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Retaining International Students: What Works, What Doesn’t

After a U.S. college or university accepts an international student, a new and possibly more critical job begins – working to keep that student through graduation. To meet the challenge, colleges and universities are undertaking a variety of strategies to help students from abroad successfully acclimate to life and academics on American campuses.

For many years, institutions have developed ways to help international students adjust socially to their new environment and feel part of the campus community. These initiatives have included special orientation and mentoring programs, or pairing the students with local families to get home-cooked meals and to enjoy American or local traditions, such as pumpkin-carving or apple-picking.

Although such initiatives are important because they promote assimilation and inclusion, other forms of support are critical to student success at an institution, college officials say. There is a need for support in other areas, ranging from immigration issues to language proficiency to career preparation. Especially during a time of shrinking budgets, universities monitor their programs’ effectiveness to determine which efforts to start, stop, modify, or expand. Striking the right balance can be difficult.

“You’ve got to be smart. The dollars are precious,” says Argyle Wade, assistant vice provost for student development at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Madison, Wis., “But you don’t want it to be a numbers game and say, ‘We’ll deal with the masses and let the individuals fend for themselves.’”

In a recent survey of college officials, most respondents identified academic tutoring, English-language instruction, first-year programs, mentoring efforts, orientation sessions, professional advising, and writing programs as having the most impact on retaining students. The survey results also indicated that intrusive advising was regarded as impactful, even though it was used less frequently. Intrusive advising means that advisors proactively reach out to help students rather than waiting for the students to seek help. College officials point out that the survey results suggest that the practice should be more widely used. Degree planning, progress reporting, freshman seminars, intervention alerts, and living and learning communities were regarded as having the least amount of impact. (See Figure 1.)

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The findings are from the survey Policies and Practices in Enrollment and Student Affairs, which was conducted in March 2017 by Maguire Associates of Concord, MA, for the ETS TOEFL Program. The results are based on the responses of 556 recruitment and admissions officers at two- and four-year, public and private institutions, including both undergraduate and graduate programs. The survey analyzes issues impacting the recruitment and retention of international students. Currently, about one million students from other countries are studying in the United States. Higher-ed officials say the diversification creates a more global campus experience, and it is a critical source of revenue because foreign students pay full tuition.

International students come with unique challenges. There are language barriers, culture shock, food differences, and homesickness. They also face variations in educational approaches. In some countries, students are taught to sit silently, listen to lectures, and memorize, while U.S. pedagogy is more interactive. Some international students don’t understand that they are expected to answer questions and offer viewpoints, or they aren’t comfortable with that expectation. Domestic students can sometimes be seen as standoffish.

“Feeling disconnected from home was quite stressful,” says Ga Hyun Lee, a rising third-year student from South Korea at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, who goes by the name Michelle. “It was embarrassing for me to ask the domestic students for help. I didn’t want to look stupid.”

The specific issues that international students might face and the approaches institutions might use differ depending on a campus’s size, type, or location, college officials say. But the efforts are inherently the same. According to the survey, most institutions’ initiatives for international students focus on student services (56 percent) and social integration (48 percent). Those primary areas are followed by campus facilities, academic issues, affordability concerns, and career outcomes. (See Figure 2.)

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Student services is a focus at Grinnell, where about 18 percent of its students come from overseas. In recent months, Grinnell has seen an uptick in concerns over immigration issues. Officials are spending more time helping students understand their documentation and what is required. “If students can’t deal with—or figure out—the regulations, they will not have time for their academics or to make new friends,” says Karen Edwards, Grinnell’s associate dean and director of international student affairs. “The most important thing is to set the stage for international students to just be students.”

Elsewhere, Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. acclimates its international students early. Before even setting foot on campus, international students can be matched with an international student in their junior or senior year who can help them prepare for arrival, by discussing questions ranging from what the students need for a Wisconsin winter to what clubs to join. Another program assigns both domestic and international students to groups that meet once a week in the fall semester to discuss such topics as identity, relationships, and social life. “If colleges can develop that sense of family, friendships, and support, it really is helpful,” says Leah McSorley, Lawrence’s associate dean of students for international student services.

Some colleges and universities, however, have found that efforts designed to promote cross-cultural bonding can sometimes miss the mark. Like many institutions, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio invites foreign students to host festivals, symposiums, and events to share their culture with others on the campus. However, a recent survey of students found that such efforts were mainly attracting the students of the featured country. “Cultural events that were well-intentioned actually ended up creating silos instead of bringing together commonalities,” says Megan Gerhardt, an associate professor of management and leadership at Miami.

In response to our survey, some colleges and universities said they are encouraging faculty and staff to learn other languages, such as Mandarin, because language differences can contribute to isolation. Other institutions report they are holding seminars to teach professors how to pronounce foreign names, while others are hiring multilingual therapists.

From an academic standpoint, if a student has trouble writing, reading, speaking, or comprehending the English language, the deficiency is likely to negatively impact their performance. Successful academic performance is critical for international students who might risk losing their student visas if they repeatedly fail courses or fall below a minimum number of required credit hours. According to the survey, most institutions include English language proficiency test scores, such as those from the TOEFL test, for international students as part of the admissions decision. (See Figure 3.)

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Although the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va. sets a high-performance threshold on admissions language testing, it has recognized that some students would be strong candidates for admission but would need extra help, especially in writing. Style, organization, and grammar differ among countries. Richmond employs a full-time specialist who teaches English as a Second Language courses and individually tutors students. The writing center also provides support. “Our chief focus is on how your language skills might be good, but maybe you can’t write a term paper in the way that’s expected by an American university,” says Martha Merritt, dean of international education.

Colleges and universities are also working with American businesses to help them consider international students for internships, or, after graduation, employment. Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., like many institutions, has found that companies often don’t understand visas and immigration law, so they don’t consider international students. Lehigh’s international office and career center have produced a resource guide for employers that explains different visas, defines terms, and lays out what international students can and cannot do. “Students come here because they see that getting a degree in the U.S. is a career enhancer,” says Cheryl Matherly, Lehigh’s vice president and vice provost for international affairs. “If they view the institution as really invested in their careers, that goes a long way to retention.”

Administrators at Wisconsin’s Madison campus each year survey international students to see what’s helping them and what’s not. For example, last fall, officials made changes in the international advising system because students complained that they had to wait in long lines. The adjustments are moving students more quickly through the process. The university also monitors grades and courses added or dropped by international students. If international students fail to maintain the course loads required by their student visas, they could risk losing them. “We don’t want to become Big Brother,” says Wade. “But we don’t want to let them make decisions accidentally that might result in their having to leave the country.”

Wade says it is important to use a holistic approach to retain international students. The ultimate goal is to produce well-educated graduates who have had a positive experience at the university. “If you aren’t doing your best to make sure your students are successful,” Wade says, “you aren’t doing justice by your students.”

This content was paid for and created by ETS TOEFL.

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