Focusing on the Retention of International Students

The retention of international students is a complex issue because of how different their journeys differ from all students. But there seems to be growing acknowledgement of the role everyone needs to play within an institution to improve their journeys and retain those students.

NAGAP, The Association for Graduate Enrollment Management, has made this the focus of their latest conference (see Forbes article). Their conclusion in dead on in my opinion.

American graduate schools are increasingly dependent on international students for meeting their enrollment goals. It is critical to deepen the understanding of diverse needs and expectations of international students and strengthen collaboration across decentralized institutional silos. Supporting international student success across their education lifecycle must rise on the agenda of institutional priorities.

With the growing accessibility of post-secondary education, I think this closely relates to the mandate of Higher Education institutions to help all students succeed and live an enriching experience throughout their experience. As stated by the Conference of European Ministers responsible for higher education in 2009:

Access into higher education should be widened by fostering the potential of students from underrepresented groups and by providing adequate conditions for the completion of their studies

As we can see from the focus of that latest NAGAP conference, it does seem like all actors are mobilized to make this a reality. For example, in this position description for the Vice President for Student Affairs at the San Francisco State University:

The Vice President for Student Affairs participates in all aspects of institution-wide planning in support of the mission and goals of the university, including meeting the needs of a diverse student population and creating a learning environment where all students have the opportunity to succeed.

Data on the Retention of International Students

One thing that did surprise me while researching this subject is how very little data exists on the retention of international students across all Higher Education institutions. So in the absence of such data, we turned to IPEDS and mapped the relationship between retention rates and the ratio of international students / student population for all institutions. This is a far from perfect metric for evaluating the retention of international students, but we think it does somewhat reflect the reality of the issue we’re concerned with.

After removal of outliers, we can see that as the proportion of international students is more important within an institution, their overall retention rate lowers. Of course, we cannot affirm that one is responsible for the other, but the relationship itself is interesting.

Retention Rate of International Students

Hopefully, there is a gold mine out there that gives retention rates per type of student and for all institutions. But I haven’t found it. All I could find were a few institutions that published such data. For example, the University of Windsor gives retention rates per student type. The results do show how the retention of international students is lower throughout the years (but it does improve in the last few years – I’d be curious to see their latest results).

Improving International Student’s Journey

The Forbes article above does speak of why international students have lower retention rates than other students. Part of the answer lies in the big difference between their journey and the one from more “typical” students.

We’ve already spoken here of how support services are offered based on the understanding of a student journey that doesn’t accurately reflect anyone’s journey, especially not of an international student. There aren’t any simple answer to those challenges, but as Julia Deland, Director of Admissions at Harvard Graduate School of Education and President of NAGAP says:

Given the critical importance that international student recruitment and retention play at so many of our institutions, NAGAP is committed to continuing this compelling conversation.

We completely agree that such issues should be further explored and discussed. What’s your strategy to improving the retention of international student at your institution? We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below, on social medias or by contacting me directly.