International Students in America: Fewer, Please. A Lot Fewer.

I just noticed Noah Smith’s recent thread on importing students. He’s quite wrong (which wouldn’t be the first time).

Noah is upset that international students are choosing Canada rather than America.

I couldn’t be more pleased.

The best argument for reducing the flow of international students: America should not be draining the brains of the world.  If indeed we are taking China and India’s brightest people, then we are robbing those countries of the intellects needed to lead and educate their next generations–all so that they can drive down labor costs for Facebook and Google.

Noah doesn’t care about other countries, though–well, that’s probably not true. But in this case, he thinks more international students is good for America.

His case: we shouldn’t worry about foreign STEM students, because the US is graduating more STEM students than any country but India or China.


But as anyone following education trends in the US can tell you, a substantial number of those US STEM graduates are from China and India. Many STEM graduate programs are overwhelmingly dominated by international students.

and at least

33,000 of Science and Engineering undergraduate degrees go to international students. This is six year old Pew data, but it’s a good look at how big a slice of our undergraduate STEM degrees are taken up by international students.

While Smith is correct that educational attainment has consistently risen in US, I’ve written before that much of this is driven by a relentless push for US colleges to lower standards and give college credit and diplomas to students with limited reading skills and middle school math ability.  We can debate the value of this increase, but it’s certainly not evidence that international students aren’t hurting American college education.

We can import international students AND lower standards. Neither is related to the other, and neither is anything to brag about.

Smith then proceeds to argue that 1)  foreign students aren’t taking slots from citizens and 2) rather, they are PAYING for the education of American students!

The first is simply false. From 2008 to today, the undergraduate student population at Stanford has increased by 8.5%. The undergraduate international student population increased over that same time by nearly 47%.  At the University of Michigan Ann Arbor over the same time period, campus population grew by 14%, while the international students increased by half.  In this long-form article on University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, the university admits that admission of out of state American students had dropped since the massive increase in international students–and the number of African American students has fallen hard from an already low rate.  And none of these schools mentioned are among the campuses, most of them top 50 schools, with the most international students.

International students are taking spots from Americans at selective college campuses.  Full stop. Noah is wrong.

The second part is more complex. Unquestionably, public research universities with limited domestic-out-of-state enrollment began turning to  international students when states cut funding.  Moreover, some schools, like  Ohio State , seem perfectly willing to keep students in Intensive English hell for eternity, or as long as they’re willing to pay tuition, whichever comes first. So some of the appeal of unqualified foreign students does seem to be their money.

But is that all? I see several reasons to wonder.

First, the choice to turn to international students is, by definition, a choice against instate students.  The universities could choose to charge more tuition and focus on providing services for the in-state students who can pay. They choose otherwise.  Why? Next, it appears that international students get about 8%  of their funding from US sources (7.9% from state, a bit from US government, according to link above).

While their additional tuition is attractive, it’s also obvious that international students cost a great deal to support. Despite the protestations of many a university admissions officer, many if not most international students are completely incapable of functioning in an American university. Some schools have started charging more for those services, but, as the story acknowledges, before that point the international students were costing a great deal more. And if international students are valuable for their out of state tuition, why are some universities abandoning the international student premium, or giving it back in scholarships? .

So the argument that international students are increasing purely to subsidize in-state low income recipients  at public universities is….shaky.  Besides, a quick look again at all these private schools with the most international students. State funding wasn’t behind those increases.

Having watched this most recent push for international students going on for a decade now, I’m deeply skeptical that public universities are increasing their take of international students for the sake of their in-state applicants. These aren’t short-term moves. Prestige and money for niceties seem to be much more the focus than the in-state students.

Pish tosh, sez Noah, the advantage of international students  is not about educating local undergrads”.  We are thus instructed to ignore all his arguments in favor of American students that I carefully spent half a page deconstructing and rebutting.

It’s about RESEARCH. Research is what boosts the local economy, by drawing in talent and capital and money. The goal should be to UPGRADE scattered second-tier universities into good research universities.

