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Support for international students key at US community colleges

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Today’s post marks the beginning of an occasional series in which we will take a closer look at the community college sector in the US
  • International enrolment in two-year colleges in the US has been strengthening again in recent years
  • Experienced recruiters and international office staff have learned to place a premium on strong support services for foreign students

In the US, community colleges – sometimes referred to as junior colleges – are two-year tertiary institutions offering secondary school bridging or equivalency programmes, technical diplomas and certificates, and two-year associate degrees. After graduating from a community college, students have the option to transfer to a four-year university or college to complete an undergraduate degree.

Around 9% of all international students currently enrolled in the US begin their studies at a community college, according to the Institute for International Education (IIE). These include students pursuing transfer options to four-year colleges and universities, as well as those enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) programmes and vocational and technical training.

Between 2004/05 and 2014/15, international enrolment at US community colleges increased from 81,869 students to nearly 92,000. Foreign student numbers reached a peak of just under 96,0000 in 2008/09, followed by several years of decline through 2013/14 – at which point enrolment began to recover.

Primarily undergraduate colleges also saw a dip in 2009/10, which suggests that international undergraduate enrolment in the US may have been negatively affected across institution types following the 2008 financial crisis. Even so, the enrolment drop appears to have been more acute at community colleges, perhaps in part because they offer a more affordable option for students from price-sensitive markets. It wasn’t until 2015/16 that the number of international students studying at community colleges (95,376 that year) recovered to levels comparable to the historic peak from 2008/09.

While international students at two-year colleges make up a notable proportion of the overall foreign student population in the US, they only account for about 1.3% of total community college enrolment. However, their presence is felt much more at some of the top host institutions with each of the 20 leading colleges hosting more than 1,000 international students apiece. The number one host institution, the Houston Community College System, reported 5,649 students in 2015/16. Santa Monica College, which enrolled 3,551 international students last year, may be the two-year institution with the most international students on a single campus as Houston reports its total across multiple campuses.

California is the most popular choice for international students at community colleges, with nearly 20,000 enrolled at the state’s two-year institutions in 2015/16. Many students see community colleges as a stepping stone to prestigious four-year institutions such as the University of California (UC) system, which gives priority to transfer students who graduate from Californian community colleges. Six UC campuses also offer a Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG), which provides early admission notification and specialised advising.

Other US states with significant foreign student numbers among their community college populations include Texas with nearly 12,000 students, Washington (9,000), Florida (4,000), and New York (about 2,500).

Roughly one in five foreign students at US community colleges come from China (19%), followed by Vietnam (9.6%), South Korea (7.5%), Japan (5.7%), and Mexico (4.8%). Other important sending markets include Hong Kong, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and Brazil.

The case for support services

While some community colleges have invested heavily in recruiting and have well-staffed international student offices, others have much smaller enrolments and one-person international offices which might also be responsible for other (or even all) aspects of internationalisation on campus.

For all of these institutions, a key factor for international student success – and the long-term sustainability of their international programmes – is the level of academic and social support students receive from their host campuses.

Community colleges have varying structures for their international student services. Some have a centralised model where the international office is a “one-stop shop” providing students with personal advising, immigration support, and academic advising. Other colleges have an international office where students receive immigration support but then work with the advisors in the academic departments.

World Education News & Reviews (WENR) recently noted that, “Community colleges have open admissions policies. This means that many, if not most, international students who are admitted will likely need substantial academic and linguistic support to succeed on campus…International students may also need help acculturating to American academic norms. Some community colleges have well-established practices for helping students to adjust. However, such practices are rare.”

Getting to best practices

A key component of support is advising. In one of the few academic studies on the relationship between advising and international community college students’ cultural adjustment, Yi (Leaf) Zhang, found that, “The international students…view academic advisors as important resources of information for their study in the community college. However, their responses present a mixed picture regarding their experiences with academic advisors…Although the international students appreciate guidance and support provided by academic advisors, they do not feel that the advisors are fully equipped with knowledge and information to guide international students.”

This may especially be the case at institutions where international students work with advisors who are not specifically trained to address their specific needs or to understand immigration regulations.

Nithyanantha Sevanthinathan, executive director of International Programs and Services at Lone Star College in Texas, says that many academic advisors working with international students come into the position with very little knowledge of the target population.

“Some community colleges have put in place a professional development strategy to [train staff to] welcome these international students,” he says. “They know that putting these pieces in place now will help the long-term sustainability of the programme.”

The first point of contact that many international students have with their advisors often occurs during orientation. Shoreline Community College, which enrolls more than 900 international students, hosts a week-long program that introduces students to the various systems at the college. “Then we have a mandatory advising contact with new students. The advising team offers quarterly seminars and workshops where we repeat, expand upon, and personally operationalise concepts that were introduced in orientation,” says academic advisor John Tankersley.

“Some of the seminars are intended for first-year students who are earlier in the process and others are aimed at students who are in their second year and are getting into the actual application process [for four-year colleges]. Aside from group advising sessions, we also have an advising team that is well staffed so that we are able to take substantial time to assist students in one-on-one planning for their transfer objectives.”

Lone Star requires international students to complete a checklist during their first semester that ensures they have familiarised themselves with various resources on campus, such as student organisations, language labs, student government, and the library. Then they go over it with their academic advisor before they are allowed to register for the next semester.

“We want them to be at ease, explore and see how they can fit into their new community college,” Mr Sevanthinathan explains.

Another challenge for social integration is the lack of housing at many two-year institutions. While some community colleges have residence halls or student apartments, the vast majority are commuter campuses. “One of the biggest challenges for international students at US community colleges is the commuter status of the student body,” says Jill A. Izumikawa, coordinator for International Student Services at Harper College in Illinois. “Making connections and acclimating to the new culture become more difficult when most domestic students have jobs or do not hang around the campus as often as they do at universities with residence halls and students living in local apartment complexes.”

Harper College currently hosts 111 international students from 31 countries. As the sole staff member in a one-person international office, Ms Izumikawa says it can also be difficult to plan regular activities.

“Many of the best practices for supporting students to integrate into their new college life are similar across higher education campuses in the US. From my experience, this comes down to adequate staffing of the international student office,” she says. “These efforts take staff time to execute well and to do consistently.”

Peer support can also be an important social integration tool. The College of Lake County (CLC) in Illinois, which currently hosts 113 students from 46 countries, connects newly admitted students with current students from their own country or another student ambassador before they even set foot on campus. “We want them to start feeling connected and welcome. Students feel comfortable chatting with other students who are currently attending CLC. We also send them a link to an online orientation they can take right from their home country. This also introduces them and gets them familiar with our campus,” says Tammy Mireles, international recruiter at CLC.

Peer mentors also meet new students at the airport when they arrive. “We meet and greet at the airport with the student’s new peer mentor who comes with staff to the airport. The purpose of the Peer Mentor Program is to help facilitate the transition and adjustment of new international students to their college experience at the College of Lake County,” Ms Mireles explains. “International Peer Mentors will have the opportunity to provide outreach to new international students and help make their transition and experience a comfortable one.”

The social and academic support that international students receive at the start of their college career can have a lasting impact on their academic success and subsequent ability to complete a bachelor’s degree. It is also crucial to student retention and to the college’s ability to leverage the experience of satisfied students and alumni to help attract new prospects.

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