International Student Retention and Success: A Comparative Perspective

Despite the increasing number of international students on U.S. campuses, 70 percent [1] are concentrated in only 200 higher education institutions (HEIs), a remarkable concentration of students considering the United States boasts over 4,500 post-secondary institutions.  In a post-recession climate, more institutions [2] are feeling the pressure to recruit more international students. As the pressure mounts, campuses need to ensure that they are recruiting the best-fit segment of students and have corresponding capacities to meet their expectations [3].

Research has indicated that international students encounter a unique set of challenges related to academic and social integration [4], in addition to often experiencing a mismatch between pre-arrival expectations and the realities of school life when actually on campus.  If unaddressed, these could negatively impact international student retention rates and result in a negative feedback loop that could damage future recruitment efforts (Lee, 2010). Moreover, research also indicates that universities play an important role in the acculturation and integration process, which highlights the need to create positive environments conducive to retention (Smith & Khawaja, 2011).

As the competition to enroll more international students grows, not only within, but between countries, the opportunity for cross-learning is enhanced. The focus of this research brief is to look into the interdependency of recruitment and retention practices from a global, comparative perspective.

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Comparative Perspective on Institutional Practices to Improve Student Experiences


In Australia, nearly one quarter of all college and university students are international. Post 2009, Australian universities encountered a rapid decline in Indian student enrollment, which was partly a result of a series of attacks [6] that made many parents hesitant to send their children to Australia. This example highlights how negative experiences trigger disproportional negative perceptions which may not only lead to attrition, but also result in decreased future enrollment.  Institutions that have a robust understanding of the challenges that students face while on campus, as well as the aspects of their experiences that could lead to attrition, will be well placed to prevent future enrollment declines by addressing the issues causing dissatisfaction.

After ranking second worst for student retention [7] in Australia in 2005, Griffith University in Queensland undertook a comprehensive study of the issues related to retention and attrition. The University concluded that the high attrition rate was attributable to a combination of factors such as personal and academic difficulties, and a lack of fit between the institution and the expectations of international students studying there.

Recognizing the importance of increasing the interaction between domestic and international students, Griffith University instituted the “Student Linx [8]” program, which brings both groups together through entertaining events such as the Global Networking BBQ and International Trivia.  To tackle attrition issues related to inadequate English abilities, Griffith University implemented increased admissions standards for English and instituted the Griffith English language enhancement strategy [9], which included the English HELP program and the English Language Enhancement Course.

Across the continent, Curtin University in Perth has developed a set of guidelines [10] for retaining students based on the research and theories of Vincent Tinto.  The guideline provides a theoretical framework for understanding student retention but also offers practical measures to address the issues that lead students to leave before graduating.

United Kingdom

Research has indicated that a lack of social integration among international students in the UK results in isolation and the formation of negative feelings about their experiences. A disconcerting study [11] found that more than half of international students in the UK felt less than welcome, with a third agreeing that the institution is only interested in their enrollment in order to procure higher tuition fees.

The University of East London [12] recognized the differences in social and emotional support that domestic and international students have, which can have a strong impact on their ability to integrate into a new environment. The University took measures to ensure that international students begin the process of integrating into campus life within the opening weeks of their first semester by offering pre-departure briefings where students can meet face to face with representatives from the University to get answers to basic questions about what they need to bring with them. In addition to this, the University provides airport pickup service and a five-day welcome program, which provides information and services related to transitioning into life in the UK.

In order to promote the social integration of international students, the University of Hull instigated the “Go Connect [13]” program, which endeavors to promote and encourage internationalization efforts on campus, and develop the skills of participants with a focus on employability. The program runs 35 events a year that provide a mix of networking, cultural exchange and learning.  The programming has grown at an average of 71 percent annually, since its inception in 2009; 15 percent of the total student body now participate.


As reported in a recent World Education News & Reviews article [14], international student recruitment is becoming important at both the institutional and governmental level. The Canadian government increasingly views international education as an avenue for attracting highly skilled immigrants.  As a result, the issue of international retention goes beyond graduation from a particular institution, and has taken on a federal policy dimension.

Research conducted at the University of Windsor [15] suggests that international students face a number of serious challenges such as language difficulties, culture-related learning differences, and academic support issues.  In addition to these academic issues, students have experienced isolation, problems integrating, and financial difficulties, among other concerns. Two recommended practices that emerged from the study are ensuring that recruiters provide accurate information about studying at the University to better align expectations with reality, and advertising support services widely to international students, faculty and staff to ensure their use.

