Campuses Focus More on International Students’ Needs

A study examines the factors that contribute to the retention of foreign undergraduates in two Midwestern university systems

In recent years, the discussion on international students has largely been about how to best recruit talented students from overseas hat may be changing. Now that foreign students are on American campuses, and in large numbers, the conversation is shifting from recruitment strategies to questions about serving the needs of those students.

There is little national data about international-student retention and satisfaction. But a pair of studies presented on Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Association of International Education Administrators, though limited, may shed some light on those issues.

One of the studies, by C.K. Kwai, director of international programs at the University of Maine at Orono, examined what factors contribute to the retention of foreign undergraduates in two Midwestern university systems. Mr. Kwai looked at a variety of factors, including academic performance, integration into campus life, and students’ schooling and experience before coming to the United States.

Just three of the factors that Mr. Kwai tested had a statistically significant and positive effect on student retention: grade-point average in the spring semester of the freshman year, the number of credit hours attempted (students who took heavier courseloads, up to a point, were more likely to continue in their degree programs), and on-campus employment.

That two of the factors are academic is significant, Mr. Kwai said, because it suggests that early and good academic advising could improve international-student success. As for why campus employment would matter, Mr. Kwai hypothesized that having a job could make a student feel more connected to and a part of the institution.

Language Skills

Notably, however, Mr. Kwai’s results indicate that English-language skill is not a significant factor in foreign-student retention, at least as measured by performance on standardized English-proficiency examinations. The finding surprised many in attendance at the conference session and seemed to contradict recent concerns that poor language skills, particularly among undergraduates from countries like China, were hampering students’ ability to succeed academically and culturally on American campuses.

But after the session Mr. Kwai cautioned that educators ought not to read too much into the seeming lack of connection between performance on English-language exams and retention.

He noted a complaint by both international administrators and classroom teachers that such exams are often a better measure of a student’s test-taking ability than English skill, especially in countries with traditions of strong test preparation.

Nafsa: Association of International Educators is working with World Education Services, a nonprofit group that does research on international-student issues, to conduct a national study on the factors that contribute to foreign-student retention and best practices in improving students’ success. The findings will be released this year.

Training Staff Members

Mr. Kwai’s co-presenter, David L. Di Maria, director of international programs and services at Kent State University, explored the views of foreign students held by staff members in student-affairs offices at five Ohio public universities. Staff members in offices like residence life, student counseling, and career services often are asked to work closely with international students but do not have specific training to meet their needs.

In fact, half of the respondents to Mr. Di Maria’s survey said they felt unprepared to work with this growing group of students. Ninety percent said they wanted more training. Interestingly, three-quarters of those surveyed agreed that international students faced additional challenges, compared with American students. But nearly as many, 64 percent, said their offices were not doing anything different specifically to accommodate the foreign-student population.

The message, Mr. Di Maria said, is: “Yes, international students have unique needs, but we’re not prepared to provide unique services.” At Kent State, Mr. Di Maria has set up an international students advisory committee, bringing together representatives of various student-services offices as well as faculty members to discuss ways to improve the campus experience for foreign students and to catch issues “before they snowball.” His office also is trying to provide better training for both faculty and staff members in working with international students.

For example, a number of groups, including about 200 resident assistants, have gone through a simulation called “Acirema” (or “America” spelled backward) that mimics an international student’s first days in the United States. Several years ago, as many American colleges made their first serious efforts to actively attract foreign students, it made sense for recruitment strategies—and challenges—to dominate the conversation among international educators.

But as the market begins to mature, the focus is naturally shifting to questions of how to retain and meet the needs of this group of students, Mr. Di Maria said. And, he pointed out, ensuring that international students both enjoy their time on American campuses and succeed academically is important to continuing recruitment. After all, students tell their friends and family members about their experiences, good and bad. “The best recruitment strategy,” Mr. Di Maria said, “is a good retention strategy.”

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