Here’s yet another example of sloppy math in the media.
Based on one report by an education consulting agency, the media in China and America a couple of weeks ago trumpeted that US universities had expelled up to 8,000 Chinese students for poor grades and/or cheating over the past three years.
What’s buried in all the anguished prose is the provenance of that figure. It’s an estimate, and not even a reliable one.
WholeRen Education, which provides academic services for Chinese studying in the USA, published a white paper (PDF in Chinese) on May 27. Based on a survey of 1,657 students, WholeRen found that 3% (about 50) had been expelled from American institutions, mostly because of low grades or cheating, in the last three years.
Someone then took that sample’s results and applied it to the 275,000 Chinese studying in the USA to arrive at 8,000. Outlets like Newsweek and (dog help us) The Daily Caller have repeated this hypothetical expulsion rate as gospel truth.
In fact, we don’t know exactly how many Chinese students have been expelled.
Yesterday, MuGe Niu, a Chinese who studied at the University of Wisconsin, wrote this article at WisChannel C, a blog and videoblog started by Niu and two other Chinese students. She cautions that the 8,000 figure is not only unreliable, but also obscures the real issues facing Chinese students studying abroad.
The issue highlighted in American media is that due to budget slashes, many American universities (especially public ones) have been admitting more Chinese students for the sake of tuition, but haven’t figured out a way to screen and serve the growing population. Their Chinese counterparts, including People’s Daily Online, focused more on who the expelled students are and why they were expelled. One theory pointed to the low grades and academic dishonesty of this small population, and concluded these are results of fundamental flaws in the Chinese education system.
In fact, there is no data to prove Chinese students are more likely to cheat. Even the best students make mistakes under tremendous pressure. In 2012, about 200 students of an intro political science class at Harvard University were probed for cheating and more than half were suspended for a semester due to collective cheating on a take-home exam.
Even though they focused on different aspects of the story, both American and Chinese media treated the expulsion of Chinese students as news. But let’s face it, expulsion based on low grades or academic dishonesty is written in the school policy of community colleges and Ivy Leagues alike. Many students fail to get through the transition period from high school to college, lose motivation and fail the first year. So why is the 3 % expulsion rate of Chinese students such a big deal?
In the U.S., the stereotypical image of Chinese students is your glass-wearing, ambitious, smart nerd, who discusses math problems in the library as if there is nobody else is around, but rarely makes a sound during class discussions. The Atlantic article quoted one source who said some colleges are “addicted” to Chinese students, because they are hardworking, have good grades and pay lots of tuition. In China, it is often taken for granted and boasted about that our students usually outperform American students in subjects involving math or science. This makes the idea of expulsion based on low grades hard to swallow.
She argues that, while some Chinese students cheat on exams and assignments, in China and abroad, the frequency of such behavior is very low. Additionally, Niu contends that many very capable Chinese students feel lost in the American education system, which is so different from China’s. They are sometimes ill served by the very institutions that crave these full-pay students from abroad.
In the end, expulsion is an extreme consequence. Most students manage to graduate despite the above issues. But it’s essential that both countries understand the 275,000 students studying in the U.S. vary a lot in terms of family background, age,interest and ability. Chinese students nowadays are no longer the elites studying on government sponsorships like those who came decades ago, nor are they all studying engineering, business and natural science. It’s time to update our collective image of Chinese students.
Like students from anywhere in the world, Chinese students aren’t immune to procrastination, social anxiety and academic pressure. Some of them need help from the school and their parents to get through the difficult transition from high school to college. ESL and international student services should improve communication with Chinese students and realize the role cultural difference plays in teaching and communication. The “Chinese student” group has become too big and too diverse for any single stereotype. In short, it’s time to lose the tainted glasses through which we see Chinese students.
Based on absolutely no hard data at all, I would be willing to argue that the expulsion rate among Chinese foreign students is less than that of resident American students. Chinese students probably work much harder to prevent being expelled than their American peers. After all, if an American student flunks out of college, it’s bad, but it doesn’t require her to return to her native country to face her angry parents and the humiliation of failing at her studies.