name it. Its coming Norm and its going to hit like a tsunami.

          Predict Europe first. Watch DeutschBank, Italian banks and the PIIGS – one or the other will set it off.

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  7. As an undergrad comp sci major, I was surprised that major companies recruiting in March preferred Chinese students for summer internships. They seemed to be aiming for 10-20% from China and grades were less important than whatever they gleaned from non-technical interviews. Even Korean friends were being left out. I always ended up in summer school and struggled for a while after graduating.

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  8. My organization recently had 2 open entry level positions for statisticians. We do NOT sponsor green cards. We did get something like 300 applications from qualified citizens and green card holders, which were narrowed down to 30 for interviews. In short, lots of Americans and legal residents already without importing H1-Bs.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hello Mr. Norman,
    I have a question to ask you, something that I couldn’t connect the dots. Maybe you know something on this subject.

    http://www.breitbart.com/news/top-tech-companies-argue-against-trump-travel-ban/

    Tech companies : (Dozens of top tech companies — including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter — have filed a joint legal brief arguing against President Donald Trump’s travel ban.)

    Why would those tech companies care if refugees from those 7 countries are not allowed in for 90 days?
    Why would those companies put the money & effort into the legal filing and also risk being seen as highly partisan when there is no apparent clear benefit for their action?

    The things I could think of is:
    1. Maybe these companies are hiring refugees for pennies on the dollar, below the living wage and the state subsidizes the refugees’ living costs (housing, food stamps, etc, etc.) and companies can get ultra cheap labor while the state subsidizes the refugees.
    2. The companies know the H1-B & other similar programs (L1,B1,etc.) are going to be tightened through the leaked executive order drafts (http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/25/14390106/leaked-drafts-trump-immigrants-executive-order) & the tech companies are putting up as much noise as they can and muddying the waters as part of a political strategy.

    I know this is not exactly H1-b related, but might be another form of cheap labor program & I d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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  10. Dr. Matloff,

    I am a manager at a large semiconductor firm currently and a former F-1, H1b and now a citizen for 13 years. Today, I read a couple of your articles (one on epi.org) and another on huffingtonpost. From my direct experience, I can assure you that I don’t pass on American-born applicants and nor do I offer disparate wages to H1Bs and citizens However, it is true that applicants from premier institutions of America (citizens & H1) are offered higher wages just because they are scarce and the demand is high. Your argument that the “Best and the Brightest” of other nations should surpass that “Best and the brightest” of the Americans before being offered H1s will render the tech industry devoid of the labor it needs to compete in these very fast-moving, competitive industries. I, find that, what the foreign H1bs lack in their brightness and bestness, they make up with tremendous dedication. Also, with experience and exposure to American opportunities, many of them come to be at par with Americans-born. Is this reflected in wages ? No. The culture of the communities they come from, lacking the requisite skills in self-promotion that seems to be innate in American-borns and needing a little more security than the rampant layoff culture of tech industry affords, these people are left behind.

    In my industry, so much work doesn’t require Best and Brightest of America. Also, the Best and Brightest of America end up wanting more meaning in life than serving soul-sucking greedy corporations. How do I as a manager attract top talent ? I can’t. I can’t pay enough to attract them. And the millennials are even worse than my gen X peers. They want flexibility and coddling way beyond I ever saw my peers needing. Exceedingly unprofessional and disrespectful of the discipline it takes to produce a complex product as a semiconductor chip, they leave before they can be relied on.

    As you point out in your writings, the H1Bs from selective schools of America tend to be almost as good as natives. I hire them because I need people now because market and competition doesn’t wait for anyone.

    Best
    Sandhya

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I can’t take the time to reply to most of them, but I will address your point that “I can assure you that I don’t pass on American-born applicants,” by telling you about an incident that I regard as highly relevant.

      Some years ago, I was a panelist at a public forum on H-1B. After my talk, a man from the audience came up to me and said, “You’re wrong when you say there is no tech labor shortage. I run a software company, and I simply can’t fill my job openings.” I replied, “Well, my wife is a software engineer. I’ll have her apply to your firm. Her surname is different from mine, so you won’t know it’s her. Let’s see if she even gets an interview.” He answered indignantly, “That’s not fair, because she is probably making too much money!” I then said, “Indeed.” So, his so-called “shortage” was really a matter of cheap labor after all. It seems to me that you conceded this point in your comments.

