Study identifies key challenges for foreign students

Nearly half of international students who return to their home country after graduation cited visa-related and work-related issues as the primary reason for returning, according to a new report on the career prospects and outcomes of international students.

Among alumni who remain in the US, 47% cited lack of professional connections as a major obstacle in finding employment, while 62% of all international alumni were employed full-time.

More than 40% of current international students have not used their institution’s career services office and nearly two-thirds of international alumni used this service while enrolled as students.

The report, Career Prospects and Outcomes of US-Educated International Students: Improving services, bolstering success, by World Education Services or WES, was released last week.

It examines the career expectations and outcomes for international students in the US, obstacles in their path toward professional success, and how those working with students on career preparation can best support international students’ transition into the workforce in the US or abroad.

“As the number of international students in the United States has skyrocketed, questions about how these career aspirations are playing out have gained urgency,” say the authors, Bryce Loo, Ning Luo and Ziyi Ye.

How those aspirations play out back home may have significant implications for families’ continued willingness to pay a premium to send students to US institutions, they say.

This is particularly pertinent in China, where according to the ministry of education, some 409,100 students returned from overseas study in 2015, up 12% from the previous year, the report says.

Media stories have highlighted the trouble that returning students, dubbed “sea turtles” experience in trying to integrate into the Chinese job market.

“The urgency is also rising for US institutions seeking to attract and enrol international students in the future,” the report says.

“Given that many international students focus on higher education as a step towards a productive career, the onus is now on institutions to better understand student expectations in terms of career and work; their work experiences before and after graduation; and ways to better support current students’ career aspirations.”

The report found that the main goal of international students and alumni when they enrolled in the US was to take advantage of post-completion Optional Practical Training, or OPT, and Academic Training.

Their second-favourite objective was to remain in the US long-term or permanently.

Yet across the board, from enrolment to professional contexts after graduation, international respondents still in the US reported that their biggest challenge was work authorisation, alongside their attempts to forge professional connections.

Most alumni respondents residing in the US took advantage of OPT or Academic Training at some point. Half of US-based alumni were on OPT or Academic Training. The most common statuses were H1-B visa holders and permanent residents.

One third of those on shorter-term visas wanted to stay in the US long-term or permanently.

The positive news for US institutions is that most respondents considered the recognition of a US degree back home or abroad and US work experience very important when selecting a US institution, the study says.

The vast majority of both current international students and international alumni believe their US education was a good investment; and a lesser majority agree that having a US education has had a positive impact on their career outcomes.

Overall, employment outcomes for alumni are good, but there are areas that could be improved, the study argues.

Nearly two out of three international alumni reported that they were employed at the time of the survey. A large majority received an employment offer within the first six months of graduation. But nearly 40% said their salaries were lower than their educational backgrounds merited.

Usage of and satisfaction with career service offices was uneven. Both current students and alumni were most satisfied with resumé or CV and cover letter writing preparation services, and career preparation seminars and workshops. But both groups voiced some dissatisfaction with interview preparation services and services that connect them to potential employers.

The study’s recommendations include that institutions should:

  • • Encourage and incentivise international students to engage with career services shortly after they arrive on campus.

  • • Develop methods to help students connect with job opportunities back in their home countries or abroad in general, for instance via internships or volunteer posts in their home countries during breaks or as part of cooperative programmes.

  • • Coach students to advocate for themselves regarding their visa and work authorisation status and educate employers in the institution’s network about the regulations and how international students can be strong assets for any company.

  • • Be responsive to the differing needs of different student populations – for instance develop strong support for East Asian and other international students struggling with English, and encourage them to get on-campus jobs or seek other opportunities when possible to practice their English in a work context.
“We recognise that higher education is not, and should not be, a jobs programme. However, given that so many international students view their decision to study in the US as part of a long-term plan to gain a competitive career advantage, institutions would do well to understand what students’ experiences are, and how they can be improved,” the authors concluded.

The survey on which the report is based ran for two weeks in June 2017 with 2,162 valid responses. There were 1,067 current student responses, and 1,095 alumni responses from all parts of the world: East, Central, and South Asia; Europe; Latin America and the Caribbean; Sub-Saharan Africa; and the Middle East and North Africa.