In the 1930s, scholars began examining the forces behind students’ decision to persist or depart from higher education institutions. These explorations initially looked at U.S. four-year university contexts, but research has since spread to other high education systems around the world and has demarcated for diverse institutional types, academic programs, and student demographics. Within this area of study there is a small contingent of researchers in the past 10 years that seek to better understand persistence trends for international students in higher education. Nevertheless, there remains at least three research gaps within this area of study.
For starters, the collection of international student persistence studies displays some disharmony. While researchers seem to be in general agreement that there is a correlation between international students’ level of academic achievement and persistence, other variables such as pre-entry characteristics and social engagement have presented findings that are either contradictory or inconclusive. At the same time, there has been little to no consideration of the effects that variables like motivations, study goals, and living situation have.
Additionally, international student persistence research would gain from progressive refinement of the scientific methods that are being employed. To be more precise, because this topic of academic interest is still in its infancy, there are a lack of replication studies that would enhance the research techniques and verify the results being presented. In particular, two elements that would especially benefit from expanded inquiries are conceptual frameworks and quantitative survey instruments. These essential tools must be tailored for international students’ unique traits, perspectives, and learning situations. Thus far, Kwai (2009) appears to be the lone researcher who has attempted to create a conceptual framework designed for international student persistence. The remainder of scholars rely greatly on the theoretical constructions developed for studies of domestic student persistence. The same is true for college and university surveys that are administered broadly, but that are largely formulated for collecting data about domestic students.
Furthermore, research of international student persistence in community college settings is even scarcer. At the time of this study, there appears to be only two researchers (Behroozi-
Bagherpour, 2010; Mamiseishvili, 2012a) who have addressed this topic specifically. Therefore, more research is needed that considers the reasons behind international student persistence and departure at U.S. two-year public higher education institutions.
With these points in mind, the purpose of this study is to explore the effects of institutional experience factors on international student persistence at a public community college in Washington State. There is one overarching research question that steers this study.
How do institutional experience factors relate to international students’ decision to persist with their degree studies at a public community college in Washington State for the Spring 2016 Quarter?
From this main research question there are two dimensions, four sub dimensions, five sub research questions, and five hypotheses that were established.
Table: Research Dimensions, Sub Research Questions, and Hypotheses
The conceptual framework for this study was developed out of the literature on higher education student retention. Based on precedent set by previous quantitative studies of international student persistence (Behroozi-Bagherpour, 2010; Mamiseishvili, 2012a, 2012b; Smith, 2015), the investigator heavily referred to Tinto's (1975, 1993) Social Integrationist Model as an initial starting point. Braxton, Hirschy, & McClendon's (2004) revised Theory of Student Persistence in Commuter Colleges and Universities (as cited in Braxton, Doyle, & Hartley, 2014) was also considered with its amendments to Tinto’s model being applicable for community college contexts. Finally, an expanded version of Kwai's (2009) Model of International Student Persistence provided scaffolding as the only model for international student persistence discovered in the literature. The end product is a customized conceptual framework for the particularities of this study’s research site and accessible population delimitations.
Figure: A Conceptual Framework for International Student Persistence at U.S. Community Colleges
Triangulated data sources were used for collecting information about international student persistence at the community college research site as it pertains to institutional experience factors. First is a self-created International Student Satisfaction & Engagement (ISSE) online survey that was adapted from three other nation-wide U.S. higher education surveys. After reviewing the surveys used in previous international student persistence studies, the investigator decided to customize the ISSE survey for a few reasons. The main rationale was because other U.S. higher education student surveys are designed for general applicability with some questions not pertaining to international students’ experiences. The ISSE survey is made up of 25 questions that measured 126 variable items. The vast majority of questions were multiple choice that asked for a single response or on a grid for responses based on a 4-point and 5-point Likert scales. Of the 342 international students eligible to take the ISSE survey, 71 participated equating to response rate of 22%. Nonetheless, closer examination showed that the survey was predominantly taken by international students that can be classified as “persisters” (n = 46) and “undecideds” (n = 18) with comparatively less participation from “non-persisters” (n = 7).
Second, desk research documenters were analyzed in attempt to gain greater insight about both persisters and non-persisters at the community college research site. Non-enrollment records, transfer out forms, and graduation degree audits were the three types of documents reviewed in cross-reference with seven variables: (a) cumulative grade point average, (b) first quarter of study, (c) total number of quarters of study, (d) number of quarters with high credit course loads, (e) number of quarters with low credit course loads, (f) number of quarters not meeting the minimum 2.0 GPA immigration requirements, and (g) English course placement at initial enrollment. The transfer out forms also provided details about some of the reasons that non-persists gave for their decision to withdrawal from the community college. In total, the sample size was n=106 out of the total enrollment of 416 fulltime international students on F-1 visas attending class for the Spring 2016 Quarter. 19 of this international student subgroup were included because they were identified as terminated, dropped from classes, or not enrolled. For the other 87 students, 42 of them completed an associate degree and graduated from the community college. This lead to a sample population of persisters as n=42 and non-persisters as n=64.
Third, the investigator relied on his professional experience and site visit meetings with ISS&P office staff as resources for providing more depth to the partial views obtained from the survey instrument and institutional research. The investigator has worked in international education for over 13 years with 8 years in higher education settings and three years for the ISS&P office at the community college research site. While administrating international student services, the investigator has accumulated a wealth of experience and practical knowledge that is applicable for this study. Consultations with other ISS&P office staff also assisted with clarifying some of the information that was found missing from the institutional data documents as well as verifying that data pieces were accurate.
