Colleges need international students in part for the tuition revenue, but language and cultural barriers make assimilation a struggle
By Douglas Belkin and Miriam Jordan
Chutian Shao moved from China to the Midwest college town of Champaign, Ill., a few years ago. Some days, he says, it feels as if he hasn’t traveled very far at all.
On a recent Monday, the 22-year-old woke up in the apartment he shares with three Chinese friends. He walked to an engineering class at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he sat with Chinese students. Then, he hit the gym with a Chinese pal before studying in the library until late into the night.
He recalls uttering two fragments in English all day. The longest was at Chipotle, where he ordered a burrito: “Double chicken, black beans, lettuce and hot sauce.”
At first glance, a huge wave of Chinese students entering American higher education seems beneficial for both sides. International students, in particular from China, are clamoring for American credentials, while U.S. schools want their tuition dollars, which can run two to three times the rate paid by in-state students.
On the ground, American campuses are struggling to absorb the rapid and growing influx—a dynamic confirmed by interviews with dozens of students, college professors and counselors.
Students such as Mr. Shao are finding themselves separated from their American peers, sometimes through choice. Many are having a tough time fitting in and keeping up with classes. School administrators and teachers bluntly say a significant portion of international students are ill prepared for an American college education, and resent having to amend their lectures as a result.
In a recent computer engineering class, Mr. Shao sat quietly in the back of a large lecture hall, dividing his time between Chinese social media on his
smartphone and a lecture by Dave Nicol. He doesn’t remember ever asking a question in class.