And, from a different tweet thread:

International students are an important part of the university-centered regional development strategy that is pulling towns and regions all across America out of the hole dug by the Rust Belt and the Great Recession…But that’s not all that international students do for America. Their presence improves and increases research labs at American universities. That generates business activity in small cities across America. Want to revive the Midwest? You’re going to need second-tier universities to become first-tier universities, and create local innovation. International students are very important to that strategy.

He develops his thoughts on the value of a university to a community in an op-ed:


I’m sorry, I can’t resist: You boys know what makes this bird go up? 

So, mid-tier universities should import international students to fuel a Midwestern Enlightenment, create intellectual capital that will draw in others to benefit from the bounty. A western Renaissance of smart educated people wading through the rich flow of generated ideas.

Of course if the ideas were generated by international students, the ideas are probably copied. Or maybe the research was just faked.

Take look at the names on his list of top international countries turning out STEM students, or just the countries sending the most students.  China, India, Russia, Iran, Indonesia, and Japan.  Toss in Saudi Arabia.

These are all countries that excuse and encourage tremendous educational and academic fraud.

The students who have the means and desire to come to America to study come from fantastically corrupt countries. They generally show up for college  woefully unprepared, which is unsurprising, given that their test scores and transcripts are generally a work of fiction created by the very companies the colleges hire to find, er, “qualified” students.

Before and during their college experience,  many international students cheat every way they can–from lying on their applications, to  paying ringers to take college admissions or TOEFL tests, to cheating in class, to not even being students at all and just getting work visas–and when they are caught, they routinely wail that their cheating is totally okay in their own cultures, so how could they possible know?

Numerous reporters will hunt down academics to bleat reassuringly that oh, dear, it’s terrible, but not all international students cheat, but far fewer will mention the numerous studies demonstrating that it’s quite a lot of them, and always in greater percentages than domestic students.  The research that exists is far less interested in quantifying the impact of the cheaters on the rest of the university, and far more interested in explaining why they cheat and how they can be educated and encouraged to stop.

These often unqualified students with no understanding of American academic standards are just the seeds of Noah Smith’s grand plan to revitalize the Midwest. He wants many, many more of the same.  He wants American colleges to import millions more rich students from countries with a strong culture of student cheating and academic fraud. We’ll get them to plagiarize grant applications and produce a stream of federal funding that will run Potemkin research labs from Pocatello to Wheeling, the better to pull in start up companies to lie to venture capitalists about the great new product that some kid lied about to get an A in a senior seminar.

I’m not entirely kidding, either.  The degree to which universities are actively encouraging fraud in admissions and overlooking dishonesty and plagiarism to avoid upsetting international communities is shocking. Increasing the population would make a bad situation far worse.

Colleges have brought in far too many international students as it is. We should bring in less. I’m pleased the wave appears to be receding, although it has receded–and come back–before. I might not agree with Stephen Miller’s reasons for ending Chinese student visas, but bring it on. Ending Saudi Arabian student visas would be an inadequate, but painful, penalty for Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

One thing is certain: the mid-western townsfolk wouldn’t object to fewer middle-easterners. Or easterners, for that matter.

What should public universities do if states reduce their funding? They should reduce the number of students or reduce the number of services. Perhaps they could consider accepting only college ready students, insisting on students who could read at a tenth grade level and demonstrate mastery of second year algebra.  They might limit first year curriculum to a sequence of humanities and advanced math–put everyone in the same courses, leave variety to the following years. I feel sure there are ways to teach capable students more cost-effectively.

That approach may not revive moribund towns. But it wouldn’t flood them with international students who view the locals with contempt, either. Or turn them into mini-Vancouvers.

Rather than flooding the zone with federal dollars for research projects staffed by rich Chinese kids, we could use those same dollars to start vocational training centers. Maybe give grants to unemployed or unemployable to relocate and spend some money being trained in construction, in digital technology, auto mechanics and body work, and other skilled labor. That would stimulate the local economy. And if those trained left the area, well, there’d be more coming. Just like with college.

America has to start making do with its own people. It might not be easy.  It might not be better, at first. But it will certainly be fairer.









