The number of international students in the US reached an all-time high in 2019, making it the fourth consecutive year with more than one million international students.

International students make up 5.5 percent of the total US higher education population. They also contributed $44.7 billion to the US economy in 2018, an increase of 5.5 percent from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Universities proactively recruit internationals to create diverse student bodies that encourage students of all nationalities and backgrounds to learn from each other.

“We want even more students in the future to see the United States as the best destination to earn their degrees,” Marie Royce, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, told IIE. “International exchange makes our colleges and universities more dynamic for all students and an education at a U.S. institution can have a transformative effect for international students, just like study abroad experiences can for U.S. students.”

The onus is therefore on the university to provide tools to ensure these students succeed when they encounter challenges, such as cultural differences or the struggles which arise when taking advanced courses in a non-native language.

The language barrier issue

It’s no surprise that many international students struggle with literacy in English even though they are accepted to English-speaking universities.

Of 300 students from 5 different international student colleges surveyed by James Madison University, only 25 percent of respondents consider themselves ‘excellent’ in their ability to keep up with a course. 40 percent of respondents said they faced difficulties while communicating with teachers, and 45 percent said their lack of English proficiency restricted them from progressing in their courses.

Additionally, an investigation into foreign students attending schools in Australia found that many lack strong English language skills. Some professors even noted a pressure to pass under-performing international students out of a fear that the university might lose intellectual rigor and global standing.

Issues of plagiarism and ‘essay buying’ also tend to arise when students are not given the tools they need to properly complete assignments.

Universities can prevent these problems by providing services, such as tutors and English language classes, but should also look to adopt tools that they can embed into the design of their courses to create more accessible materials for international students.

Enlisting technology tools

The same way Netflix viewers often turn on captions as an extra aid when watching foreign films or shows featuring characters with accents, captions can come equally in handy in the university setting.

As more universities adopt the tenants of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and craft multiple ways for students to consume information, they can look to solutions including course captions and transcription. In the past, and often the majority of the time currently, captions and transcriptions were thought of only as aids for students with disabilities. In reality, they can greatly assist international students too.

When international students are presented with information both audibly and visually with captions, there’s a higher likelihood that they will retain the information. Further, when they receive transcripts of their lectures, they can go back and reference parts of the lecture they did not understand.

Additionally, searchable transcripts, like ones provided by Verbit, allow students to easily find the piece of the lecture they struggled to comprehend, rather than have to comb through the entire transcript to find the one piece they wanted to reference.

Live tools also provide on-the-spot solutions for students to ensure they are comprehending everything at the same time as their native peers. These services remove any disadvantages they may have encountered previously. Live captions provide international students with greater comprehension in real-time and therefore create opportunities for added confidence and facilitation of their participation in live classroom activities.

Counseling and support for cultural adjustments

It’s important to also consider the social challenges which language barriers present to international students. Counseling is a key method for universities to consider providing to their international students, so that the social aspects of being international do not interfere with these students’ academic success.

Research produced by JMU notes the impact of the transition of moving to another country, far from one’s family and the effect of exposure to significant cultural differences or even hurtful racial attitudes. These changes can cause stress and pressure, which can sometimes prevent internationals from progressing academically.

From licensed counselors to support groups to international student events to the assignment of a ‘buddy,’ there are many ways university leaders can help these students navigate these unchartered territories.

Enlisting native English speakers to help these students overcome social challenges also serves as a growth and learning experience for native students. 

Encouraging international students’ success

If universities invest in improving both the infrastructure and support systems for students with limited English language comprehension, all will benefit.

Making new friends and the culture shock of a new country are difficult enough. When universities employ technology and additional tools on campus, such as captioning sports games and transcribing lectures, international students can feel more supported.

Universities can enlist proactive approaches to making their campuses and courses accessible, and as a result overcome the issue of failing international students due to their language comprehension. Local students could then also continue to benefit from exposure to new cultures and diverse ideas from their international peers. Supporting international students is a win-win for the entire university ecosystem.