Strong support services help to drive recommendations from international students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A new study reveals that the most powerful determinants of whether international students recommend their institution to prospective students are (1) satisfaction with the learning environment and (2) feeling well-supported academically
  • Students’ experiences upon arrival (e.g., their first night’s stay and orientation week) and whether or not they are pleased with their accommodation are two other important drivers of positive word of mouth

It goes without saying that increasing international students’ satisfaction with their study abroad experience yields significant benefits for both students and their host institutions. When international students are happy and feel well supported, it enhances the campus environment and boosts retention rates because they feel able and motivated to complete their academic journey. Happy students are also more likely to become active alumni, to proceed to more advanced degrees, and even eventually to hire other students from their alma mater. 

A new study highlights that high student satisfaction can also correlate to students and alumni recommending their institution to prospective students – a result that can be the difference between unpredictable international student enrolments over time and a relatively dependable stream that can be nurtured and grown.

But “student satisfaction” is a complex metric with several elements, and some of these elements are more influential than others in determining whether a student will recommend the institution to other students, according to a new study entitled Institutional Satisfaction and Recommendation: What Really Matters to International Students?

The quantitative study, based on i-graduate International Student Barometer (ISB) data from fall 2016, was conducted by Dr. Ravichandran Ammigan, University of Delaware’s Associate Deputy Provost for International Programmes and Assistant Professor of Education. It is based on a regression analysis of responses from 45,700 international undergraduate students from 96 institutions in Australia, the UK, and the US, and is designed to reveal “which aspects of the university experience are most significant on students’ propensity to recommend their institution to prospective applicants.”

Four key elements of student satisfaction

Student satisfaction is dependent on four main factors, according to Dr. Ammigan (and the substantial body of research he cites in his report):

  1. The experience students have upon arrival;
  2. The experience they have as they learn;
  3. Their experience of living on/off-campus and in a community while they study;
  4. Their ability to access helpful support services.

His analysis found that:

“Of the four dimensions, the learning experience was the most influential. Students also indicated that their first night stay (i.e., arrival), the quality of accommodation, the quality of lectures, and services provided by their International Office were the most significant satisfaction variables within each dimension of experience.”

More on these essential drivers of satisfaction

First-night stay (i.e., arrival)

“Universities must be intentional in setting up adequate support services, such as orientation programmes, airport pick up, and social activities, that can ease the transition to campus and meet the expectations of incoming students,” says Dr. Ammigan. Also important is introducing international students early to campus resources and providing excellent pre-arrival information detailing all students need to know about visa applications, housing, health insurance, and class registration.

Learning experience

While research has shown that international students tend to be more serious about their studies in their first year than domestic students are, many issues can derail their ability to learn, and if this happens, their distress can be profound. Issues include challenges with group work, uncertainty with how to approach faculty, and language barriers. If institutions want international students to make up a significant proportion of their student population, they need faculty and support staff ready to apply inclusive teaching philosophies and to respond to international students’ unique circumstances (e.g., language issues, nervousness about group work, etc.)

International students and their families pour significant effort and resources into study abroad and if their learning environment is subpar there is a good chance that they will speak negatively about the institution to others.

Living experience

What contributes to an optimal living experience for international students? “Affordable housing, transportation options, dining services, safety and security, Internet and technology, and opportunities to meet other students locally,” says Dr. Ammigan. He emphasises the need for well-trained counsellors to help students navigate these areas and student associations, leadership and volunteer programmes, and social activities on campus.

Support services

Here, the goal must be two-fold:

  • Ensuring that tutoring, study skills, career advice, library resources and well-designed physical spaces for learning are sufficiently resourced and abundant;
  • Ensuring that international students (a) know of the existence of these supports, (b) feel comfortable making use of them.

 Dr. Ammigan notes,

“Because of the unique needs often experienced by new international students, such as financial stability, adapting to local customs, establishing a network of support, and overcoming language barriers, university support services must be equipped to address emotional or psychological concerns possibly caused by adjustment issues …. Institutions [must] have a sufficient amount of expertise and staffing to handle new challenges faced by this community.”

Which measures of satisfaction are linked to recommendation?

Dr. Ammigan used multiple linear regression analyses to assess the degree to which 80 satisfaction variables influenced students’ likelihood of recommending an institution to prospective students.

The results from the analysis highlight the fact that when international students feel they have experienced a high quality of education with strong support services available to them, they are more likely to recommend their institution.

Dr. Ammigan writes,

“Of the four dimensions of experience, ‘overall satisfaction with learning’ impacted recommendation the most, followed by ‘overall satisfaction with support services’ and ‘overall satisfaction with arrival.’ ‘Overall satisfaction with living’ had the least influence on student recommendation.”

In addition, the analysis showed that a positive experience with the accommodation office made students more likely to recommend their institution.

Support services underpin the enterprise

Commenting on the results of the analysis, Dr. Ammigan keyed on the role of support services that run through the whole of the institution:

“It is important that institutions capitalise on their existing campus support services and resources as they create strategic and collaborative engagement opportunities, both in and out of the classroom. Staff from student affairs, residence life and housing, dining services, the orientation office, career services, counseling centres, transportation services, academic departments, etc., must work together to support the positive experiences of students as well as the educational mission of the institution as a global community.”

As we reported last year, the role of support services in strategies around student satisfaction and employment outcomes is increasingly being recognised. If international students face stress in their learning environment caused simply by the fact that they are new to a culture, language, or instruction style, it is a sign that their institution needs to do more to adapt its philosophies and resourcing of key support areas.

The analysis clearly shows that inclusive, supportive learning environments for international students are really the foundation for successful and sustainable recruitment.

For additional background, please see:



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