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.