In terms of improving international student experiences, Canadian universities have adopted a number of interesting approaches. The University of British Columbia’s International Student Initiative [16] connects recruitment and retention efforts by integrating international student prospects with weekly campus tours that include both international and domestic students. Additionally, there are collaboration efforts within and across departments to ensure that international students facing problems do not slip through the cracks by providing a number of international student assistance programs.

To help integrate a growing population of Chinese students, the University of Toronto Scarborough created the Green Path Program [17]. The program aims to integrate incoming Chinese students by focusing on active participation, research skills development, understanding of academic integrity, and intensive ESL.  In addition to these goals, the program also has several measures for acculturating Chinese students, such as a 12-week summer academic preparation program, and a 12-week summer residential experience program.

United States: Towards Informed Practices

In the United States, the increased focus on recruiting international students has resulted in a growing need [18] to understand the circumstances that result in international student attrition.  Despite these needs, international student retention remains poorly understood, with research often limited in scope, or applicable to specific institutional types.  In order to remedy these limitations and expand current knowledge, NAFSA released a research report on reasons undergraduate international students leave their institution of first enrollment prior to graduating. This research, conducted by WES,  also highlighted good practices for retaining these students. The following are some key highlights from the research as well as some examples of institutions implementing good practices for ensuring international student success.

The research found that issues pertaining to international student retention vary by institutional type in terms of Carnegie Classification.  For instance, 46 percent of undergraduate students at Master’s institutions are dissatisfied with access to jobs or internships, whereas only 27 percent of students at Baccalaureate institutions feel this way. For students at Baccalaureate institutions, 39 percent are dissatisfied with affordability, compared to 32 percent of students at doctorate-granting institutions.

Another key finding of the research relates to how institutions and international students differ in regards to their sentiments on what causes international students to leave before graduating. Overwhelmingly, students cite financial reasons as being the primary source of dissatisfaction, with the top three being access to jobs or internships, affordability, and the availability of scholarships.  In contrast, the top reasons cited by institutions for student attrition is transfer to a better-fit institution, financial challenges, and academic difficulties.

At the core of the issue is a mismatch in expectations during the enrollment cycle.  It is therefore imperative that institutions recognize the diverse needs and expectations of international students.  One way to ensure that international students do not end up at an institution that does not meet their personal and academic needs is to proactively and transparently help international students understand the academic expectations and financial commitments prior to enrollment. At the University of Chicago [19], the Committee on the International Student Experience identified that funding education is difficult for international students.  The Committee recommended centralizing information related to finances and improving the transparency of information on funding availability and eligibility within academic units.

It is also imperative for institutions to recognize that retention relates to campus-wide experiences and they should therefore coordinate internationalization efforts across departments as many of the challenges international students face relate to aspects of their education that do not fall entirely into the domain of international students and scholar services departments. The Pennsylvania State University’s [20] Office of Global Programs partnered with the Office for Student Orientation and Transition Programs and other departments in order to revamp their international student orientation. The new orientation places international students in small, intimate group settings where campus leaders, both domestic and international, help them integrate into the campus community during a three-day immersive experience. This approach helps multiple campus stakeholders become involved in international students’ lives and helps expedite the process of campus integration.

Lastly, institutions need to recognize that many international students are taking an “investment” approach to studying abroad and hence measure their experiences and outcomes in terms of tangible and intangible payoffs. In the context of higher education, service quality refers to the “difference between what a student expects to receive and his/her perceptions of actual delivery to meet these expectations” (O’Neill & Palmer, 2004, p.42). Recognizing this facet of the international student experience, institutions should strive to provide realistic expectations for international students and ensure that their needs are fulfilled.  This requires recognition of the interdependency of recruitment and retention practices.

Recognizing this interdependency, Binghamton University promotes integration and retention before enrollment through innovative services such as online e-buddy programs in combination with programs for students already on campus. In effect, these measures provide information to international students during the information search process and post-enrollment, thus reducing the gap between expectations and reality.

Moving Forward

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A comparative perspective shows that international student success is a function of a tight coupling between recruitment and retention practices.  Disjointed recruitment strategies that focus on increasing numbers alone without focusing on student retention are not sustainable.

Continuously improving the experiences of international students is an important component of the enrollment lifecycle.  A strategic and forward-looking approach to the success of international students not only requires a deep understanding of the unique needs and experiences of international students but also mapping them with corresponding investments in resources and services.

Research on International Student Recruitment and Retention [22]WES works with NAFSA to improve retention of international students; releases national research 

Why do some undergraduate international students leave their institution of first enrollment before completing their degree? What are good practices that will help improve their experiences and retention? These are the core questions addressed by the new national research conducted by WES and released by NAFSA.

Access the full report here [22]


Articles discussing the key highlights of the research:

Additional Resources

Works Cited