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How to Improve International Student Retention

International student recruitment has always been one of the major initiatives of higher education institutions (HEI). International students contribute so much not only to the growth and diversity of an HEI’s student base but also to the institution’s and the local economy’s coffers.

Although student recruitment may be critical to international education as a whole, there is one other thing that spells success or failure for an institution’s international education efforts–student retention.


Student retention is an area that needs to be emphasized. A lot of foreign learners who encountered difficulties during their studies simply decide to leave without finishing their degrees. As such, aside from encouraging them to enroll, institutions need to provide the necessary support during the entire course of the students’ stay on campus and help them address the common challenges international students face.


This article aims to provide academics, experts, and consultants with new insights and approaches to better engage and retain international students.

Key Takeaways:

  • Some of the challenges encountered by international students are acculturative stress, American teaching methods, campus climate, discrimination, English language, family expectations, finances, homesickness, interpersonal interactions, social norms, and study practices.
  • Working with education agents can help identify future problems that recruited foreign learners may face early on in their studies.
  • Pre-screening student applications conducted by education agents can lead HEIs to prepare programs that will help international students such as offering financial aid, English language assistance, mentoring, and professional advising.
  • Apart from improving student services, HEIs can boost their engagement with international students by injecting marketing principles into their solutions.

Understanding International Students’ Challenges

Every institution has specific conditions influencing its student retention rate. However, preventing students from dropping out requires an overall knowledge and understanding of the reasons they stay and push through with their studies.


International students, especially those whose native language is not English, have been reported to experience various challenges that impact their success in American universities. These include acculturative stress, unfamiliar American teaching methods, campus climate, discrimination in different forms, familiarity with the English language, family expectations, finances, homesickness, interpersonal interactions, new social norms, and tedious study practices.


Although many of these challenges are also experienced by domestic undergraduates to some extent, some of these uniquely affect foreign students. One challenge particularly affecting them is the problem of English writing. All international students for whom English is a second language are known to experience challenges with English grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary.


Another obstacle that international undergraduates must overcome that their domestic counterparts do not have to deal with is compliance with federal immigration regulations. This creates another point of stress for foreign learners, over and above everything else they have to address.


Then there is a lack of familiarity with Western academic integrity standards or teaching methods. For one thing, international students reportedly are highly unfamiliar with America’s learner-centered classroom culture. The initial adjustment can be highly stressful for students.

us institution practices table
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

In the survey titled Policies and Practices in Enrollment and Student Affairs conducted in 2017 by Maguire Associates, HEI officials identified academic tutoring, English-language instruction, first-year programs, mentoring efforts, orientation sessions, professional advising, and writing programs as having the most impact on retaining students.

From an academic point of view, if a student has trouble writing, reading, speaking, or comprehending the English language, the deficiency is likely to negatively impact their performance. Successful academic performance is critical for international students who might risk losing their student visas if they repeatedly fail courses or fall below a minimum number of required credit hours.


The survey results also indicated that intrusive advising was regarded as impactful, even though it was used less frequently. Intrusive advising means that advisors proactively reach out to help students rather than waiting for the students to seek help. In contrast, degree planning, progress reporting, freshman seminars, intervention alerts, and living and learning communities were regarded as having the least amount of impact.


Student services are the focus for most HEIs when it comes to helping foreign learners deal with study challenges. Some colleges and universities claim they are encouraging faculty and staff to learn the languages of the students, such as Mandarin, to prevent isolation due to language differences. Other institutions report they hold seminars to teach professors how to pronounce foreign names, while others hire multilingual therapists.

New Approach to Increasing Student Retention

Higher Education Institutions can mix their existing student retention programs with marketing principles injected in the approach. Marketing and sales professionals have worked for years developing relationships with prospects and clients by personalizing how they find them and address their particular needs, concerns, and goals. Universities face a similar dilemma. They must deal with unique challenges by developing an insightful relationship that promotes student engagement to deal with the increasing number of enrollees quitting their Higher Education courses.


Students want personalized contact from education institutions, so they can bond in bidirectional communication, and get customized answers to questions and problems. As such, education and relationship marketing becomes a fundamental tool to achieve student retention.

student retention chart
Source: U-Planner: High Performance for Education

Some academic researchers claim that using a marketing style approach can be an important way for institutions to nurture a more personalized relationship with the students. Marketing executives nurture customers whose profile deserves more attention in building a relationship. Students require the same level of care.


In businesses, if a firm wants to add value for their customers and build lasting relationships with them, they must get to know their customers better–what they want and what is and what isn’t important to them. Higher Education institutions can benefit from such an approach and develop stable long-lasting relationships with their students by identifying their changing needs and satisfying them effectively to achieve their loyalty.

