The Issue of International Students in Higher Education in the United States

American education system is considered superior to other systems across the world that is leading to an influx of international students in the United States. The new learning environment poses a challenge to many international students due to the substantial difference between the American learning environment and their home country.   The American learning institutions embrace international students and try to create a learning environment aimed at enhancing their experience.  The   principle objective of learning institutions is to enable the students to accomplish education goals.    School administrators evaluate the needs of different categories of students with an aim of creating an environment that enables each student to realize academic goals.   Students face diverse challenges that make administrators customize school programs to fit the specific needs of different categories of students. However, many administrators hardly implement programs that cater for the diverse needs of international students. As a result, the international students end up not realizing academic goals as per their expectations.  A lot of research has been directed to investigating the issues facing international students with an aim of providing ways for improving the experience of international students in  the learning environment.  Studies have revealed different issues facing the international students in higher education in the United States.

Some studies have put emphasis on investigating why institutions of learning fail to address fully the issues affecting international students in higher education. The small representation of the international students is one of the main reasons preventing higher learning institutions from fully addressing issues facing the international students. Public learning institutions are funded by taxpayers and administrators are required to portray prudence in the utilization of taxpayers’ money.   Cost-benefits analysis, therefore, dominate decision making when designing program.  A program that only caters for a small number of international students is considered uneconomical and is therefore avoided. The diversity of international students impedes implementation of reliable supportive programs. International students are from diverse background implying that their needs are quite different. For instance, Chinese students may experience language problems a problem that does not affect international students from English-speaking students.  It is difficult to implement a supportive program that supports the interests of all international students.  The only way the needs diversity problem can be addressed is by creating numerous programs that are in line with the specific needs of the international students of different backgrounds.  Such an approach is not practical since institutions of learning are faced by resources constraints. The critical resources required for implementing a program are human resources, classrooms, time, and learning materials. Institutions of learning are faced with budgetary constraints that make it difficult to duplicate the identified resources to support the creation of multiple programs.

International students face a variety of issues and research has been directed to investigating these issues and how they can be addressed to promote the welfare of the international students. The studies are not consistent as researchers approach the issues affecting international students in different perspectives. However, there is a common agreement that there are serious issues that face the international students that need to be addressed if the experience of these students is to be enhanced.  Studies have also put emphasis on understanding the needs of international students.

In their study, Hanassab & Tidwell (2011) ought to investigate the factors that influence the needs of international students.  Their study found that nationality, gender, the area of specialization, and the level of education influence the needs of international students.    It was found out those international students from European countries   have lesser needs than their counterparts from Asian countries. It implies that school administrators should consider the nationality of the student when designing learning programs for international students.  Gender is another factor that influences the needs of international students.  Female students have more needs that necessitate giving female international students more support to enhance their experience in the learning environment.  The study also revealed that international students pursuing science courses such as engineering than those taking other courses. The level of education was proved to have a major impact on the needs of international students. Undergraduate students have more problems than graduates.

A good number of studies show that language is one of the main issues facing international students in the institutions of higher learning in the   United States. The American education system has attracted both English speaking and non-English speaking students.    Non-English speaking students experience problems as the language of instructions in the United States is English (Hanassab & Tidwell,2002). Students who are not conversant with English experience major problems in the learning environment since one can only realize learning goals when   instructions are clearly understood. The inability to use English and understand it gives international students hard time in the learning environment. Inadequate English skills compromise interaction between the students and the instructors.  A good learning environment is one that is characterized by free flow of information between the instructor and the students. The interaction enables the students to seek clarification from the instructor that enhances learning outcomes.  Language problem also hinders teamwork in the learning environment. Teamwork is of great importance in the learning environment since most class activities have the elements of teamwork where students are required to interact when addressing group assignments. Teams can only succeed when team members use a common language.  Non-English speaking international students encounter difficulties when interacting with class teams. Such difficulties compromise the realization of academic goals.

Cultural shock   is a major issue facing the international students studying in the institution of higher learning in the United States.  America is a culturally diverse and people who are not familiar with cultural diversity may fail to comprehend the complex and diverse cultures that are common in the American learning environment (Zhou et al.,2008).  Some international students, especially from countries characterized by homogenous cultures, experienced difficulties in coping with the American culture. For instance, international students from China and Saudi Arabia face challenges in coping with the culture in the American learning environment. An international student from Saudi is used to being controlled by the Islamic principles where people’s way of life is purely defined by the religion.  Such students are used to interacting with people who they share faith and beliefs.  Religion is not given emphasis in the American environment and Saudi students studying in America may be exposed to cultural shocks.  These shocks are damaging to the experience of international students in the American learning environment.  Cultural shocks hinder the establishment of a supportive learning environment since they disrupt individual’s state of mind (Sherry et al.,2010).  Sobriety is crucial in the learning environment since it determines individual’s ability to grasp concepts taught in class.

