Retaining International Students: Understanding Student Dissatisfaction

A hot topic at the 2014 annual meeting of NASFA: Association of International Educators was how to retain international students. For more than a decade, most colleges and universities in the United States have been actively working to grow the number of international students that they enroll.  Broadly speaking, these efforts have been working. According to data from the Open Doors report from the Institute for International Education, in 1992-1993 about 450,000 international students were studying in the United States.  Twenty years later, in 2012-2013 that number had grown to nearly 800,000.  In fact, in the five-year period following 2007-2008, the number of new international students enrolling for the first time grew by 44%, with more than a quarter of a million new international students entering the United States higher education system in 2012-2013.

As I have written about previously in this column, this growth in international student enrollments was not accompanied by corresponding investment in support services to help these students become successful in their academic pursuits.  While international students experience some of the same challenges as domestic students, these issues can be confounded by such things as language barriers, different cultural expectations, and family pressure to succeed..  This combination of institutions’ increasing the number of international students and not providing many support structures may negatively affect international student satisfaction and ultimately lead to lower retention rates.

There is no entity that collects data on the retention rates of international students nationally, so it is difficult to understand the bigger picture. And, at many campuses, international students still tend to have higher persistence rates than their domestic peers. With that said, however, a growing body of evidence from campuses has begun to suggest that there is reason for concern.  Take, for example, the University of West Florida (UWF).  An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that their retention rate for international students dropped from 95% to 83% between 2008 and 2011.  While the retention rates of international students at UWF have decreased somewhat, a body of anecdotal evidence suggests that there is growing dissatisfaction among international students about their experience in the United States.

So, what are the sources of dissatisfaction?

A recent study from NASFA: Association of International Educators, indicates that the reasons may not be what you think.  A survey of nearly 500 educators and 500 students at more than 100 colleges revealed that “there may be a gap in understanding about what students want and what they’re getting,” according to Rahul Choudaha, the principal investigator headlining the project.  The author went on to note that, “students may not understand what institutions want and what they’re getting.”

The top three reasons institutional leaders stated for why they believe that international students leave before graduating are:

  • Transferred to “better fit” institution
  • Financial Reasons
  • Academic Difficulties

The top five issues with which international students report the greatest dissatisfaction were:

  • Lack of access to jobs or internships
  • Affordability
  • Lack of availability of scholarships
  • Dissatisfaction with the food
  • Residence hall accommodations

These results are only perceptions and likely only loosely reflect why an international student may leave an institution.  The reality is much more complicated and the survey data revealed the possibility of deeper levels of dissatisfaction than may be represented by attrition rates.  Of those international students who responded to the survey that they did not plan to leave their institution prior to graduation, only 60% indicated that they were satisfied with their experience.

There are some important takeaways from this survey for student affairs administrators to consider.

Check Assumptions at the Door

Setting aside the actual issues revealed in the survey for a moment, the findings indicated that international educators and international students may have differing assumptions about what affects international student satisfaction.  This is why it is important to talk directly with international students (or conduct regular surveys) to gain a more accurate understanding of what they believe are the major issues with which they are dissatisfied.  Even if students may leave because they are struggling academically, it may be difficult to address those issues if they do not feel financially secure or comfortable with their living arrangements.  So, it is important to understand what international students see as their most pressing concerns.

Beyond Finances, International Student Satisfaction is Tied to Living Arrangements 

While there has been some movement to provide additional academic support for international students on some campuses, some of the areas that students appear to be the least satisfied fall under the traditional umbrella of student affairs.  The survey findings revealed two of the top five issues of concern for international students are housing and food.   Students also indicated concern about their inability to locate internships and jobs, functions often performed by career services offices.  These finding reinforce the important role of student affairs professionals in supporting the success of international students.  We all know that what happens outside of the classroom has an important effect on what happens in the classroom and this data further supports that linkage.  While it is not possible from this data to understand the particular concerns students face related to their housing or eating, the findings do support the need for student affairs professionals to explore the needs of international students in these areas on their campus.

Make Sure International Students have an Accurate Understanding of the Financial Opportunities Available when they Arrive

Much of the growing interest among colleges and universities in recruiting more international students is that these students tend to be full fee paying, an important consideration during a time when there are increasing constraints on institutional revenue.  While many students come from affluent families and can afford to pay the full tuition and fees, there are also a number of such students who are financially strapped.  In some cases, international students are being funded by multiple family members or even entire communities.

What this data suggests is that many international students are as concerned about the cost of education as their domestic peers.  Yet, international students often do not have the same opportunities for supplemental funding as other students.  Sometimes the full cost of the educational experience is not evident to international students.  Federal financial aid is limited to students from the United States and international students are often prohibited from working off campus, particularly during their first year of study.  So, it is important for international educators and staff, particularly those recruiting such students, to be up front about the costs of the entire educational experience and about what financing, if any, is available to students.  One of the simplest ways to address student dissatisfaction about affordability is to be clear at the very beginning about financial expectations.


National surveys such as the one discussed here are important for highlighting areas of further investigation.  However, they tend to be generalized across a broad population of individuals and are not always accurate representation of what is happening on specific campuses.  For example, the survey did not include international students who are pursuing graduate education or those that transferred to a four-year institution from a community college or pathway program.

Further, it is very possible that the perceptions of students at your institution deviate from those reported here.  In fact, among the respondents there were variations based on institutional type. Students at baccalaureate institutions appeared to become more concerned about affordability than students at other institutions; but they were also more satisfied with the availability of scholarships. As student affairs practitioners, it is important that we engage in active assessment of all students, including international students.  This study serves to underscore the disconnect that can occur between students and administrators when data is lacking.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is the retention of international students a problem on your campus? Why or why not?
  2. How satisfied are international students with their experience on your campus?  What are they most satisfied about? Least satisfied?
  3. What assumptions have you made about why international students leave your campus prior to graduation? What evidence do you have to support these assumptions?
  4. How might you go about gathering information about why international students leave your campus before graduation?
  5. What issues may arise when there is a disconnect between the dissatisfaction that students have and the reasons why administrators believe a student may not complete their academic program?

About the Author

Jason E. Lane is Senior Associate Vice Chancellor and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs for the State University of New York as well as associate professor (on leave) of educational administration and policy studies, and Co-Director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT) at the State University of New York, Albany.  He has been a member of the governing boards of the Comparative and International Education Society and the Council for International Higher Education and is an Associate of the International Association of Universities. He is currently a member of the governing board of SUNY Korea. His most recent books include Multi-National Colleges and Universities: Leading, Governing, and Managing International Branch Campuses (2010, Jossey-Bass); Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers (2012, SUNY Press) and Academic Governance and Leadership in Higher Education (2013, Stylus Press).  

Please e-mail inquires to Jason E. Lane.

Follow him on Twitter at @ProfJasonLane


The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members, Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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