Better Career Services for International Students = Better Retention and Recruitment

Career prospects are a top concern for international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities. A 2015 WES report on how master’s students choose U.S. institutions [2] found that career prospects are, overall, the top factor that sway graduate students toward one institution instead of another.  A second report produced by NAFSA [3] and WES, Bridging the Gap [4], cited access to career opportunities as one of the biggest areas of dissatisfaction for undergraduate international students at U.S. higher education institutions. The report explored “what we think we know about the reasons international undergraduates enroll at a particular campus, why they stay, or why they transfer.” Good career services emerged as the third most cited practice by students for institutions to have in place in order to help international students.

Taken together, these findings highlight a troubling disconnect between international students and the higher education institutions that host them: On the one hand, career prospects are a major pull factor for international students who come to the U.S. On the other, the career services available are often a significant disappointment.

Understanding Barriers, Identifying Remedies

In 2016, WES conducted exploratory research into practices at institutions that provide strong career services to international students. Our objective was twofold: to understand the barriers that thwart international students from obtaining work, and to document established and effective practices at effective institutions.

Our research was conducted in three phases and involved multiple types of sources: a review of the literature; an exploratory survey of institutional officers with firsthand knowledge of providing career services to international students; and interviews with select career services officers who rated their office’s efforts as ‘very effective’.


Overall, we discovered barriers specific to institutions, barriers specific to employers, and barriers specific to students. For instance, 85 percent of institutions cited failure to have an established network of employers to turn to as a major challenge. Familiarity with relevant visa regulations was also a significant barrier for both institutions and employers. Students, meanwhile, suffered from an array of challenges including overblown employment expectations, linguistic skills, and culturally loaded challenges around marketing themselves and their skills to American employers.

International Student Visas: A Quick Primer

Employers, career services professionals and volunteers, and international students all benefit from a basic understanding of the visa programs that enable foreign students to work in the U.S. Short-term work authorization options include:

Longer-term work authorization options include:

Source: University of California, Berkeley

Effective Practices are Intentional and Strategic

What we learned about how ‘effective’ institutions approach these challenges is that they are intentional and strategic. These institutions tend to know (and to work to address) the needs and challenges of international students at a level that extends far beyond predictable issues such as visa requirements. They are adept at identifying the ways in which international students’ career services needs are both similar to and different from those of domestic students, and savvy about communicating across departments and channels to reach international students with the right information at the right time.

Importantly, they are also savvy about working with potential employers off campus, both to break down common misconceptions about the challenges of hiring international students and to create durable and informed networks of employers to whom they can refer their job-seeking international students.

Effective institutions typically adopted at least some of the following strategies, each of which can be adapted by other institutions seeking to better address international students’ career and employment prospects:



Student Choices, Student Benefits

International students have become increasingly important to U.S. colleges and universities, particularly as funding has dwindled [8] and domestic enrollment has declined [9]. In order to continue attracting international students over the long term (rather than just getting the next year’s crop through the door), institutions need to be mindful of the multiple factors – including career aspirations – that lead students to select one institution over another. International students need to leave knowing that the cost of their education will pay dividends in terms of their careers. It is not an area that can simply be left to chance.

Detailed findings, and an overview of participants in the survey and interviews are available in the full version of the report, available for download here [10].