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Retention strategies for international college students

interstride logo by Interstride
January 19, 2023

According to research from the National Student Clearinghouse, 27.6% of full-time students in 2020 chose not to continue their studies at their current college for the next academic year. While that number is slightly lower for international students, every student that drops out or transfers to another university represents lost revenue for the school. With the decrease in enrollment in the U.S., focusing on international student retention is more important than ever.

What is student retention and why it matters?

Student retention refers to keeping students enrolled in their current institution until they graduate. Low student retention caused by students leaving school for the workforce, dropping out for other reasons, or transferring to a different school can lead to loss of revenue for the university, and a lost opportunity to recuperate recruiting costs. On the other hand, high retention rates are a signal of student satisfaction and a sign of prosperity and stability for the university as a whole. By implementing the correct student retention strategies, you can boost your school’s reputation and increase both enrollment and retention rates.

According to NAFSA, Elizabeth Matthews, Assistant Director of the Office for International Students and Scholars at Michigan State University, states that it is ‘a misstep to fail to recognize the impact that international student attrition has on the reputation of the institution abroad.’ If current students and alumni voice negative experiences, that could deter international prospects and their families from considering higher education at your institution or even in the U.S. at all. Therefore, keeping active students happy and satisfied is crucial to fostering a positive reputation locally and abroad, and attracting top talent from around the world to study in the U.S.

Top barriers to student retention

In order to implement effective student retention strategies, you should first understand the challenges that cause students to drop out or transfer to another university or college. For international students, these can include:

  • Culture shock or difficulties acclimating to a new environment
  • Lack of university support to ease transitioning into American life
  • High cost of education and living in the U.S.

1) Lack of Support or Guidance

Once international students are enrolled, universities often fail to provide the academic, career, and immigration support they desperately need which can lead to poor retention and reputation. At some universities in the U.S., departments operate completely separate from each other. When each department has their own leadership, resources, processes, and systems with little to no collaboration across other departments, an active international student may feel disconnected and ill informed.

Many colleges in the U.S. also have complex and archaic websites that students must navigate regularly to find information and complete essential tasks like registering for classes. These websites are usually designed for professors, university staff, and domestic students, so international students may struggle to find the crucial information and resources they need. Regardless of whether an international student is looking for academic or immigration support, the lack of university guidance can leave students feeling confused and overwhelmed in a completely new environment.

2) Financing

As the costs of higher education in the U.S. continue to rise, financing remains a key factor in international student retention. International students face higher tuition and fees and have to pay for travel to and from the U.S., as well as living accommodations. They may also experience financial uncertainty due to fluctuations in currency exchange rates. International students and their families want to make sure they are getting a high return on investment. The student should feel confident that their career opportunities upon graduation will be equally or more valuable than the cost of the degree. That means not only implementing creative pricing strategies and offering financial aid, but showing students how valuable a degree from your university is.

3) Lack of Community

International students may struggle to fit in at their new school while being far from home and away from their support system. If students don’t find a meaningful connection to their university or develop strong social ties with other students, they may feel isolated and dissatisfied. This could lead them to drop out, return to their home country, or transfer to a different school in search of a sense of belonging. Retention strategies in higher education should include addressing cultural differences and language barriers that prevent international students from connecting to their school and other students.

Retention Strategies for Higher Education

1) Engage early on and creatively

Ensuring that international students have a good and accurate first impression of the school is key to long-term retention. This is especially true for international students who likely will not be able to visit the school in person before they enroll. Excellent student retention strategies start engaging students before they even enroll at the university or arrive on campus. Supporting international students in the admissions process with long term retention in mind sets both parties up for success. It sends the message to prospective students that the school cares about them and will support them from day one through graduation. If you wait until a student is struggling or dissatisfied in some way to provide support, it may be too late.

International students may also be hesitant to reach out and ask for help. The university should proactively show students that it cares about their well-being and success, and educate them on how to access services and resources on-campus that may be relevant to them. Some ways to implement this retention strategy include regularly checking in with international students and leveraging student ambassadors to increase engagement. Student ambassadors can be available online or in-person to answer international students’ questions and share resources.

2) Provide tailored support and resources for academic success

Colleges and universities need to provide individualized support and guidance for each international student. Retention strategies for students in their first year of school should be more hands-on and include actively connecting students to resources that they likely would not seek out on their own. Academic and career advisors should meet with first-year students regularly, and work with them to create a tailored support plan.

For international students in the middle of their studies or in their last academic year, advisors must actively engage and inform students of their options to work and stay in the U.S. upon graduation. This includes providing them with the proper career development and immigration resources and opening doors to possible job opportunities.

To design and carry out effective higher education retention strategies for all stages of the international student journey, Admissions Offices, Career Services, International Student Offices, Offices of Retention, and Community Life need to collaboratively engage with international students. One office working in isolation cannot fully support a student.

Here are some suggested supports for fostering international students’ academic success:

  • Online and in-person tutoring
  • English language classes
  • Virtual office hours with professors
  • Academic writing workshops
  • Online and in-person social events
  • Workshops and webinars on U.S. culture, immigration pathways, and work authorization
  • Networking events with alumni
  • Job fairs with companies that sponsor international students
  • 1-on-1 advising on graduation requirements and career options

3) Create connection and build community

A sense of belonging is key for international student retention. International students who feel isolated are likely to drop out or transfer elsewhere. With the increase of online classes, international students may also feel more disconnected from their peers even if they are living on or near campus. To foster positive social encounters among students, it’s important to meet them where they are – online.

An effective way to increase student interactions is through a digital university ambassador program. These programs invite prospective and new students to engage with current students and alumni online, and allows them to ask questions and get advice from their peers. Research shows that digital messaging and engagement platforms foster social immediacy which increases students’ feelings of connectedness. “Online immediacy, such as instant feedback and timely responses on a chat group or email, replicates the social cues that are present in a real time interaction.” By facilitating positive and authentic interactions digitally, student ambassador programs can help new American and international students feel welcomed and connected to the school in their first year to ensure their return.

A better way to improve international student retention

While admissions offices work hard to keep student enrollment numbers up, getting students in the door isn’t enough. You must also be proactive in implementing strategies to improve international student retention. Students want to know that their college will support them throughout their higher education journey and set them up for future success. Interstride’s dynamic tool helps you better engage and support prospective and current international students, and supplements existing international college student retention efforts. University admissions will find it valuable for increasing international student satisfaction, boosting the school’s reputation, and improving overall student retention.