International students are streaming onto American college campuses in unprecedented numbers. However, many of them face significant financial and academic hurdles as they advance in their studies, placing greater demands on schools to better serve these students’ needs and expectations.
Compared to a decade ago, 40 percent more foreign-born students now attend American colleges, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). And each year, nearly 900,000 international college students matriculate into the United States, with the majority of them coming from China.
“A lot of young people from around the world are looking for quality education. It’s not available in their country, so they’re now looking at the U.S.,” says Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor at IIE. “A lot of American colleges are happy to have them; however, they [make up] a small percentage of the student population, so there is a lot of room for growth.”
Behind the growing number of overseas students are successes like Priyanka Datta, a 22-year-old senior business and math major at The College of Wooster, a private liberal arts college in Wooster, Ohio. Datta has found a friendly environment on Wooster’s quaint, suburban campus, and she says she especially likes the opportunities for self-discovery that aren’t readily available at schools in her native country of India.
“I’ve had the opportunity to take classes outside of my major, like religion and theater, that give you a broader knowledge of the world,” says Datta. “The ability to explore and pursue your interests is not something you would as easily get back home as you do here.”
Last fall, Wooster began offering an eight-week, global engagement seminar to help international students adjust to living and studying in the United States.
“It gives students a chance to learn about American topics, from healthcare to politics, and how they affect them,” says Jill Munro, director of International Student and Scholar Services at Wooster. “The more we get to know international students as individuals, the better we can be at retaining them because we know their needs.”
Nevertheless, as the number of international students studying in the U.S. continues to rise, retention has become a growing concern. While research shows that more international students graduate from college than their domestic peers, the number of these students who leave American colleges before earning their degree is on the rise.
Thoughts on why these students withdraw without completing their education vary greatly. A recently released national survey on international student retention by NAFSA: Association of International Educators shows a gap between why international students say they leave college early and why educators think they do. The survey — conducted by World Education Services (WES), a private organization that studies trends in international education — includes data from IIE’s Open Doors Report on student mobility.
The survey shows that educators cite finances, academics, English language problems, and the desire to find a better fit as top reasons foreign-born students leave before graduating. Students, on the other hand, cite mainly financial factors, such as a lack of access to jobs or internships, affordability, and the availability of scholarships.
“Our goal is to debunk some of the myths people have in understanding international students,” says Rahul Choudaha, chief knowledge officer for WES and the survey’s lead researcher. “Our hope is that universities will embrace working on retention from a proactive standpoint.”
Many universities are beginning to make a special effort to better meet the unique needs of their international student communities. Some campuses are expanding services such as international advising, English instruction, and health and wellness.
Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) in Chicago started offering an intensive English program several years ago as part of its retention efforts. So far, it’s paying off. The university saw a 107 percent increase in the number of incoming international students from spring 2013 to last fall.
“A lot of international students want to come to the U.S. for degrees in higher education, but they need English,” says Lawrence Berlin, director of NEIU’s Office of International Programs. “Our intensive English program opens up a nice avenue for international students to come to the university.”
At The University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, international students represent 25 percent of the overall student population. The university’s Office of International Student Services works with overseas students from recruitment through graduation and beyond, says Pamela Smith, dean of international services and programs at the university.
“The rigor of university life, coupled with the stress of being so very far away from home, requires awareness of the particular challenges faced by international students,” says Smith. “We are very committed to the success of our students — that means personal as well as academic success.”
Special services and programs like the ones at NEIU and The University of Tulsa help make a U.S. education possible for many international students, but they also benefit U.S. students.
“Barely 10 percent of American students ever study abroad. The way to expose them to international students is to get [international students] in your classrooms,” says Blumenthal. “For every international student who comes to the U.S., there’s going to be a roommate or lab partner who benefits.”
The universities themselves also benefit in a much different way. International students who succeed in higher education become excellent ambassadors, says Sheila Schulte, senior director of professional learning services for NAFSA.
“They go back to their home countries, or they go to their [American] workplaces, and talk about our universities,” Schulte says. “They become the recruitment arm for the university. That word-of-mouth is really powerful.”●
Tannette Johnson-Elie is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.