The International Student Experience: A Crucial Domain of Recruitment and Retention
Megha Roy, Zhengrong Lu, & Bryce Loo, Research Associates
The next Open Doors Report from the Institute for International Education is due out in a few weeks. It’s likely to show continued growth in both the number of international students flooding into the U.S. and their overall impact on our economy. This information is vitally important to a U.S. higher education sector striving to remain vital in an increasingly competitive market. But what can get lost in the focus on the stats – e.g., last year’s headline capturing USD $30.5 billion in contributions from 974,926 students, one third of them from China – is something just as important: a research-based understanding of what experiences those students have when they come to the U.S., and, just as important, of whether or not they get them.This level of insight, we believe, is crucial to remaining relevant in today’s global higher education market.
However, there’s a paucity of research into the experiences of international students in the U.S. once they are here. What is life on U.S. campuses like for these international students? Why do they choose schools here rather than institutions closer to home? Do U.S. higher education institutions (HEIs) meet these students’ needs – academically, socially, otherwise? Do institutions meet the needs of students from some parts of the globe better than those of students from other parts? Why or why not?
Missing Insights: International Student Experience in the U.S.
Some strong research into student satisfaction does exist, of course. The International Student Barometer (ISB) studies the satisfaction levels among international students in Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. It is both well-known and authoritative. However the results tend to be offered in aggregate, and to focus on student experience at selected universities. There are also some studies from other English-speaking countries, such as Australia and the U.K.
But there is surprisingly little U.S.-focused research looking at international student satisfaction levels.
To begin to fill in the gap and provide U.S. institutions with the insight they need to ensure international students’ well-being and satisfaction, the research team at World Education Services (WES) conducted a survey of international students who have studied (or are studying) in the U.S. The survey recipients included a pool of former WES applicants for credential evaluation. We surveyed them about their original motivations for studying abroad, as well as about their reasons for favoring particular institutions or countries. Most respondents (4,256) ultimately attended U.S. institutions; 427 enrolled in institutions outside of both the U.S. and their home countries (for instance in the U.K., Canada, Australia, or Germany). We dug deep into the experiences of those who enrolled in the U.S., querying them about their expectations, satisfaction levels, and experiences with various aspects of their U.S. education: academics, career services, support services, campus facilities, and social life. From that research, we distilled the report we’re releasing today.
What More Than 4,600 International Students Told Us
International Student Experience & Institutional Recruitment Are Linked
For anyone involved in building an international recruitment pipeline, one key finding is both unsurprising and highly relevant: Students are more likely to recommend an institution if they are more satisfied with their experiences. But acting on that – building better supports for students who will in turn become more effective brand ambassadors years down the road – demands an understanding of areas of satisfaction and areas of need at a more nuanced level. We thus broke our findings down by major regions and countries of origin, with some notes on respondents’ academic levels and on the locations of their institutions. We’re presenting a few key insights and recommendations here. The rest are available in a free, downloadable report.
Why They Come
In general, international students are seeking high quality schools, programs that support their interests and career ambitions, career opportunities, and specific skills, in particular linguistic skills, that will help them in the future. Most sought international opportunities in pursuit of:
- Academic quality: Most respondents, particularly those from Sub-Saharan Africa (70 percent) and China (63 percent), became international students because they believed they would receive higher quality education outside of their home countries. The availability of a desired program was the biggest factor overall at 59 percent and particularly among Indian (64 percent) and Sub-Saharan African students (63 percent).
- Career preparation: Forty percent of respondents cited international work experience as a top reason for studying abroad, and 37 percent cited the desire to improve career prospects back home. “Earning potential after graduation” was important particularly among Sub-Saharan African (45 percent) and European students (43 percent) who studied in the U.S.
- Language skills: Students from the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) (26 percent), Europe (26 percent), and Latin America & the Caribbean (23 percent) are very interested in improving their English or other language skills compared to students from other regions.
Most of the students we surveyed had an overall positive experience in the U.S. Key indicators include:
- General satisfaction levels: The majority of respondents were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their U.S. educational experiences. Indian (94 percent indicating “satisfied” or “very satisfied,” the highest overall satisfaction) and European students (90 percent overall satisfaction rate) were the most satisfied overall. Students from MENA and Latin America & the Caribbean were among the least satisfied overall, at 80 percent and 86 percent overall satisfaction rates respectively. Graduates who are employed are more likely to cite satisfaction with their U.S. education, demonstrating the importance of career prospects for international students. Fifty percent of employed graduates cited that they were “very satisfied.”
