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Are International Students Satisfied?

August 20, 2014

An analysis of satisfaction surveys from 60,000 international students at 48 universities in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia reveals that students are, by and large, satisfied, but that satisfaction levels vary by country of origin and that large proportions of undergraduate international students from a single country can inhibit integration. 

The analysis is based on data from the International Student Barometer, a survey instrument developed by the International Graduate Insight Group (i-graduate). The report, "Explaining International Student Satisfaction," acknowledges that “satisfaction” is a subjective term and, further, that “student satisfaction may not always be synonymous with exemplary experience” – as in the case of a student who might prefer a less challenging academic program, for example – but asserts that the size of the sample is sufficiently large to offer insight into the international student experience nevertheless.

Across the 48 doctoral degree-granting universities in the sample, students were asked to gauge their overall satisfaction on a 1-4 scale, with one being “very dissatisfied,” two being “dissatisfied,” three being “satisfied," and four being “very satisfied." Undergraduates on average rated their overall satisfaction at 3.09 and graduate students at 3.08 -- just above the "satisfied" threshold. Institution-specific averages varied from a high of 3.3 and low of 2.88 for undergraduate students and a high of 3.25 and low of 2.88 for graduate students.

The report doesn't identify the 48 universities included in the sample, though it does include the list of the 177 universities from around the globe that participated in the International Student Barometer in 2013 and from which the sample was drawn. Richard Garrett, the report author and the North American director for i-graduate, said that the overall satisfaction rates for the 48 sample institutions are nearly identical to the average across the entire group of 177 institutions, which was 3.08 for both undergraduate and graduate students.  

But while students were by and large satisfied, the data show variations by country of origin. Students from Europe report higher rates of satisfaction and willingness to recommend the institution as compared to their peers from Asia: “It is notable that China ranks #1 in terms of number of international students, but #26 among the thirty largest nationalities on overall satisfaction, and #21 on recommendation” (that is, willingness to recommend the institution), the report states. Students from Saudi Arabia – another large and rapidly expanding population on American campuses -- are also likely to post lower levels of satisfaction.

Undergraduate International Student Satisfaction Rates by Country of Origin

Country of Origin Number of Respondents  Average
Recommendation
Score (5=Actively Recommend,
1=Actively
Discourage)
Average Satisfaction
Score (4=Very Satisfied, 1=Very Dissatisfied)
Spain 214 4.47 3.3
France 298 4.46 3.33
Ireland 232 4.44 3.3
Cyprus 214 4.38 3.2
Romania 210 4.38 3.23
Poland 272 4.36 3.27
Nigeria 240 4.36 3.11
India 615 4.35 3.19
Italy 245 4.35 3.2
Germany 447 4.34 3.28
Russian Federation 142 4.28 3.2
Lithuania 218 4.26 3.16
Pakistan 162 4.26 3.16
Sweden 187 4.26 3.29
Bulgaria 332 4.24 3.18
Greece 174 4.24 3.19
Norway 227 4.19 3.18
United States 535 4.19 3.17
Vietnam 423 4.16 2.99
Canada 341 4.13 3.18
China 4,516 4.1 2.99
Sri Lanka 139 4.02 3.04
Saudi Arabia 217 4.01 2.9
Malaysia 1,572 3.97 3.05
Indonesia 307 3.95 3.02
Singapore 762 3.93 3.05
South Korea 724 3.91 2.95
Japan 190 3.88 3
Taiwan 138 3.86 2.95
Hong Kong 883 3.83 2.94

The report suggests some possible explanations for these variations: for example, greater familiarity with English may help explain higher satisfaction rates for students from India compared to students from East Asia, and particular cultural traits such as comparatively open-minded or critical outlooks could also affect student ratings. 

Beyond country of origin, the analysis also found variations in satisfaction level according to level of parental education: the higher the ratio of first-generation college students within the international student population, the lower the overall satisfaction rate. The report states that first-generation international students -- who at some institutions in the sample make up nearly 50 percent of the international student body – “are more likely to be culturally, academically and financially disadvantaged, which may lead to a less rounded and more problem-beset experience, and lower satisfaction. Such students, and their parents, may be more prone to less-informed choice of institution or more susceptible to suspect recruitment practices." (The report emphasizes, however, that the differences in average satisfaction are relative, “with all institutions within striking distance of the ‘satisfied’ threshold.”)

Barriers to Integration

As American universities have stepped up their recruitment of international undergraduate students – and as they’ve recorded rapid increases in the number of undergraduates from China in particular – many have raised concerns about a lack of integration. The analysis of International Student Barometer data suggests that the higher the proportion of international students from any one country, the lower the levels of integration, with the effect being most pronounced when it comes to high concentrations of Chinese students. The higher the proportion of international undergraduate students from China, the lower international students’ self-reported satisfaction with making friends with other international students from outside their home country (a negative 0.57 correlation) and, to a lesser degree, with domestic students (a negative 0.14 correlation).

Among other findings, the analysis revealed very little correlation (.07) between an institution’s spot on the Shanghai Jiao Tong global university ranking and undergraduate satisfaction. At the graduate level the positive correlation between ranking and satisfaction was somewhat stronger (0.26).

The report also looks at average satisfaction levels for particular academic, social and infrastructure-related indicators and examines the correlation between satisfaction and willingness to recommend the institution.

The report identifies areas that international undergraduate students see as important and for which they tend to rate their universities highly – areas such as subject matter expertise of faculty and academic content of the program – as well as areas that students think are important but for which satisfaction levels are somewhat lower, such as “making good contacts” as far as career prospects are concerned, friendship with domestic students, organized social activities, and visa or immigration-related advice. "In many cases these are aspects of the experience where international undergraduates desire greater structure and institutional action," the report states.

As far as finances are concerned, the results show that while satisfaction with cost of living is correlated with willingness to recommend the institution, satisfaction with factors such as cost of accommodation, ability to earn money and availability of institutional financial aid are only weakly correlated with willingness to recommend. “This may position tuition fees, accommodation costs, financial aid and ability to work as up-front ‘facts’ to be negotiated but cost of living as more complex, less visible pre-enrollment and a daily phenomenon,” the report states. On all cost-related areas, international students report relatively low satisfaction levels, ranging from 2.49 to 2.62 on the 4.0 scale (three being satisfied).

Of the data as a whole, i-graduate's Garrett said there’s no evidence of a “big crisis” as far as student satisfaction is concerned but that there are indeed areas where institutions can improve as well as important variations across institutions. And while students with certain demographic characteristics – in terms of country of origin, say, or first-generation college status – tend to be less satisfied on average,  he pointed out that “at the same time institutional individual actions can also make a positive difference around that average.”

“The idea that demand will always run ahead of supply and that institutions can enroll as many international students as they want and as long as they’re broadly satisfied, it’s fine -- I think there’s a risk of complacency there,” he said.

 

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