Strategies for improving student selection and retention

How much is the retention of international students tied to a school’s admission process for selecting them in the first place? At the September EAIE (European Association for International Education) Istanbul conference session, “How to prevent drop-out in international Master’s programmes”, participants learned that the answer is often: “greatly.”

Chaired by Agnes Leyrer of ETS Global (Netherlands) and including speakers Matthieu Brecville of IÉSEG School of Management (France), Pilar Vicente of IE Business School (Spain), and Peter Johnson of Central European University (Hungary), the session looked at common challenges in international student retention and possible solutions.

Ms Leyrer set the tone with the following statement:

“It’s not only about getting the best students for our universities, it’s about getting the right students, the ones who fit our programmes, the ones who will tackle the challenges we offer them…”

She continued: “When we admit international students we need to take care of them; we have a responsibility to make sure that when they enter our programmes they will be able to finish them.”

On a fiscal level, Ms Leyrer added that in some countries, universities’ funding is linked to their graduation rate, so that increased drop-outs may result in decreased funding.

Some of the ideas presented in the session regarding best practices in admissions criteria included:

  • Adjusting reliance on various test scores depending on students’ nationalities (e.g., Chinese students often post great test scores but sometimes lack English-speaking skills, so there must be other ways to assess their suitability);
  • Being careful with letters of reference or recommendations in case these are copied from the Internet or written by students themselves and then just signed by the “author”;
  • Checking into the quality of the student’s institution and programme (to see if the institution is recognised/accredited);
  • Changing the traditional “three essay” submission to perhaps splitting this requirement between a written essay and a visual presentation or video to reflect the new characteristics of millennials;
  • Taking a holistic approach to the student, going as much beyond test scores as possible – e.g., via interviews – to look at the student’s motivation, interpersonal skills, and written and spoken English (and/or relevant language of the admitting institution/programme);
  • Making sure the admissions process is right for the institution – one size does not fit all.

The importance of the interview

Again and again, the importance of the applicant interview was emphasised, since in an interview a candidate who scored well on tests may prove unsuitable and one who did well but not exceptionally may prove to be exactly the right fit.

Given the expense and logistical difficulties interviews can entail, speakers noted that interviews could be limited to only the most likely candidates or the ones who had scored highly on other criteria for admission. One speaker even said her institution relies on alumni to help with interviews – a smart idea.

Skype interviews seem to be increasingly relied upon, and Mrs Vicente of IE Business School said such interviews really help to identify students who can contribute meaningfully to the campus community and cope with the often stressful demands of academic life. Interviews for IE’s Business School include a component where the student is given a topic, allowed two minutes to prepare, and then address the subject. Anything that is not rote/test-based can introduce a level of unpredictability and tease out elements of a student’s personality that can tell admissions staff a lot. It also gives prospective students a chance to demonstrate their values, leadership abilities or teamwork skills, depending on their answers.

Speaking of unpredictability, during the session the panel concurred that it was a good idea to change up the order and content of interview questions, because as Mr Johnson highlighted, if a standard set is constantly used “it will be posted online in China within 24 hours and learned by heart.”

Once enrolled …

Of course once students are enrolled, making sure they are supported and motivated to complete their courses or programmes is crucial. Students report a variety of reasons for dropping out of school, and while universities cannot predict sudden changes in students’ lives, they have very good tools to forecast their academic performance and reduce the chances of them withdrawing.

Well-trained and talented staff tasked specifically with supporting international students can find out the root cause of what is going wrong with the ones who are faltering (e.g., financial, language-based, stress-based, culture shock, loneliness, academic overload, work taking too much out of them, etc.) and contact the necessary departments to step in and help.

As one speaker noted, if it is financial, a short-term emergency loan can be the answer (see here for the relevance of this idea to Indian students). If it is academic overload, revising or lightening the course load might be the cure.

The list goes on but the approach is the same: provide plenty of support to international students to help them achieve their best possible experience at the institution. And going one step further, there is a lot that can be done, both at a national level and an institutional one, to increase the likelihood that skilled international students will decide to stay on in a host country after their studies.

At the core: the data

The more information you can capture and analyse during the recruitment and study period processes, the better.

Basically, the central goal is to find out what kind of student stands the best chance at achieving good outcomes at your school, and under what circumstances. Elements like these might be helpful:

  • Nationality
  • Gender
  • Grades from penultimate institution
  • Test scores
  • Interview performance
  • Financial aid or self-funded
  • Independently motivated or frequent user of international student supports
  • Programme enrolled in
  • Course load
  • Paid work engaged in, if any
  • Extracurricular activities joined

Collecting and managing data is increasingly important across many industries in terms of measuring and improving performance, and international education is no exception. When the data don’t seem to be yielding enough conclusions, perhaps it is time to review the process and consider new data inputs and systems of measurement.

At the end of the day, the data can be fed back into the admissions and/or recruitment offices of an institution, all toward the goal of creating better, more efficient processes for selecting international students who are best suited to the institution or programme – and then effectively supporting them during their studies – and all with the ultimate goal of retaining and graduating successful students.



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