On Chinese International Students (Or, Sorry if this comes off a little Yellow Peril)

Guest Post by erin Khuê Ninh

I have Chinese international students in my classes every quarter now, though I feel my courses do not serve them well. On the first day of class, I make noises about how this is an upper-division/college-level course in literary studies: We do reading in large quantity, in high difficulty, and then we subject the language to intense scrutiny. There is no time for problems in basic reading comprehension, or for the difference between plot summary and answering the question. Please, I want to say, would you take college-level physics without having passed algebra? All I can do is fail you.

But I deliver this spiel with less conviction lately, because they don't necessarily fail. Some do, and others turn in surprisingly polished essays, clearly tailored to the assignment, despite never having uttered a word in class. Perhaps that is proof of my internalized racism, my unjustly low opinion of the level of preparation common to international students. Or perhaps they have made use of the many 'proxy' services in test-taking and essay-writing that cater to Chinese international students on college campuses: pay someone else to write your paper and it will never show up on a search engine. I will never be able to prove it.

A disclaimer: I've not done my own empirical studies of the problem. This is a commentary based on anecdotal experience, rounded out by citing some investigative journalism. So take this as a set of questions rather than answers. My main question for you being: the growing trend of international (and especially Chinese) undergraduate admissions in US colleges and universities, is this a problem?

US higher education has long made room for international students, of course, but the Whom and Why have shifted dramatically in recent decades. "In the past, Chinese students in the United States tended to be graduate students living on tight budgets." Admitted to highly selective programs for their qualifications, graduate students from Asia were part of immigration provisions both before and especially after 1965 designed to draw the best minds to the US -- and the trend was indeed that after getting their PhDs they stayed, becoming first-generation Americans and many of your (grand)parents.

But the structural conditions driving colleges and universities to pursue aggressive numbers of international undergraduates now are strictly monetary:

In 2014, these students contributed more than $30 billion to the American economy, according to a report issued by the US Department of Commerce. International students, often paying full freight, ... help colleges address budget shortfalls (especially as state governments cut funding).

International tuition and fees have been a kind of emergency transfusion to replace the public funds that public and private institutions both need to survive. The transfusion metaphor fails, though, in that this arrangement isn't necessarily temporary: those budget cuts won't heal themselves. And replacing taxpayer money with foreign tuition checks isn't simply a matter of different funding sources. These are lives, and there are implications.

Today, at 31 percent of the international population, the Chinese who can afford US bachelor's degrees are often rich -- even crazy rich. "Chinese millionaires and billionaires not only invest in American businesses, but they also send their children abroad for school, where their wealth is often displayed in exorbitant fashion." And their plan is not to stay: "[T]his time abroad is called dujin, a 'golden vacation' that also improves job prospects. ... [A] foreign degree was worth a lot on a resume back home."

But some students are here on their parents' savings, with little left over, for a future they cannot afford to jeopardize. For them, the stakes are life-and-death high, yet they are as if systemically engineered to fail. That is, for them, admissions fraud is not an individual weakness; it is a robust, multi-national industry: China and South Korea, especially, abound with companies that "help students contrive their entire college application -- embellishing or ghostwriting application essays, doctoring letters of recommendation from high school teachers, and even advising kids to obtain fake high school transcripts." Such is the norm that "Chinese students might think cheating is their only choice" -- but defeating the purpose of admissions mechanisms is also ensuring that they are admitted where they do not have the necessary preparation or skills to pass classes on their own merit. International students have been found to cheat on coursework at 5 or 8 times the rate of domestic students, with Chinese known to be the most frequent offenders. Cheating becomes an unbreakable cycle, making for diplomas as meaningless (though expensive) as their admissions letters were.

So idealistically speaking, cheaters cheat themselves, it's true. But should we still mind? Well, ringers who "guarantee an A on a test by taking it in someone's place" will affect a curve. There is also some concern that everyone's diplomas will be cheapened by rampant academic dishonesty. Yet the very institutions you'd think would crack down on fraud to protect the market value of their products seem more interested in protecting the bottom lines of immediate revenue. The College Board, for example, knows very well that its exams are leaked far and wide -- systematically "harvested" by test-prep companies in Asia -- yet it "took no steps to restrict testing in China, the SAT's largest international market by far." At schools, officials are plenty wise to the "obvious" fraud among international applications, but while levels of response vary, they do not seem sufficient. There is a sense that, even when dealing with cheating on their own campuses, "[a]ll of the institutional incentives, at multiple levels, are against catching and prosecuting cheaters."

Does all this press sound a bit off to you? I hear it too: that tinny ring of xenophobic hysteria. As an Asian American Studies professor, I'm well aware of the speed and alacrity with which Western media cries "Yellow Peril!" As well as of the public's propensity to see all Asians as foreigners: Will we come to miss the model (American) minority overachiever stereotype, if it is replaced by the (sojourner) unqualified cheat?

But the point of this piece is not to range Us (Asian Americans) against Them (Chinese international students). Instead, I want to hold university administrations accountable to the students they admit: domestic and international alike.

Let me tell you what accountability *doesn't* look like. I attended a workshop at my institution last year entitled "How to Best Support Faculty in the Classroom with International Students." Academic Dishonesty did not make the list of topics covered. Instead, we were given tips on how to "engage" international students. First up: Begin and/or end lectures by stating Student Learning Objectives. Post slides online. Avoid "challenging speech" such as hypothetical questions. Never mind that the skills I teach -- literary analysis, critical thinking -- are incompatible with daily, bullet-point SLOs. Apparently, the university's concept of "supporting" its thousands of international admits (much less faculty) is to suggest that courses at every level and in every discipline be pitched to the comprehension of the English-language-learner. Not only is that wildly unrealistic pedagogically, and therefore wholly ineffective for the international students, but to whatever degree it is in fact implemented it robs the domestic students of nuance and complexity in their learning: of the high notes and syncopated rhythm of ideas and the language they come in.

That is, insofar as schools are aware that students are likely incapable of their coursework yet take their money anyway, it is US college officials who are running the biggest scam. Insofar as schools fail or barely try to meet their international student population's real academic needs, they create the conditions for cheating economies to flourish, and corrode the quality of instruction for all students. Insofar as they burn the fossil fuels of easy money rather than fighting for sustainable funding sources, they are not stewarding the futures of their own institutions, and it may be that in a few decades a spot in a US college won't be worth vying for anymore. At a minimum, the current gold rush of international tuition needs to pay for more and better applicant evaluation methods. And if effective evaluation slows that rush to a trickle, it is because fool's gold was never a sustainable replacement for public investment in higher education.

erin Khuê Ninh teaches literature in the department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. She is author of Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature, and a former publisher and blog editor at Hyphen.

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