About educationrealist

10 responses to “International Students in America: Fewer, Please. A Lot Fewer.

  • renato

    It is just a nitpicking, but:

    > The first is simply false. From 2008 to today, the undergraduate student population at Stanford has increased by 8.5%. The international student population increased over that same time by nearly 47%. The University of Michigan Ann Arbor campus population grew by 14%, while the international students increased by half.

    Only this information is not enough to conclude that the international students are taking the local students spots.
    I don’t think that the conclusion is false, but the argument is not enough to assert it without the previous proportion of international students.

  • Joel

    The “long-form article on University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana” link above leads to a 2015 article describes how they recruit hundreds of wealthy but incapable Chinese students to make their numbers work. Today’s Marginal Revolution has a link to a report that “The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has paid $424,000 to insure itself against a significant drop in tuition revenue from Chinese students.”

    I can personally testify to the transformation at UCLA and UC Irvine. Two words: demographics, economics. Everything else follows.

    “How did you go bankrupt?”
    Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

    ― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

  • Samuel Nock

    Glad you are taking this topic on. Trump should radically reduce visas for education. It is a cascade that upends American culture: take coveted high school slots –> take more coveted college and university slots –> take coveted graduate school slots –. nepotistically take over departments in universities –> take coveted jobs in the market (research, banking, investment banks, etc.). It is scandalous.

    One disagreement with your case:

    >”The best argument for reducing the flow of international students: America should not be draining the brains of the world.”

    The best argument for reducing the flow of international students is that, at the current scale, it disrupts American society and alienates young American kids in their own homeland. Why should an American feel like a stranger in his own land? How many kids stay away from their preferred major and life path simply because they feel utterly alienated there? No non-Western society would dream of giving away one of their greatest assets and a key contributor to the success of its own society to foreigners. It is a huge scandal.

    In addition, if you run the numbers (IQ, SAT, etc.) we have plenty of home grown high achievers who are being passed over by international students who — with the help of consultants — know how to game the system and do so with the complicity of greedy colleges who want the money. Take a look at Ron Unz’s The Myth of American Meritocracy. The most discriminated against group in American higher education are White gentiles. You know, those people who used to be known as “Americans”.

    • educationrealist

      Given the post, why would you think I didn’t know that? It’s pretty obvious.

      However, “best” mean something that everyone can agree on. Lots of idiots think American workers don’t matter. The “brain drain” turns it back on those people.

      I mean, duh. It’s fairly obvious I think Americans come first.

      • Samuel Nock

        I did not mean (or even think) that you are not aware of this.

        My point is that many of the arguments about “merit” will be co-opted by Asians and other “model minorities” to their own benefit.

        And “best” is not something we can all agree on: I would argue that the way the system works now, cheaters, gamers-of-the-system and simply people with other priorities that conflict with what made America great take advantage of the system. We went to the Moon, we produced the majority of physics, chemistry and medicine Nobels, we created the greatest industrial and political power all without the world’s “best”.

        There is another subtle point here, which I cannot necessarily back up with data, namely that the current “meritocracy” not only prioritizes cultures that are aggressive, tribal and self-promoting, it simultaneously suppresses and oppresses the more free-wheeling and organic nature of achievement that characterized America in the past: inventors, engineers, scientists and high achievers in the past did not always, or even usually, walk a cookie-cutter path involving SAT cram sessions, filling their resume with bureaucrat-pandering filler and so forth. I believe that many of those people are simply being left behind and shoved aside by the “best”.

        It’s funny how the “best” can only flourish in the U.S. and Western Europe, but they cannot _create_ a culture that is something they themselves wish to live in. This is not brain drain; this is parasitism masquerading as meritocracy. (Not in all cases, but on a demographic basis, on average, it is.)

        Let me end by saying that I really respect and support what you are doing on this blog, and my comment was not meant to denigrate any of the work being done here.

      • educationrealist

        Thanks! Sorry if I misunderstood. Again, its not that I don’t agree with you. And yes, I think it’s hurting the prospects of creative kids who don’t care about grades.

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