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Investigating international student success

These stories are quite distant in terms of time and geography, but they share the same sentiment and implication for higher education institutions: international students are not just about revenue.

  • “Time to stop milking the cash cow”, October 2007 – The Age, Australia;
  • "Universities 'using foreign students as cash cows'", September 2012 – The Telegraph, UK;
  • “US colleges cash in on foreign students”, March 2015 – CNBC, US.

One clear trend triggered by the global financial recession was increasing pressure to recruit international students to create a new revenue line. Given the intense pressure to increase enrolment, many institutions missed out on spotting and adapting to other major trends, namely the shift in international students’ communication patterns, search behaviours and expectations for studying abroad.

For example, in June 2008, Apple’s 3G iPhone sold a million units in just three days. This number jumped to 13 million with Apple 6s in September 2015. Likewise, the total number of Facebook users has increased from 100 million in August 2008 to 1.35 billion in October 2014. For both Facebook and Apple, a majority of the users are in their international markets.

Clearly, technology has influenced search and communication behaviours around the world, including among international students. Nearly six years back, I argued for the use of social media to attract international students and deepening the understanding of the student decision-making process. However, many institutions continue to struggle to adapt to the changing needs and expectations of international students.

The result is that the gap between institutional strategies and student expectations has been widening. While student decision-making processes have changed, anecdotal evidence, hunches and stereotypes continue to drive institutional strategies and practices.

These reactive strategies are over-reliant on a few countries and in turn may hurt the campus climate, its institutional reputation and individual student experiences. Thus, it is important to not only understand students, but also proactively strategise and prepare for emerging markets and trends.


International student segmentation is one of the frameworks that helps us understand the changing needs and behaviours of international students.

First launched in 2012 with the research report Not All International Students Are the Same, the segmentation framework aims to inform enrolment strategies and practices in the context of the diverse needs, motivations and preferences of international students.

Since then, subsequent research has attempted to answer the following questions:

  • How do different segments of international students vary in terms of their academic preparedness and financial resources?
  • What information do international students value when researching colleges and universities to study abroad? What sources do they use to get the information?
  • How can higher education institutions effectively attract and enrol the best-fit prospective international students?

The framework identified four segments of students along two dimensions: academic preparedness and financial resources.

  • Strivers: High academic preparedness; low financial resources
  • Strugglers: Low academic preparedness; low financial resources
  • Explorers: Low academic preparedness; high financial resources
  • Highfliers: High academic preparedness; high financial resources.

The core contribution of this framework is to encourage higher education institutions to understand students beyond aggregate numbers and recognise the diversity of their needs and expectations. This framework also provides a lens to understand “glocal” students in transnational education or in a cross-border context.

Several scholars have further investigated the framework to deepen our understanding of international students. However, this has to widen in scope if we are to discover and define international student success.

Research on international student success

Every year, changes in international student enrolment numbers at national and institutional levels grab media attention, but rarely is there a focus on how to improve international student success. An emerging and expanding area of research goes beyond international student mobility trends to investigate and invest in student success.

Research and evidence on how campus experiences contribute to and inhibit the success of international students are rather limited.

In the US, one of the first attempts to research and understand areas of improvement for institutional practices was through NAFSA’s research report titled Bridging the Gap: Recruitment and retention to improve international student experiences.

It illustrated the gap between what students think are important areas of satisfaction and what institutions think are important for students. Likewise, the UK and Australia are attempting to better understand and address these issues.

To advance this research agenda, I am serving as the guest editor on the special issue on International Student Success for the Journal of International Students. The aim of this issue is to provide evidence and insights for institutions to improve institutional practices and help international students succeed in their academic and career pursuits.

Some of the potential themes for research contributions are:

  • What are the needs, experiences and expectations of international students?
  • What are successful practices, programmes and approaches to help international students succeed?
  • What is the empirical evidence of the impact of support services on international students?

In most countries, international students pay more in tuition fees and receive less in services than their domestic counterparts. This is an unbalanced and unfair economic model for “financing higher education”.

By only focusing on input metrics like recruitment goals rather than student success, institutions run the risk of damaging their reputation and competitive positioning. Institutions cannot take the academic and career success of their international students for granted.

High impact research, such as the aforementioned research on the diverse needs of international student segments, is focusing on supporting international student success. Future research in this area will help in understanding the needs of international students and making them successful as engaged alumni.

The last thing any well-intentioned institution wants is to treat international students as “cash cows”. Let us work toward investigating and investing in international student success.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and http://interEDGE.org. He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at info@DrEducation.com and @DrEducationBlog.
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