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University-led strategies to retain international students beyond graduation

December 14, 2017

Due to their positive impact on entrepreneurship (31 percent of VC-backed founders are immigrants) and innovation (76 percent of patents from top 10 U.S. patent-producing universities had at least one foreign-born author) in the United States, many institutions of higher education are working to understand the opportunities, challenges, and gaps that exist in supporting international students from their first year of study through graduation, the job search process, and entry into the labor force. Institutions of higher education are seen as uniquely positioned to enhance international students’ employability as they provide access to work experience as well as cultural acclimation to increase the likelihood those individuals will remain in their host country after graduation.

Institutions of higher education, however, are facing a potential slow-down in the number of international students enrolling in a U.S. institution for the first time. In the fall of 2016, international student enrollment dropped by nearly 10,000 students to about 291,000 (a 3 percent decrease from the previous year), according to the 2017 Open Doors® Report on International Educational Exchange data released this week by IIE and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

While many international students avoided the U.S. due to instability of the U.S. political climate and other concerns, international students still remain interested in attending U.S. institutions of higher education in an attempt to increase their employability at U.S.-based firms, especially high tech businesses. Several 2016 studies focused on primarily English speaking countries (Australia, Canada, and the U.S.) have found specific action items that an institution of higher education can take to retain international students by increasing the likelihood of their employability.

study from the Kauffman Foundation  provides support for the impact that pathways to future employment has on the decision for international students to remain in the United States. Based upon survey data from PhD candidate in STEM fields, the researchers found that 74 percent of all respondents were attracted to the U.S. due to future career opportunities and that it was a key factor influencing their desire to remain here. The respondents, however, highlighted the importance of a clear path to work visas as essential to keeping them in the United States. Without those visas, the authors contend that many students – no matter their interest in remaining in the U.S. – will increasingly leave for opportunities in their home country or other countries.

 To support the retention of the nearly 50 percent of international students who are interested in remaining in the U.S. following graduation, the researchers contend that institutions of higher education must develop strategies that improve the likelihood of students receiving an H-1B visa. One potential solution would focus on developing partnerships with businesses interested in sponsoring H-1B visas for their students.

In a 2016 study focused on Australian institutions of higher education, researchers found that work-integrated learning (WIL) experiences “not only add value to student learning, career aspiration, and employability, but also transform and enhance their symbolic/social capital.” Similar to domestic students, international students at Australian institutions of higher education reported that WIL experiences helped in the development of relevant professional skills, knowledge, and other professional attributes that can enhance their post-graduation employability.  They also reported that these experiences helped improve their connection with their host country and in building social networks that facilitated their employability.

Finally, in a report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, researchers found that international students benefited from better integration of the offices that impact international students (the international students office,  the international students recruitment services, career services, counseling services, alumni services, and language support services). The authors conclude that individualized attention and a supportive environment are the greatest strengths of IS programs and services. The report, however, found that institutions of higher education must do a better job in promoting these services to international students and that to be most beneficial, the services must start when the student first arrives in the host country.

The studies reveal that the key element for institutions to improve the retention of talented international students is centered on increasing their employability and creating affinity for the host country/regions. While institutions of higher education may not be able to fully address the current U.S. political climate, these studies provide specific actions to help retain international students and create economic opportunity including:

  • Building strong connections with businesses to develop WIL experiences and work visa pathways for international students; and,
  • Developing an integrated support system for international students that helps them assimilate to their host country as well as feel confident about finding a job post-graduation. 
higher ed, immigration