Room sharing with an international student ‘boosts grades’

US domestic students achieve better GPAs when cohabiting with someone from overseas, but study finds no effect on international students themselves

October 28, 2023
Two young women unpacking in a room
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Sharing a room with an international student improves academic performance, a new study has found.

The authors said the findings – which showed clear benefits to US-based domestic students – were further evidence that colleges should continue to embrace international students on campuses.

Researchers behind the working paper examined data from more than 7,000 students across 15 years at a US liberal arts college serving low-income students, and estimated the effects on academic performance, college persistence and global outlook.

The results showed positive effects on the grade point average (GPA) of first-year domestic students paired with international roommates – although this diminished over the four-year college lifecycle.

Researchers also observed a significant increase in second-year retention, but found only a small positive effect on global outlook.

Hsin-Ta Tsai, lead author from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University, told Times Higher Education that room sharing exposed domestic students to new cultural perspectives and practices, and allowed them to learn productive academic habits from their international peers during a “critical” year.

“Higher education institutions should continue embracing international students on their campuses,” he added.

“While the usual motivation for diversity is an equity consideration for those who have traditionally been marginalised in higher education, we believe that an equally important aspect is that diversity can have significant consequences for those who traditionally have access to higher education.”

Mr Tsai said that, because students often selected their own roommates after freshman year, the initial gains from intercultural exposure were likely to diminish over time – a phenomenon known as “fadeout”, whereby the initial positive effects of an initiative can wear off.

“However, the fact that random roommate assignment can effectively improve domestic students’ early college performance highlights it as a promising low-cost strategy to leverage diversity,” he added.

“Institutions should couple it with initiatives that continually foster inclusive environments and global competency.”

Despite the positive benefits to Americans, the study found no significant positive effects on any of the outcome measures for the international students themselves.

Focusing on Berea College, which serves predominantly low-income students, the team said that the study showed how diversity initiatives might uniquely benefit lower-income populations during their transition to college.

More modest gains would probably have been found from those at a more elite institution where students entered with greater privileges, cultural capital and academic habits already, Mr Tsai said.

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