Root causes of International Student Attrition

By Radhika Retnam

Attrition or Student withdrawal can be linked with various root causes that has been researched after keeping close track on systematic patterns of attrition over a long period.Academic, psychological, and socio-cultural adjustments to a new environment can be challenging for international students.The process of attrition manifests from various stressors such as communication difficulties, adjustment to a new teaching style, new cultural norms and pressure on academic performance. These stressors result in an often overwhelming attempt to integrate and function effectively, and can consequently affect a student’s ability to meet academic requirements. In the theses, “The Big Picture: Key causes of student attrition and Key components of a comprehensive student retention plan”, Joe Cuseo has explained attrition in four spheres. Academic causes for attrition include inadequate preparation to meet the academic demands of college course work. Also, disinterest or boredom with the content of curses or their method of delivery can be stated as another major reason. Low level of commitment to college in general and the perceived irrelevance of the college experience are looked upon as the motivational root causes that divert the students from continuing the course. Social factors and emotional issues also hinder the students from active participation in college. Speaking of the financial root causes, inability to afford the total cost and perception that the cost of college outweighs its benefits are the two major reasons for student attrition.

The root causes of attrition can be broadly listed as:

  • Attrition stemming from students being ineffectively prepared to accommodate the academic demands of college and meet marginal academic standards, i.e. attrition due to academic failure or dismissal.
  • Attrition triggered by lack of student interest in or enthusiasm for the type of academic learning experience that characterizes college coursework (i.e. the content of courses and the process of course delivery).
  • Attrition stemming from low initial commitment, i.e. attrition resulting from weak initial intent of the student to stay at, and graduate from, the particular college she is attending.
  • Attrition stemming from concurrent commitment or obligations to communities outside of college (e.g. family, friends, or work), which “pull away” students’ time and energy that would otherwise be committed to higher education.
  • Attrition caused by an absence of personal and meaningful social contact with other members of the college community, result in feelings of separation or marginalization.
  • Attrition attributable to poor institutional or departmental “fit”, which stems from a mismatch between the student’s expectations, interests, or value and those of the prevailing community.
  • Attrition resulting from new students having trouble coping with the initial changes, demands or stressors that accompany transition into the college and/ or departmental ‘culture’.

ACT reports that the highest rates of student departures occur during the first year of school, with a national average retention rate of 55% from first to second-year. The top two drivers of student departure are the perception that the institution does not care and secondly they are receiving poor service or treatment.

In the write up “Best practices for student retention programs“ , four major reasons are stated which counts as reasons for student departure- careless nature of college, poor service and treatment, ‘unworthy’ stature of colleges and non-effective schedules (students not being able to find their courses). A study of 1669 colleges and universities in the U.S. estimatesthat student attrition is responsible for collective revenue losses of around $16.5 billion per year. Publicly assisted universities averaged $13.3. million per year in lost revenue and private colleges averaging $8.3 million in losses per year. Richard James, pro vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne, said attrition rates gave insights into students’ views of universities and their courses. He suggested retention was more highly correlated with “perceptions of market worth” than the actual quality of the programs.

In an article published in the “The Australian”, Higher Education Reporter John Ross had described that an analysis of last year’s attrition rates shows the behavior of international students closely mirrors the Academic Ranking of World Universities, with the top 10 Australian universities in the benchmark global ranking also achieving the 10 best attrition rates for international undergraduates. He also summed up that the average international attrition rate of 8.73 was well below half the domestic rate of 18.11 taking into concern that overseas students were far less likely to drop out than their domestic counterparts, having invested more heavily to obtain their places. In the words of Kerri-Lee Krause, director of the Griffith Institute for Higher Education, attrition rate volatility will increase as students were encouraged to try out universities and explore different pathways. While attrition rates are often interpreted as a measure of drop-outs, they also cover students who’ve continued their studies at different institutions, sometimes following pathways designed by the institutions themselves. In the abstract of the essay ‘Asian international student attrition among Australian universities: are wellness programs the answer?’, it is comprehended that International students comprise approximately 24% of enrolments at Australian universities and approximately 80% of these students are from the Asian region. In Australia, Education is one of the largest service-based exports. In a similar research paper, ‘Staying the Course: Retention and Attrition in Australian Universities’, no information regarding the causes or reasons of attrition was given, hence it is conveniently avoided.

The write-up about international students in “Alliance for International exchange “ describes that the relevant issues for international student retention depended on what type of degree the students were pursuing. Bachelor’s students were most dissatisfied with affordability while Master’s students were dissatisfied with access to jobs or internships. In a paper presentation on “Student Attrition: Consequences, Contributing Factors, and Remedies” it is identified that the basic elements that tend to define student attrition include characteristics of students that appear to impact persistence and attrition, programmatic characteristics associated with student dropout, and characteristics related to students’ interactions with the program. Also, it was found that regardless of the type of program, defining the population of students prior to admittance into the program can have a direct impact on student attrition rates. The research journal “Retention and attrition of students in higher education: Challenges in modern times to what works”, elaborated on the attrition rates from teacher education courses within the context of attrition in higher education generally and considers resultant detrimental effects on two levels: at a personal level to both students and staff, and at an institutional level. Since the write up had only remote resemblance to the topic, further minutes from the article are not discussed in detail.


  • Cuseo, Joe. ‘The “big Picture”: Key causes of Studen Attrition and Key components of a comprehensive Student Retrition Plan.’
  • Asian international student attrition among Australian universities : are wellness programs the answer? Washington, Tracy L., Singh, Benjamin, Rachele, Jerome N., Ramsey, Rebecca, Agarwal, Ekta, & Brymer, Eric. 2014


About The Author

Radhika RatnamRadhika Retnam

Radhika Retnam is currently pursuing Post-graduation in Journalism at the Press club Institute in Trivandrum. She is an active volunteer at MAD ( Make a Difference), an NGO that takes care of the education and overall growth of kids at Shelter homes. She is an occasional creative writer and has published poems in ‘Kavya Bharathi’ (a journal published by The American College, Madras). She has also won the challenge memorial award for poetry in 2012. She is planning to conduct an exhibition of her abstract paintings later this year. She is also a researcher for a project on media studies conducted  in collaboration with ICSSR and JNU.