Dealing with Retention Challenges Amid the Pandemic

The ongoing pandemic has created new concerns for international students, which are mostly in line with health and safety measures, vaccination, and the possibility of experiencing on-campus, face-to-face classes. Moreover, following the global transition to remote learning caused by the pandemic, nearly every college student has experienced issues with remote classes.


These new issues determine to a large extent how much an institution will be able to ensure that students will remain in their fold throughout their respective programs. As more issues emerge in the new learning setup, so does pressure to increase retention rates. To support remote international student success, institutions need metrics and quality measurements that are tailored to the online learner rather than the traditional classroom experience.


To better serve online students, here are some of the initiatives institutions can try:

1. Identify patterns in student engagement and performance

Institutions must implement the same strategies that they would use to measure on-campus student success. They need to use data analytics strategically to identify patterns in student engagement and performance, as well as develop tailored strategies to support each student. 


Research suggests that the key determining factors that make face-to-face courses effective or ineffective also apply to online courses. Individualized student support service is identified to be the most important factor even in a remote learning setup.

2. Intervene with struggling students

Intervention can be difficult online but analytics allow colleges to intervene with students at risk of stopping out immediately. Instructors and advisors who have more contact with students are in the ideal position to respond to student needs.


A study conducted by EAB has shown that a certain college (Champlain College) guides its faculty to students most in need of help by highlighting “risk phrases” in students’ online discussion board posts. Phrases that signal academic risk, such as “help!,” “tried over and over,” or “frustrated,” are flagged for instructors, who are then encouraged to respond to the student within 24 hours.


And some universities offer a voluntary questionnaire to students to gauge their stress levels. Students who indicate low-stress levels may be sent time management resources or study tips, while students who indicate medium levels of stress are referred to peer mentoring or counseling programs. Students who indicate the highest stress levels receive a phone call from a faculty member within a few days of submitting the survey, followed by personal support.

3. Mitigate the ‘distance’ in ‘distance learning’

Institutions can mitigate the distance through increased virtual or in-person social interaction with instructors and fellow students. For example, universities can offer both in-person and virtual office hours for their online remedial math students.

Proactive Solutions Through International Education Agents

It’s not too widely known, but apart from recruitment, education agents are also groomed to be counselors of global learners in the early stages of their study-abroad journey. By wearing counselor hats, the agents help the students become more aware of what they will be getting into. They are thus more prepared and more qualified to enter their chosen institution which, in turn, increases their chances of sustaining their studies to the end. 

The agents are the first ones whom students can talk to about their study experience and the services available for foreign learners such as housing and financial aid.


In the case of MSM, we also provide a dedicated on-the-ground team that optimizes the pre-screening of potential candidates to ensure a diverse set of high-quality applicants. By doing this, we can assess early on who among the recruited foreign students will have no issues sustaining their overseas studies and at the same time, offer a workaround to those qualified learners who are likely to face problems in the long run.


The earlier HEIs recognize what issues their newly enrolled international students might have in the future, the better they can offer solutions and avoid disruption in the students’ educational journey. This will ensure happier international students who are likely to see their respective programs to the end. (MAY ARTHUR)

#PartnerForLife #HigherEducation #StudentRecruitment #InternationalEducation #MSM #StudentRetention

MSM GMO US Vice President May Arthur

Vice President, Global Marketing Office-US



May is a seasoned international education business executive with over 27 years of experience. She has held several leadership roles dedicated to growing and retaining the international student population at partner universities. 


Her broad areas of expertise include business development, organizational leadership, strategic planning, and global operations. She excels at developing and supporting partnerships with universities and managing global recruitment initiatives.


She has also been an active member of several renowned industry organizations including NAFSA: Association of International Educators, English USA, American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), and the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA).



  • Arnim, E. (2021, July 20). How to improve online student retention (yes, it can be done): EAB Daily Briefing. EAB. Retrieved September 21, 2021, from https://eab.com/insights/daily-briefing/professional-and-adult-education/how-to-improve-online-student-retention-yes-it-can-be-done/
  • Fass-Holmes, B. (2016, June 15). International Undergraduates’ Retention. Retrieved from Journal of International Students: http://jistudents.org/
  • International student recruitment should focus on qualified students. M Square Media. (2021, July 15). Retrieved September 10, 2021, from https://msquaremedia.com/research/international-student-recruitment-focus-on-qualified-students/
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education. (2017, August 18). Retaining international students: What works, what doesn’t. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved September 10, 2021, from https://www.chronicle.com/paid-content/ets-toefl/retaining-international-students-what-works-what-doesnt.
  • U-Planner. (n.d.). How to Improve Student Retention in Higher Education in the USA. Retrieved from https://www.uplanner.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Ebook_-_Strategies_and_Best_Practices_to_Improve_Student_Retention.pdf


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