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International student graduation rates drop, MU seeks solution

By Lana Pochiro, For The Miami Student

As Miami's enrollment increases for both domestic and international students, a discrepancy in graduation rates calls for concern.

According to Miami University Fact Sheets provided by the Office of Institutional Research, enrollment increased from 14,936 undergraduates at the Oxford campus in 2011 to 15,081 in 2012 and 15,462 in 2013. Of those numbers, international students totaled 722 students in 2011, 837 in 2012, and 1,026 in 2013.

Although the number of international students enrolling shows positive growth, another statistic demonstrates an obvious problem.

According to the International Student Retention and Graduation report conducted by Miami University's Office of Institutional Research, international student retention to junior year has dropped from 89.5 percent in 2005 to 77.8 percent in 2010 and the four-year graduation rate sits at 45.7 percent for students who enrolled in their first year in 2009. The domestic student four-year graduation rate is 68 percent, in the top 10 for public universities in the country.

The plausible reasons behind this statistical discrepancy are varied and uncertain.

Assistant Provost of Global Initiatives, Cheryl Young, speculates recruitment agents unaffiliated with Miami University encourage international students to transfer schools.

"My sense is they could be recruited based on Miami's high rankings, but being told, 'Go to Miami a couple years. Get really good grades and you can go to a higher ranked school,'" Young said. "Rankings are very important to this student population."

Young offers several other explanations that might fill in the gaps.

"We know from the surveys that some of the students leave because they want to be in a big city - Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles," Young said.

Young said the surveys that her office conducts found that students often cite friends at different universities as motivation for transferring as well.

Sophomore Sisheng Liang, an international student from the Jiangxi province of China, came to Miami because of the Farmer Business School's high academic ranking, but expected to transfer schools before graduation.

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"At first I didn't expect to graduate from here because I was thinking about transferring to another school," Liang said. "I thought Miami would just be a step for me in my college life, but it turned out to be a very good school and I want to finish all four years here."

Liang's initial motivation for transferring was consistent with the survey results that Young's office received. Liang came to Oxford expecting a metropolitan area and hoped for a more active city life.

"I was thinking about transferring to maybe New York or the East coast or West coast - to a more developed city - so that I can have more career opportunities," he said.

Although transferring is the reasoning often provided to explain the slipping retention rates, the International Student Retention and Graduation report suggests this is not the only force at work. According to the report, of international students who did not return to Miami, only 23.9 percent enrolled at a different U.S. institution.

Despite the declining retention figures, Global Initiatives proactively searches for a solution. Young believes that strong connection to the Miami community and building a sense of belonging provides the remedy to this issue.

"My office and the staff in International Student and Scholar Services develop programs for them - Global Buddies, NationaliTea - to help them integrate into student life at Miami," Young said. "The people in student affairs, especially in residence halls, are doing a lot of great work to keep the students engaged in Miami University and keep them here."

One of Young's favorite community-building programs aims to bridge across cultures and create a sense of home and connectedness. Every November, Global Initiatives partners with Oxford community members to host a traditional America Thanksgiving dinner for international and domestic students to attend. This immensely popular event uses the holiday to engage international students in Miami culture.

Another component to solving the declining rates of retention and graduation lies in presenting international students with adequate information from which they can base expectations of Miami University.

The International Student Retention and Graduation report states that only between 12.5 percent and 47.3 percent of international students who enrolled during 2010 to 2013 expect to be satisfied with Miami, compared to the 64.9 percent to 69.9 percent figures for domestic students during the same years.

Young said that she and her team are fixing this information gap by hosting two orientation programs that familiarize international students with Miami life and resources.

Pre-orientation, a new program aimed at accomplishing these goals, consists of Miami faculty traveling to China to host information sessions for prospective students.

"We hope to grow this next year with more sessions in more cities and probably more sections in Beijing and Shanghai," Young said.

She believes that this component is essential to starting international students at Miami with a welcoming atmosphere.

"The first week, I saw a lot of students who I had met in China over the summer," Young said. "I think that helps them feel like, 'I'm in the right place. I know her.'"

Young and her staff hope that this will help create a stronger sense of inclusion and attachment at Miami.

"We'll assess that and see if that leads to retaining those students longer."

With the excitement of increasing international enrollment on the horizon, Miami's Global Initiatives and International Student and Scholar Services is actively pursuing ways to better the international student experience and maintain students through graduation.

"We think they made the best choice in coming to Miami University," Young said. "We want them to stay."