      By the way, the term “American born” is yours, not mine. In my Huffington Post piece, which you say you read, I specifically defined “American” to mean U.S. citizens (including the naturalized ones, such as my wife) and permanent residents (green card holders).

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      • Dr Matloff,

        I believe you addressed counter arguments such as mine with a similar lack of time on Huffington post as well. This is not a reasonable response. If you set about claiming your arguments to be facts, presenting counter arguments such as mine should have an impact.

        Your software entrepreneur example was probably right in that he couldn’t have afforded a senior engineer’s salary as a startup. Startups tend to offer equity. So, your counter example is wrong. Now, I am in a fortune 500 company and I don’t have such restrictions. People of all backgrounds work here and negotiate salary according to their experience and talents but the baseline salary is same for both H1s and citizens.

        As a humanist, I urge you to not turn against the people of other nations that are here to avail of opportunities in the land of opportunity. America has been a beacon of hope and an amazing place for tech entrepreneurs from everywhere. For every older American forced out of “high-paying” jobs, I’ll show you 10 Americans benefitting from the work of new immigrant workforce. My family has started firms that were IPOed on Wall Street and headquartered in Silicon Valley. Their products sold worldwide and they employed people from all over the world and Americans of all race. This is not an exception. The second generation of these H1B immigrants will do more for America and its taxes and citizens via their work.

        I urge you patience and ask that you support us instead of vilifying us via your harsh economic analysis.

        Sandhya

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        • Sandhya, I know many older (35+) Americans who have had real trouble finding work because of the H-1B program. You seem to dismiss them.

          One of them was doing so well in the industry that a Wall Street Journal article profiled his creative work. But later he had trouble getting work, and was forced to leave the industry. Here is a guy with a proven track record of innovation. How many people might HE have employed if he had been able to stay in the industry and later started a company, or applied his innovation talents in a company someone else started?

          Many highly talented young Americans see the handwriting on the wall and decide to avoid the field in the first place. How many people would THEY have employed if they had gone into the field and become entrepreneurs?

          Your accounting method is taking none of these factors into account.

          As to the man who backpedaled when I offered to have my wife apply to his firm, neither you nor I know whether it was a startup. He was in his 50s, not the usual startup age, and in any case, he could have simply answered, “I can offer your wife equity.” No, I had called his bluff and he withdrew immediately.

          I assume you don’t consider Intel a startup. One time I was a guest on a TV news discussion show, with the other guest being Coeta Chambers, who was VP for Human Resources at Intel. She claimed Intel was desperate to hire. I offered to send her CVs of qualified engineers who were having trouble finding work in the field. She then was silent. SILENT! So I repeated my offer, and again, dead silence, right there on live TV.

          What about your firm? Just tell me which company, and I’ll have people submit their CVs. Let’s see if they even get a phone interview. I have done this experiment many times, and I think anyone reading this can guess the outcome.

          I am sympathetic to people of other nations just as much as you are. I have lived in immigrant households all my life, and have often defended immigrants, sometimes at risk to myself. I highly appreciate your polite tone, but you are assuming things about me that you have no right to.

          Let me ask you: Many people reading this have been greatly harmed by the H-1B program. What would you say to them? As a humanist.

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  11. Thank you for that clarification. I never believe business school profs. Capielli may be an American, but the other guys sounded like immigrants.

    NYT is pushing the line that without immigrants Silicon Valley will not work. They are trying to pull off a con job by mentioning a few IT company founders (all from Europe and none from India by the way) and mixing them up with H-1B visa workers. See the link to article below.

    Why is the New York Times supporting H-1B fraud? Do they have slave labor working for them? Or are they planning to outsource to Asia? What’s in it for them?

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  12. I’ve worked 30+ years in IT with just a BS in Computer Science, Data Processing concentration from CSU @ Sacramento – admittedly nothing fancy.

    Can someone please tell me why a MS or PHD is needed in IT?!

    Yes, I imagine if you are doing very special innovative software or hardware development. If you can get in a great program, working with a tech leader, building an innovative new system – then I can see the need!

    In most cases, I think the universities are making a lot of cash and the students are getting a lot of debt.

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    • Unfortunately this MS/PhD thing sells with Congress and the press, who are easily fooled. Even if one points to Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates etc., people who never even got a Bachelor’s degree, they still buy into these grad degree claims.

      Like

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