Highlights and Top Findings: Are U.S. HEIs Meeting the Needs of International Students?

Highlights and Top Findings: Are U.S. HEIs Meeting the Needs of International Students? lead image: International students studying in an outdoor archway at a university [1]

To succeed in the United States, international students often rely on the services provided by their institutions. While they typically require much of the same support as domestic students, they usually face additional challenges, notably academic and cultural adjustment, proficiency in the English language, and complex immigration regulations. Success is, of course, ultimately the responsibility of students. However, U.S. institutions should take steps to meet these students’ unique needs, particularly considering the vast sums of money these students pay to attend them.

Additionally, after years of record growth, the U.S. higher education sector is facing the specter of declining international student enrollment. The factors behind this trend are numerous, but chief among them are stiff competition from other major host nations—such as Australia, Canada, Germany, and even China—and the current political climate, as well as the sheer cost of a U.S. education. Many U.S. institutions face enormous obstacles recruiting international students. But focusing attention and efforts on current students and their experiences may help institutions weather the storm, as research consistently shows that international students who have great experiences are more likely to recommend their institution to peers back home.

To gain a nationwide picture of international student experiences in U.S. higher education, World Education Services (WES) conducted a two-part study of current international students and recent graduates. The first part, an online focus group of 23 current international students, was conducted in January 2019 through an online bulletin board. These students represented 15 countries and campuses across the U.S. The second part comprised an online survey that collected 1,921 valid responses from current international students and recent graduates. Both the online focus group and survey collected rich data and insights from students, including recommendations for improving services for international students. With this information, institutions can reflect on the services they offer and consider where they have the capacity to develop them further.

This article provides some top findings, highlights, and recommendations from the report. Download the free report [2] from the WES website for an even fuller picture.

Overall Satisfaction

The majority of students—91 percent—are satisfied with their U.S. education. Overall satisfaction appears highest among sub-Saharan African students (95 percent), a finding consistent with WES’ 2016 research study [3]. Satisfaction has also improved among Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) students since that time.

Peer Relationships

Relationships with peers—both domestic and international—are crucial for overall international student well-being and ability to integrate. However, a significant number of students struggle with developing a robust social network.

Top Findings

Highlights and Top Findings: Are U.S. HEIs Meeting the Needs of International Students? image 1: chart showing international students ability to form close friendships whether in their home country or a third country [4]

Key Takeaways

While institutions cannot directly create friendships among students, there are ways that they can facilitate the development of such relationships. In particular, institutions should think about ways to reduce barriers to friendships between international and domestic students.

Faculty Relationships and Academic Satisfaction

Faculty and academics are among the biggest draws that attract international students to U.S. institutions. As a result, relationships with faculty members, ranging from tenured professors to teaching assistants (TAs), are among the most important for international students.

Top Findings

Key Takeaways

Encouragingly, a large proportion of international students are highly satisfied with their academic experiences on campus, particularly in terms of relationships with faculty. However, the report shows that more can be done to help students adjust academically.

Welcoming International Students to the U.S.

One of the biggest concerns surrounding international students recently is whether or not they feel welcome in the U.S., given the current state of U.S. politics and debates surrounding immigration. The good news is that most international students in the U.S.—79 percent—do feel welcome here. (That said, we do not know the feelings among prospective students who have yet to come to the U.S.) Interestingly, students from the MENA region were most likely to state that the U.S. is a welcoming place (86 percent). By contrast, students from Latin America and the Caribbean were the least likely to feel welcome (68 percent). This perception likely reflects, among other factors, ongoing national political debates surrounding immigration and the southern border with Mexico, where many migrants from the region are coming to seek asylum in the U.S.

Administrative Staff Relationships

Administrative staff are typically the first people with whom international students communicate and interact, from recruiters and admissions officers, to officers from the international student office who issue I-20s and other visa-related paperwork, to those who handle student financial issues. Once the students are in the U.S. and on campus, individuals from these offices provide them with vital information that helps them get acclimated.

Top Findings

Key Takeaways

Many institutions can build on the great work already done by their administrative offices, particularly the international student office.

Identity and Acculturation

Living in a new country, international students must adapt to their new host society and also retain a sense of self that is rooted in their own culture. This can often be a challenging process that can lead to homesickness, among other problems.

Top Findings

Highlights and Top Findings: Are U.S. HEIs Meeting the Needs of International Students? image 2: pie chart showing internationals students expectations vs. their experiences with things like language barriers, living away from family, and cultural barriers [5]

Key Takeaways


While the majority of international students in our study said that they have not experienced discrimination because of their nationality, nearly one-third (31 percent) said they had. East Asian (including 40 percent of Chinese students), MENA, and sub-Saharan African students most often cited instances of discrimination. European students cited it the least.

Daily Life

Beyond attending to their academics and forming relationships, students focus much of their attention on day-to-day living: housing, food, transportation, and the like. While academics and social activities are crucial components of the international student experience, institutions should not ignore the facets of daily life that can make or break a student’s academic journey.

Highlights and Top Findings: Are U.S. HEIs Meeting the Needs of International Students? image 3: graphic showing the degree of dissatisfaction with housing affordability and availability for international students [6]

Top Findings

Key Takeaways


When international students have positive experiences and succeed, the benefits accrue not just to the students themselves but also to their institutions. For students, the benefits are often good jobs and promising career trajectories that result from their earned degrees and new connections. They also typically develop the ability to understand and work with people of various backgrounds, as well as a fluency in U.S. culture and the English language. Often, they develop lifelong friendships and relationships; they may (if lucky) immigrate to the U.S. or, if they return home or go elsewhere, maintain ties with the U.S. In turn, HEIs benefit by having international alumni who can provide favorable word-of-mouth referrals to peers and retain ties to the institution well into the future.

1. [8] Lee, J.T., & Rice, C. (2007). Welcome to America? International student perceptions of discrimination. Higher Education, 53(3), 381-409.