Low-self-esteem is another serious issue affecting international students in American institutions of higher learning.  It is caused by a variety of factors that make the local students appear superior to the international students. Language problem propagates a feeling of inferiority among the international students.  English speaking students look down upon international students who cannot express themselves in English. Poor performance in class leads to low self-esteem in international students. The fact that the learning environment is not ideal for international students leads to poor performance that makes them feel inferior to the local students who are able to attain good grades.   The economic status of the international students is also to blame for the low self-esteem. A good number of the international students are beneficiaries of scholarships implying that they lack the ability to finance their education. Most internationals students, therefore, cannot live a life that meets the standards of local students. For instance, leisure activities in America are expensive and international students hardly afford to finance the engagement in leisure activities.

Marginalization and isolation   are serious issues facing international students in the United States. Some conditions in the learning environment do not allow international students to freely interact with other students. They feel out of place that compromises their ability to realize academic goals. Some students are marginalized based on religion especially when they confess a religion that is unpopular in the United States (Guo & Chase, 2011).  One can only fulfill religious needs when the environment is characterized by many believers. The issue of incorporating religious elements in learning programs raises serious issues in America that make it necessary for school administrators to strictly avoid religious considerations when designing school programs. Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States making it hard for individuals’ professing other religions to satisfy their faith needs. International students also feel marginalized when other people are not interested in learning their culture.  The locals also expect the international students to conform to the local cultures that are incompatible with the foreign students. Such expectations make the foreign students feel out of place especially when it is impossible to adapt the local cultural trends. Portraying foreign cultures in the American learning environment makes them feel not part of the new environment. Marginalization also emanates from the inability to cope with other students. Some international students conflict with local students due to substantial differences existing between the two categories of students.  Such conflicts may lead to alienation since it is hard to make friends in an environment that is characterized by disagreements (Lacina,2002).  College life does not end in classroom and students make networks of friends that promote social and academic lives. International students are required to make new friends since the American learning environment is new to them.  Evidence shows that the locals might be friendly but the international students may be reluctant to engage people from cultures that are substantially different.  International students are usually skeptical when interacting with other students. They figure out why the locals would be interested in interacting with them. The inferiority complex among in international students makes it hard to trust the local students.

International students are confronted with the problem of having to cope with unfamiliar food. Cuisines differ from one region to the other and switching from one cuisine to the other is challenging.  America has diverse cuisines in line with the diversity in the American population. The diversity of American cuisines does not guarantee foreign students cuisines of their choice. Investors in the food sector have taken initiatives of coming up with restaurants that are in line with people of different origins. For instance, Chinese restaurants have gained immense popularity in the United States.  However, these restaurants do not offer meals that are specific to the preferences of the international students (Yan & Berliner, 2013). The restaurants seek to create meals that are in line with the needs of the current environment and at the same time creating an ethnic touch.  The ingredient used to make food in the home country may not be available in the United States that makes it hard to create meals that resemble those in their home country.

Economic issues face international students studying in the United States institutions of higher learning.   The cost of education is high beyond the ability of most international students. The cost burden is too much for international students since a substantial proportion of international students come from poor countries.  Some students are under sponsorship but most sponsors only meet the school fees making students dig deep into their pockets to sustain their upkeep.  Most international students spend most of their time working as part-time employees to address their financial problems.  Engagement in income generating activities compromises individuals’ commitment to the realization of academic goals.

The structure of the libraries, facilities and the learning program challenges international students in the United States.  Evidence shows that international students experience problems when using the library.  The way American institutions structure their libraries is quite different from structures adopted by other countries.  According to Baron & Strout-Dapaz (2001), international students experience difficulties when adapting to the new library set up. The two conducted a study in one hundred and twenty-three universities where librarians and support staff were interviewed on how international students react to library setups.  It was revealed that international students experience problems in complying with the rules and procedures applied in the library. Such difficulties increase tension between the librarians and international students. Programs and Schedules adopted by institutions of learning vary across countries. Graduates seeking to further education in the United States encounter major difficulties when exposed to programs and learning schedules that are substantially different.   Utilization of other facilities in the education institutions gives international students difficulties. The American facilities may fail to incorporate some personal hygiene features that are common in the Middle East facilities. Such omissions make the international students uncomfortable in the American institutions of learning.

In conclusion, the existing research has focused more on investigating the problems facing international students studying in the United States. However, little has been done to provide guidance on how the institution of learning can implement measures of addressing these challenges. Some higher learning institution shave tried to factor the interests of international students when designing programs. For instance, almost all institutions that admit foreign students   provide English classes to a student from non-English speaking countries.  More research needs to be directed towards providing solutions to specific challenges facing international students.


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Zhou, Y., Jindal-Snape, D., Topping, K., & Todman, J. (2008). Theoretical models of culture shock and adaptation in international students in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 33 (1), 63-75.



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