International students consistently said that quality instruction and a safe, welcoming atmosphere are two key factors in their decisions about where to pursue a post-secondary education, according to the 2017 International Student Survey compiled by Hobsons, a student recruitment and retention solutions company.

When asked about selecting a country in which to study, 26 percent of students said it was “most important” that the country be home to universities with high-quality teaching, and 23 percent said it was “most important” the country be welcoming to international students. When it comes to choosing a town or city, the priority was reversed: 31 percent said a safe and welcoming place was most important, followed by 24 percent who said it was the quality of teaching available.

 

Interestingly, when asked about choosing a specific institution, the quality of teaching remained the first priority (29 percent), but “safe and welcoming” fell to fourth (20 percent), behind both “it offers scholarships” (29 percent) and “it is well ranked” (23 percent).

The survey results pose a challenge to United States institutions. While the U.S. is still seen as the preeminent location in terms of education quality, international students only rank the United States as the fourth safest destination, after Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Given the importance that international students place on safety when choosing a foreign country in which to study, this perception is a real barrier for increasing international student enrollment.

 

 

Concerns about safety have appeared to lead to sharp drop-offs in international student enrollment. According to The New York Times, “International study has historically been affected by social forces. Attacks on Indian students in Australia in 2009 and 2010 were believed to be part of the reason for a sharp drop-off in applications from India.”

With that in mind, what can institutions do to ensure that student perceptions of the safety and welcoming environment of American campuses match perceptions of academic quality?

There are some lessons to be learned from the United Kingdom here. According to a recent article in The Guardian, “research also showed that sector-wide publicity campaigns aimed at promoting UK universities as welcoming destinations such as #WeAreInternational and #LondonIsOpen were having a measurably positive impact – 84 percent of respondents said these campaigns had persuaded them that the UK was welcoming.” The Guardian emphasized the importance of incorporating welcoming messaging – both about the institution itself and the state/country in which it is located – in all marketing materials that reach international students. Although this good will and campaigning has been mitigated by the recent Tory manifesto to include international students in country’s the net migration figures.

Other important information can be found elsewhere in the 2017 survey.

One key takeaway identified by the authors was that prospective international students rely heavily on the opinions and recommendations of family and friends who have lived or are currently living and studying abroad. According to the survey, “[prospective international students] are heavily influenced by word of mouth, particularly when choosing a destination, with friends and family who have studied overseas being a key information source. Providing a great student experience outside the classroom should therefore be seen as a high priority for universities seeking to attract the next generation of international students.”

Both of these potential solutions illustrate why regular, intentional communication and support for both prospective international students and currently enrolled students is so critical.

For prospective students, regular communication is a means by which to answer questions and “put your best foot forward” as an institution by appearing welcoming and supportive. For current students, keeping open lines of communication and providing ongoing, comprehensive support, both inside and outside the classroom, not only leads to better educational outcomes, but can also pay long-term dividends when students who matriculate pass on favorable recommendations to family and friends.