Analysis of descriptive frequency and inferential statistics laid the groundwork for offering answers to this study’s five research questions. The major findings are summarized as follows.
Data from both the ISSE survey and institutional documents indicate that there is a statistically significant relationship between cumulative GPA and international students’ decision to persist with their studies at the community college research site.
Data from institutional documents suggests that there is a statistically significant relationship between persisters and non-persisters in terms of their course loads and living situation engagement. Specifically, that persisters had more quarters of high credit and low credit course loads as well as greater participation in the college managed homestay program.
There are no statistically significant correlations for the remaining academic system and social system variables of interaction with faculty and staff, extracurricular activities, on-campus employment, peer-group interaction, and living situation.
Undecideds had higher percentages of not knowing their cumulative GPA and not completing homework or assignments for a class. They also had comparatively lower levels of engagement with professors outside of class, interaction with students from different backgrounds, involvement in extracurricular activities, participation in the
community college’s homestay program, and were less satisfied with other international students as well as their living situation.
Persisters had a higher percentage of working on assignments with other students in class and had a marginally higher number of them participated in extracurricular activities 6 hours or more a week.
Non-persisters skipped class slightly more often, but spent a greater amount of time receiving academic advising/counseling, career assistance, and tutoring other students while also having a noticeably higher level of satisfaction with American students and their living situation.
All three student groups reported high levels of satisfaction with their professors while in class and with staff in both the ISS&P office and other offices.
To summarize, the major findings from this study are largely consist with the conclusions reached in previous studies of international student persistence. From the literature, there is a general consensus that academic integration is a predictor of student persistence. Evidence for this contention extends to both American domestic students and international students as well as within varying U.S. higher education institution contexts. In short, that progressive academic performance is a strong motivator for students to stay enrolled at their present college or university. Persistence theories have also looked at how social integration on campus could be supportive of retaining students and reducing attrition; however, results from studies for this dimension are not as compelling. To a certain extent, social integration has stronger ties for domestic students at residential universities as opposed to commuter colleges where campus life outside the classroom appears to be less influential. The importance of social integration for international students in any higher education institutional setting may also seem intuitive as a means of support for adapting to their new living and study situation in a foreign country. Nonetheless, the small amount of international student persistence research concerned with social integration factors has not produced a definitive association.
To begin with, international student persistence research would benefit from further refinement of the conceptual framework. Additional clarifications could be pursued for the sub points under the four dimensions (pre-entry, institutional experience, externalities, and outcomes) and perhaps separate conceptual frameworks based on the institutional type with four-year universities and two-year commuter colleges having unique campus environments and differing student populations.
Moreover, much can be discovered in research projects that comparatively investigate international student persistence at more than one community college or a statewide community college system. Analogously, future studies would profit from a mixed methodology that includes qualitative data collection from interviews and focus groups. Experts (Andrade, 2006; Mamiseishvili, 2012a) also advise the need for longitudinal studies. Research that follows multiple cohorts across their two years of enrollment at the community college would provide diachronic and micro-level analysis for better differentiating between chance occurrences and real trends. Including association tests and regression tests would also furnish persistence causalities and predictors for more reliable generalizations.
Enhancements can be made to the survey instruments with the aim of improving measures of international student engagement, satisfaction, and persistence. One issue is how current U.S. higher education surveys have questions that are inapplicable to international students’ experiences. Surveys must also be sensitive to question wording for comprehension and interpretation by non-native English speakers. As such, the ISSE survey used in this study would be enhanced by a longer, more comprehensive piolet survey and greater consultation with the English as a Second Language (ESL) departments. The same holds true for any statewide or nationwide surveys that focus on international student satisfaction, engagement, and persistence.
At the same time, it is important to consider the value of maintaining survey participants’ anonymity by not requiring personal information such as their names, school ID numbers, or exact date of birth. Ultimately, this privacy decision was an attempt to solicit honest responses with answers not being able to be traced back to the students that gave them. However, there are disadvantages to this approach in terms of the extra time students have to input certain information that they would not have to otherwise if they gave their school ID number (e.g. nationality, gender, cumulative GPA, course loads). The possibility of students giving incorrect information for these demographics also increases for each personal characteristic they have to insert manually. Correspondingly, school ID linkages could be used to better identify international students’ employment history and hours they worked. Therefore, the prospect of enhancing reliability by requiring students to give their school ID number perhaps outweighs any risks of response inaccuracies.
Lastly, researchers should take a closer look at honing each of the individual variables that are suspected of having an impact on international student persistence. Aside from those related to institutional experience, the wide range of pre-entry characteristics and external factors are particularly lacking scientific investigation thus far. To illustrate, hypotheses for variables that examine prior schooling, financial sponsorship, family background, and community involvement as well as study motivations and expectations before arrival on campus. Meanwhile, variables within the institutional experience dimension could be fine-tuned. For example, looking at peer-group interactions with international students from outside one’s home country instead of all international students. The objective here is to see more clearly if engagement levels with international students from diverse cultures and languages has an impact on persistence. Extracurricular activities could also be further distinguished to examine the effects of different roles and commitments that international students have on-campus. All in all, deeper inquiry for these dynamics across the three dimensions could lead to greater insights about the various influences on students’ decision to persist or depart.
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