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International students often face challenges in transitioning to life as a college student in the U.S. A new survey by Terra Dotta evaluates some of their concerns and ways to support them.

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During the 2022–23 academic year, U.S. higher education institutions enrolled more than one million international students, accounting for 5.6 percent of the total U.S. education population, according to data from Open Doors.

Many times, international student supports can be limited because of a lack of funding from the public sector to retain and graduate these students. Terra Dotta’s 2024 International Student Survey, published June 5, highlights themes in the experiences of currently enrolled international students.


The survey represents the opinions of 356 international students (undergraduate to graduate level) studying in the U.S. from over two dozen countries, including Brazil, Canada, China, India and the United Kingdom.

The report offers insight into what factors are most important to persistence and retention of these students, including the need for financial assistance and social supports to promote thriving.

Concerns about college: Starting college and moving away from home can be a challenge for any student, but especially those crossing borders to start their postsecondary journeys.

Prior to arriving in the U.S., students anticipated having challenges with social interactions and making friends (33 percent) and being homesick (29 percent). In fall 2023 data from EdSights, 18 percent of international students said they are often homesick, and an additional 47 percent are sometimes homesick.

Academics also challenged students as they adapted to U.S. education, Terra Dotta data showed. Just under half of students noted the amount of schoolwork (47 percent) and pressure to do well on exams and assignments (37 percent) as the greatest stressors. A little over half (53 percent) of students feel extremely well integrated into their campus community, and an additional 24 percent feel moderately integrated.

One-third of Student Voice respondents who are international students (n=50) say their sense of social belonging at college is fair or poor (20 percent and 14 percent, respectively), compared to 28 percent of all respondents. Comparatively, 86 percent say they have an excellent, good or average sense of academic belonging at their institution.

Around half of Terra Dotta’s respondents said they were worried about crime, theft and personal safety in the U.S. (49 percent) prior to their arrival, and another 26 percent worried about discrimination or bias based on nationality, race, gender or other factors. Twenty-eight percent of respondents didn’t hold these concerns.

While enrolled, only 31 percent hold concerns about safety, 24 percent worry about discrimination and 17 percent worry about health-care access. Just under half of students have witnessed or experienced discrimination on campus (47 percent).

What works: Based on survey responses, higher education leaders should consider investing in the following strategies.

  • Specialized orientation. Seventy-three percent of students say a specialized orientation was most helpful when transitioning to college, as were welcome and social events (63 percent). This additional time on campus can help students feel at home in the U.S. and get them settled with any logistical needs they may have, like purchasing dorm supplies.
  • Peer connections. To further integrate into the institution, 45 percent of international students want additional cultural and cross-cultural activities. Peer guidance among international students can be one way to provide interpersonal and academic support for learners, but providing spaces for learners to connect with domestic students is also critical.
  • Quality education. Unsurprisingly, students’ satisfaction with their academic program (50 percent) and quality of instruction (38 percent) ranked as top factors for learners’ decisions to remain enrolled or consider transferring, respectively. Higher education leaders should consider how their curriculum offerings serve all students and are inclusive to those from outside the U.S. Investing in academic and educational initiatives can also help learners feel more integrated into their college, 35 percent of respondents noted.
  • Financial aid. Affordability and financial eligibility are top retention concerns for students, with 68 percent citing it them the most important factors to remaining enrolled. Colleges and universities should consider their financial aid packets and how international students’ needs and expenses may differ from their domestic peers’.
  • Job placements. Career preparation is also top of mind for students, with 42 percent of respondents indicating finding employment in the U.S. is the area where they need institutional support the most. Over half of (56 percent) international students plan to stay in the U.S. after graduation, but many need help from their institution identifying an employer to sponsor them (43 percent) or help with their work visa or permit (41 percent). Learners particularly want career fairs with international-friendly employers (42 percent) and alumni networks for global student career connections (26 percent).

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