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Business Officer Magazine
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Getting Up to Speed

On-campus learning centers help boost international students’ language skills, classroom performance, and retention rates.

By Sandra R. Sabo

Five years ago, international students represented less than 5 percent of enrollment at Oregon State University (OSU), Corvallis, Oregon. Now, they account for roughly 10 percent of the student population and generate significant tuition revenue.

Brian Thorsness, OSU's executive director of campus operations, largely credits the university's 220 percent growth in international students to its joint venture with INTO University Partnerships. Started in the United Kingdom in 2005, INTO partners with 17 universities worldwide, including four in the United States. (See also "A World of Options" in the July-August 2013 issue of Business Officer.)

"Previously, the university had limited resources for international recruitment and no consistent strategy," says Thorsness. "INTO already had a marketing network in many areas where we wanted to reach students and developed a recruiting plan that builds on the university's strengths." One person in OSU's admissions office used to devote three weeks annually to international recruitment; in contrast, INTO has 25 offices around the world and works with about 4,000 agents to market the university year-round.

Easing Entry

At the undergraduate level, Pathway programs, delivered in the INTO OSU Center, provide a "soft landing" for international students by helping them deal with the many transitions of studying abroad, says Amy McGowan, the center's director. "Students apply for and are admitted to a Pathway program, which at the undergraduate level offers a combination of English language classes and OSU Baccalaureate Core classes for students in their first year of a four-year degree," she explains. To cover the additional costs of providing an enhanced student experience-such as tutoring, translation assistance, and access to cultural field trips-students in a Pathway program pay a slightly higher tuition than OSU's out-of-state students.

INTO University Partnerships has responsibility for operational details of the joint venture, while OSU oversees all academic aspects, including admissions, curriculum, and academic staffing. In 2011, the university constructed a 148,000-square-foot building on its campus to house classrooms and administrative areas for the INTO-OSU partnership and to provide housing for 350 domestic and international students. The $52 million building "isn't a silo on the edge of campus, something just for international students," McGowan emphasizes. "Our goal is to have 50 percent domestic and 50 percent international students living there."

Learning for a New Level

Although it employs a different model than INTO University Partnerships, CultureWorks has the same goal of preparing international students to succeed at post-secondary educational institutions. Founded in 1998 and based in London, Ontario, CultureWorks currently partners with six Canadian colleges and universities to recruit students and provides English language and North American academic and cultural courses on those campuses. It employs instructors who all have experience teaching abroad and are certified as ESL (English as a second language) teachers.         

"Our students have already been admitted to the college or university based on their academic marks, but the acceptance is conditional on their completing the highest level of our program," says Kathy Parker, CultureWorks' vice president, partner relations. "Our curriculum focuses on students not only mastering the English language but also learning how to ask questions, write essays, deliver presentations, and develop critical thinking."

CultureWorks' students typically arrive in September and begin their university studies one year later. They spend the intervening time attending full-day courses, five days a week, and becoming familiar with the community and the country. Each Thursday, for example, is devoted to Canadian cultural studies, which often involve field trips related to art or politics. As a result, says Parker, "Our students are leaps and bounds ahead of other international students who are just getting off the plane but have already met the university's English requirements. Our students already feel at home on campus."

Of the students who complete the CultureWorks program, 85 percent go on to study at the university level, Parker reports. Similarly, 80 percent of undergraduates who complete a Pathway program during their first year at Oregon State University return for a second year—achieving the same retention rate as domestic students.

"We have also looked at the GPAs of former Pathway students in their second year, international students who were recruited directly and did not go through the program, and domestic students—and found that the former Pathway students, in most cases, outperformed the other two cohorts," adds McGowan. "In fact, data showed that math scores of former Pathway students were higher than the domestic students' scores. This finding has led the university's math department to consider smaller class sizes, a key element of the Pathway program."

SANDY R. SABO, Mendota Heights, Minnesota, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.