A Surge in Graduate Students from China Brings Big Benefits

Chinese students are attracted to American universities, but what can be done to keep their skills in the country after graduation?

What is the Big Idea?

Bei Bei Bao sits in a leather armchair in the middle of the brightly lit foyer at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University where there is a constant hum of student chatter and hurried footsteps. Even at 9 o’clock at night, the room is lively and the camaraderie is a sharp contrast to the austere wood panel walls and plain frosted glass windows. The array of international flags hanging from the ceiling are as diverse as the nationalities these students represent.

Bao, 23, came from Beijing in the fall to start her dual graduate degree in international and public affairs and journalism. She is stylish but conservative in her leather jacket and pink scarf. Bao is lost in the text before her as she thumbs through her iPhone and contemplates the work she has to do for the night. Despite her warm smile and her cheerful demeanor, her first semester has been stressful so far.

“During my first month, I slept like five or six hours a night,” said Bao.

Sleep deprivation aside, Bao perseveres and studies hard she says. But she is not alone. The number of students coming from China to attend graduate school in the United States increased by 21 percent this fall, making this the sixth consecutive year of double-digit growth according to a report by the Council of Graduate Schools. Experts say this trend stems from a combination of China’s new wealthy middle class and students’ perception that the quality of an American education is superior to what they would get back home. This growth also means American graduate students are able to learn along side some of brightest students emerging from the world’s newest superpower, making this influx of immigrants a welcome trend for those on both sides of the Pacific.

But the benefits don’t end there. International students contributed more than $21 billion dollars in tuition and living expenses to the US economy, according to the 2011 Open Doors report by the Institute of International Education (IIE). This means they contribute money to the local economy, transportation, health insurance, room, board, books and supplies. New York state alone saw about $2.5 billion dollars of that total.

For Bao, money was not a factor in her decision to come to Columbia University. Both of her parents are state employees in Beijing who work in finance. They consider themselves wealthy and spared no expense for their only child’s education.

“My dad told me ‘Do whatever you want, you don’t need to worry about making money, I can support you for the rest of your life,’” said Bao. “From very young, I was free to pursue whatever I like.”

This freedom allowed Bao to choose the best education for herself and that meant leaving China to get it. Bao bemoans the graduate school system in China for failing to stimulate or challenge young people like her.

“The grad schools in China are garbage,” said Bao. “I see what my peers back home are doing every day and they’re either on Facebook or shopping.”

Bao is exceptionally serious for someone her age. She was offered scholarships to Stanford University and UC Berkeley but opted for Columbia University because she loves New York City. Bao wastes no time during her long days in school. When she is not in one of her five classes (and one audit class), she is studying either on campus at Butler Library or at her apartment on Riverside Drive. Bao’s only day off is Friday and she spends it doing yoga and pilates.

It’s no surprise that a student this diligent and studious finds China’s graduate schools boring.

“The way an American education is delivered is quite different than the way it’s delivered in China,” said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor at the IIE. “There is participation in class, stress on critical thinking and challenging perceived wisdom as opposed to just sitting there and writing down whatever the professor says.”



What’s the Significance?

The report by the Council of Graduate Schools doesn’t break down fields of study by country, but it says that 63 percent of all international graduate students in the US are enrolled in engineering, physical and earth sciences and business. Seventeen percent are enrolled in education, arts and humanities and other fields.

President Obama recently made a case for more engineers in the US. The supply will come from the pool of skilled immigrants and American educated foreigners, according to entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa. Fifty two percent of the technology companies in the Silicon Valley were started by foreigners.

“Increasing bodies of evidence show that skilled immigrants are fueling technological innovation and job growth in America,” said Wadhwa in a Businessweek article.

Keeping this new wealth of talent in the country, however, is difficult as China’s robust economy and US’ questionable immigration policies forces students to promptly return home after they graduate. Congress needs immigration legislation that “significantly stands to preserve America’s global competitiveness and provide an opportunity for the world’s best and brightest to play for our team, rather than pack up and go home” argues Wadhwa. China’s economy is getting an unintended boost when American educated scientists and engineers take their skills back home.

Economist Nick Schulz echoes this idea when he said that there is “wide consensus among those who have studied the issue that skilled immigrants are a net positive for the receiving country.”

Bao plans to return to China after she graduates. Her parents wanted her to go into business, but she wants to be a journalist. Business journalism is her way of compromising. She took a year off from college at Peking University to work as a research assistant at the Shanghai bureau of The New York Times. This kind of life experience and talent enhances classroom time for both American and Chinese students.

“Classrooms are being enriched with the perspectives and participation of students from China,” said Blumenthal. “And American students who might never visit China now have the chance to work with, room with and be lab partners with students from China.”

Not all the changes are necessarily beneficial. The recent surge in undergraduate students coming from China has been met with resistance. Critics of the trend say college recruiters are poaching unqualified students from China with poor English skills.

Graduate students are different in that they sometimes have the support of assistantships if they’re studying science and engineering or company funding if they’re getting an MBA, according to Blumenthal. So they are better qualified for graduate school than undergraduate candidates who mostly have the support of wealthy parents that pay top dollars for agents who help their kids with everything from applications to writing entrance essays.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.