- Perceptions of value: Most respondents, 94 percent overall, believe that their U.S. education was a good investment.
- Key academic supports: Overall, students ranked, learning facilities – such as libraries, laboratories, and computer labs – and faculty expertise as the top academic aspects of institutions at 54 percent and 52 percent rankings of “very satisfied” .
- Career prospects: Most respondents (93 percent) felt confident about their career prospects after studying in the U.S.
What Needs Attention
We did find some areas where students express some degree of dissatisfaction.
- Research opportunities: received the lowest satisfaction ratings on the academic front (83 percent overall satisfaction rate).
- Key support services: Of all major categories of institutional services, respondents expressed the least satisfaction with career services. Housing/accommodations and financial aid or support are another two areas of dissatisfaction when it comes to campus facilities and support services, with only 63 percent and 66 percent overall satisfaction rates respectively.
- Opportunities to build social and academic capital: Some international students express dissatisfaction with the ability to network with professors outside of class time (12 percent overall dissatisfaction rate). Chinese students struggle with developing social connections more than other types of students (60 percent). Indian students are the most likely to indicate loneliness or homesickness as challenges (42 percent), though these are known to be challenges for most international students.
- Cost concerns: The cost of both tuition and living are major challenges for most international students regardless of origin. Cost is a problem for Sub-Saharan African students in particular (71 percent each for cost of tuition and cost of living).
- Language proficiency: Students from China (48 percent), MENA (38 percent), and Latin America & Caribbean (32 percent) cite more troubles with English language proficiency.
- Academic challenges: MENA students (26 percent) more often feel that academic demands are a particular challenge when studying in the U.S. in comparison to others.
- Discrimination: Sub-Saharan African (24 percent) and MENA (21 percent) students report discrimination (real or perceived) more often than students from other regions or countries.
What It Means: Calls to Action
International students have choices. Once they make the decision to enroll abroad, they can light out for institutions anywhere in the world. The colleges and universities that successfully attract and retain these students will be those that actively work to ensure the international student experience is positive across multiple dimensions. Based on our research, we see two overarching calls to action for U.S. colleges and universities seeking to recruit, enroll, and better serve these students throughout their time on campus. These include:
- Gaining deeper insights into international students’ needs at the campus level: Institutions must work to understand the expectations, experiences, satisfaction levels, and challenges of international students at the individual campus level, and (ideally) need to do so by students’ countries of origins. These insights can be gleaned through applied research, for instance international student surveys or focus groups. They can also be harvested via more traditional data collection measures, such as student course evaluations and graduation surveys, with international students segmented from the overall population.
- Designing a cohesive, cross-departmental plan of action: Students need attention across a range of factors that contribute to their overall satisfaction and well-being. However, the needs of international students are typically delegated to just a couple of offices with limited purviews: International Enrollment Management and International Student Services. To meaningfully improve the international student experience, a broad range of stakeholders must work together. Key players include institutional leadership, faculty, academic departments, the alumni office, student support services such as housing and career services, and others. Even other students play a role. Only when all of these participants are at the table can the international student experience be fully addressed.
For further insight into WES research into international student satisfaction by country of origin, as well as the implications for recruitment and retention, download our October 2016 report,Improving the International Student Experience: Implications for Recruitment and Support.
 For a good summary of findings from the International Student Barometer, see Garrett, R. (2014). Explaining international student satisfaction: initial analysis of data from the International Student Barometer. London: i-Graduate. Retrieved from http://igraduate.dev.ingelby.com/assets/Explaining-Satisfaction-ISB-2014.pdf.
 One of the few such studies conducted to date was a WES and NAFSA: Association of International Educators joint report: Choudaha, R., & Schulmann, P. (2014). Bridging the gap: recruitment and retention to improve international student experiences. Washington, DC: NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Retrieved from https://www.nafsa.org/wcm/Cust/Custom_Cart/Product_Detail.aspx?WebsiteKey=e3842661-cf4e-4241-ba1e-62ba837f37e3&prodid=401&catId=7.