A common problem for international student offices around the world is getting to know if their student mix is actually having a quality experience. Are they getting exposed to truly diverse cultural, social and educational environments?
That is why today’s article is not about recruiting per se. It’s more about setting a system and making sure that you have a stable as well as diverse student community.
What are the steps for truly diversifying your student mix? Here are some suggestions:
Visualize your quantitative data and open it to the public
Of course you have all these elaborate Excel tables representing your current student mix. You analyse using various types of measurements, including age, gender, country of origin or types of study. That is a good start as having a system to collect and systematise data is essential. However, most of the time, all this data is only available for internal use.
What most universities and other education providers fail to do is visualize this information, make it easy to understand way and open it to the public. Presenting simple tables is not a bad choice. But what would really set a forum for discussion is infographics, graphs or other, more vivid kinds of visual representation.
Once you show to your community how many women study in your STEM programs, how many international students are a part of programming courses or how many 40-year olds are enrolled in social studies, you lay the foundation that is necessary to start a discussion. Don’t be afraid of it. It could start with some form of criticism, like for example that some courses lack interest from particular groups of students. The important thing is to keep listening to the voice of your community, encourage dialogue and remain open for any suggestions for improvement.
Something as simple as sharing information goes a long way. It creates trust and ownership, and gives you opportunities to improve.
Make a qualitative data audit and rethink the method
Even if you have all sorts of data extracted and available for analysis, you still don’t have a bird-eye’s view on the topic. Of course, it is easy to put a percentage on attendance or student retention. What is harder to know with precision is whether your student body is truly satisfied with their curriculum, extra curricular activities and the role they play within your institution’s student community.
The first step you need to take is make your data usable. Feedback from students usually comes from various sources and different departments. It comes in questionnaires after courses, online surveys, group evaluations, etc. Nobody in their right mind would want to deal with manually entering data of 200 student surveys into a database. However, all of those sources of information should be available online. Ideally, develop a mobile app, so all students can participate instantly. Most importantly, use unified, measurable indicators for performance and success. Make sure that crunching data is automated. Having a computer program that sorts out the keywords will save you and your team tons of time.
By the way, we all know too well that there is often poor transferability of information across different departments within the same education institution. Meaning that if an international student in your faculty takes a course in another department, his or her feedback may not reach you in time. Use a unified system for measuring quality to makes sure all the parties involved are promptly informed.
Throw away your strategic plan
Aren’t you tired of compromising quality for the sake of meeting your strategic goals? Don’t you wish you could focus your efforts more on the happiness of your student mix than on a piece of paper written 3 years ago by someone who was way too optimistic and probably hasn’t ever worked directly with international students?
Then throw away your strategic plan. No more trying to achieve 80% student satisfaction level, no more quotas for students in a specific class. Forget it all. Strategies are there to present an ideal future, but deep down we all know that it’s basically fortune telling.
What you can do instead is break your plan down into smaller, more easily manageable pieces. After getting feedback from your student mix, implement the most popular ideas. Maybe your STEM programs lack women because all of your brochures show only men working hard in a laboratory? Maybe your programming courses are not in English, thus pushing away potentially interested international students? Listen to your community, build a culture and adapt. If you want to read more about culture and strategy in organizations, books like “Rework” and “Tribal Leadership” could be well worth your time.
Dedicate time and resources for reflection
As mentioned previously, most of the time feedback from students comes from surveys or questionnaires at the end of a course or program. But do you believe that is the very best way to get quality data? Put yourself in your student’s shoes. Now, you have 15-25 minutes to critically reflect on 4-8 months of your life. Quite possibly, you may not even remember if the course introduction was clear enough or if some of your questions during your time on campus remained unanswered. There you go! You just figured out the main reason why most surveys get either top grades or are submitted incomplete.
Make sure you schedule small portions of time for feedback and reflection on your students’ experience every couple of weeks. Create a system and offer a variety of tools for your educators and staff as well. On one occasion a mobile app might be the right approach. On another, a discussion or a free writing exercise will prove to be a better approach. Encourage both staff and students to dedicate time for reflection and emphasize that “finishing early” is not an excuse to let everyone go.
If necessary, set up qualitative interviews with your international students. In order to avoid bias and getting away from the topic, structure the interview in a way that it covers all the main areas and reflects on all indicators you have set out to measure student success. You can read more about structuring interviews in Daniel Kahnenman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.
To summarize, ask yourself:
- Do I have clear, well-visualized and easily accessible quantitative data about my international students? How many people access this data on a monthly basis?
- Does my student community have opportunities to have a discussion or dialogue about our current situation? Where do these conversations take place? How active was my community on these matters over the past month?
- Does my faculty member have a variety tools and time to provide proper reflection? What are they?
- Do you have a university culture? What are the indicators of a happy international student? How do we measure those indicators?
What is your advice on building a diversified yet content student mix? How do you find out and measure whether your students are truly excited to be part of your community and have a sense of belonging? Let us know in the comments!