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NAFSA conference highlights the interdependency of recruitment and retention practices

This year’s NAFSA Conference drew a record number of attendees, as over 10,000 people convened in San Diego to discuss the most critical issues in international education today. More than 200 sessions were held over the course of the week but it was a panel discussion on the final day of the event which stood out for its succinct review of the trends, challenges, and innovations in US higher education. Chaired by NAFSA’s own Executive Director and CEO Marlene Johnson, the presenters offered a rapid-fire rundown of the hottest topics facing stakeholders in US higher education today, such as:

Student retention issues were in the spotlight during several sessions at NAFSA, including one that caused a bit of a buzz which revealed new research entitled US Study of International Undergraduate Retention: Implications and Gaps between International Education Professionals and International Students. The NAFSA project was funded by ELS and a nationwide survey was conducted by World Education Services (WES). Given that 819,644 international students were enrolled in the US in 2012/3, the sample size from this survey was fairly small – nearly 500 responses from approximately 100 institutions and over 500 students from about 80 institutions – however, Dr Rahul Choudaha, Director of Research and Strategic Development for WES, stressed that the findings send a clear warning signal.

When it comes to the reasons for student attrition, there is a clear gap between what institution administrators perceive and what international students feel.

The survey revealed that schools are underestimating the importance of financial issues for students. Meanwhile, students are underestimating the academic preparedness required to be successful at a US institution.

Education professionals identified the main reasons for which international undergraduate students leave their institutions before completing their degree as follows:

  • reputation (67%);
  • finances (64%);
  • academic difficulties (62%).

Conversely, the top reasons for dissatisfaction reported by students revolve mainly around their wallets:

  • access to jobs or internships (37%);
  • affordability (36%);
  • availability of scholarships (34%).

Students also cited food and housing as key dissatisfaction points.

The research can help practitioners to “understand the diverse needs of an international student body, coordinate internationalisation efforts across campuses, and invest in programmes and services that improve student experiences,” added Sheila Schulte, Senior Director, International Enrollment Management and International Student and Scholar Services at NAFSA.

Career services in particular were cited as key to improving retention. Underlining the trending focus on education outcomes cited earlier in this article, Mrs Schulte said, “More and more students are taking an investment approach to their study abroad experiences.”

In terms of programmes to aid retention, presenters recommended that orientation be available at key checkpoints in the students’ experiences – pre-departure either in-country or online, upon arrival on campus, and again a few weeks into the first semester (which is particularly useful to reiterate points that students might have missed due to “information overload” in the early days on campus, or to address issues that usually surface after “the honeymoon phase” is over and the semester is underway, such as homesickness or academic stress). One NAFSA participant recommended using Google Hangouts On Air to live stream an orientation programme to other campuses or students who cannot attend in-person (due to late arrivals or schedule conflicts).

More details on the NAFSA research methodology and findings will be released later this year. Given the stark differences between student expectations and resulting realities, it will be particularly interesting to learn how these students chose their institutions. For example, did they use a recruitment agency to guide them through the admission requirements and counsel them on which school would be the best fit? Did they enroll in a pathway programme or intensive English course prior to the start of their degrees, or did they come via an American high school or community college? Determining which marketing and recruitment techniques were most effective in terms of producing the best student-institution match would certainly be of interest to participating schools.

IEP a retention booster

Another NAFSA session on retention put the focus on Intensive English Programmes (IEPs) as an important component of academic preparedness. Harry Domicone, Director of International Relations at California Lutheran University (CLU) explained that bringing students in via an IEP offers a smoother academic and cultural transition, at the same time fostering language preparation and academic independence.

CLU hosts an ELS language centre, and even if a student’s English skills are not good enough once they advance into CLU, s/he can go back to ELS (at no charge) to repeat their English lessons. They return to the university once they have stronger language skills, and CLU has seen higher graduation rates as a result of this arrangement.

Mr Domicone outlined the roles of several players in their recruitment efforts, with ELS as their partners, student recruitment agencies as their customers, and students as their clients. Together, they are able to deliver “extremely high student satisfaction and retention.” He described it as a “relationship reinforced with trust, transparency and open communication.”

Using data to identify at-risk students early

Mr Domicone also stressed that being able to identify at-risk students early on is critical. Through counselling, an institution can provide the necessary support students need, track their progress, and monitor their success. It’s important to identify patterns or warnings signs so that faculty can intervene and assist as soon as possible.

We’ve written before about various strategies for improving retention, such as student profiling and streamlined data management, and a recent article from Campus Technology expanded upon “some of the techniques colleges and universities are adding to their increasingly complex student retention repertoire, such as tracking study, eating and exercise habits, delivering targeted support ads and even conducting warm bed checks.”

The article also highlights the benefits of using a CRM system to house all the data on each student in one place, from the very first interaction they have with an institution’s brand. In this way, recruitment, admissions, and international student services staff all have access to the same data and can create synergies between recruitment and retention efforts.

Institution-wide engagement

Data sharing and keeping communication lines open across campus also provides opportunities to engage fellow faculty members in internationalisation efforts. For example, Rachel Errington, Director of the University of West Florida Office of International Students, explained to NAFSA delegates how her department partnered with campus health services to launch a taxi service for students. Their campus is fairly remote with limited access to public transport, but by joining forces, they were able to obtain funding for a voucher programme, increasing student satisfaction and safety.

For an institution to be truly committed to the success of its international students, it needs to incorporate all of its key players – from the president or chancellor to deans, directors, department heads, and leaders in student government and organisations.

Although it is common for schools to have recruitment, enrolment management and retention strategies, how many have a strategy for building relationships with fellow faculty members to work together towards those goals?

It’s often been said that it takes a village to raise a child. Perhaps for us, in the world of international education, it takes an entire institution to help a student succeed.

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