Studying abroad is no longer a sure thing

November 12, 2023 | 05:07 pm PT
David Pickus Professor
The pre-Covid era will likely be remembered as a golden age for students studying abroad. Once Vietnamese students began enrolling abroad in ever greater numbers, more and more businesses sprung up to assist them.

What will become of these businesses now? Even more importantly, what about fortunes of students today? Here are a few thoughts from a college professor about the future of study abroad. This advice stems from my experience living and working in Vietnam. It is designed to provide students, their parents and local educational professionals with a perspective on emerging global trends.

First, a brief look at the history of the subject. It is fair to say that, in the last 20 to 30 years, there has been a worldwide explosion in the number of students leaving their home country to study in foreign educational institutions. The reasons for this are more complex than might appear on first glance. Partly, the change was due to large, structural transformations: the internet, cheaper and better travel options and, above all, schools that accommodated themselves to large numbers of foreign students, along with ministries of education that recognized the legitimacy of foreign degrees.

In such an atmosphere studying abroad began to acquire a momentum of its own. This wave has many advantages, but contains a built-in problem that study abroad could become an expectation that did not require careful thinking about either the goals sought or the methods used to obtain them.

Thus, my first bit of advice is not to decide for study abroad simply because you have been offered a place. Over the past two decades, educational institutions have created a great many new enrollment openings and now they need to fill them. We typically do not take a bus to an unknown destination because it is possible to buy a ticket. Even more with study abroad. We should think about its purpose when the price and time-investment is considerably higher.

This doesn’t mean that studying abroad is wrong. Foreign study retains its potential to advance a young person’s life chances, not only in terms of a better career, but also in relation to personal growth. However, a fundamental change is happening that—in my opinion—ensures that study abroad is no longer a sure thing.

Look at the situation from a historical perspective. Increased opportunities for study abroad did not appear from nowhere. They were a consequence of an even larger process, one that scholars call the "massification" of universities. This (funny) word refers not only to the rapid growth in the number of universities and their size, but also in the number of needs the university seeks to fill. In 1980, even a world famous university like Harvard or Oxford had much fewer majors and courses of study than they do today.

Students attend a fair in Hanoi about education in the U.S., October 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Binh Minh

Students attend a fair in Hanoi about education in the U.S., October 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Binh Minh

Now think of this psychologically. It is well documented that in many cases where people’s consumer choices are limited they don’t worry as much about the consequences of what they choose. While I disagree that people in that position are, therefore, happier, I agree that more choices mean more anxiety and regret. The massification of universities inevitably brings more choices, with all that entails for consumer behavior.

There’s more. Now look at this economically. A striking fact about today’s world is that there are both increasing shortages of workers and increasing difficulties in finding a job. From a distance this appears illogical. If more people are needed, shouldn’t it be easier to find a job? But not all jobs are the same. Competition for skilled jobs can be extraordinarily fierce, and employment opportunities vanish and change with great rapidity. Can study abroad help? Maybe yes and maybe no.

Fact is, both the massification of the university and the age of frequent study abroad were the products of the world before 2019. What’s coming now, nobody knows. In this situation, I suggest that we divide the notion of study abroad into three smaller sections, each with particular characteristics. For fun, I label them like chilies:

Mild: A period abroad in order to improve a basic skill, or to acquire needed experiencing in living independently.

Medium: A basic degree abroad, typically a B.A. By returning to Vietnam with this degree, it is hoped that finding a job is easier and one can move up in life.

Spicy: A very specialized degree, typically an advanced one, requiring a rigorous course of study in a demanding environment. Those completing this course of study seek high rewards, but to obtain them they must compete at advanced levels.

It is important to recognize there is nothing wrong with any of these options. We do not blame people for choosing different levels of spiciness. We should not blame them for choosing life paths most suited to their situation. However, I currently say something that I would not have said in the pre-Covid era, namely that "medium" might not be the best option.

I can understand why many people might say that "mild" does not deliver sufficient results, while "spicy" is out of my reach. I think I’ll pick "medium." However, we should keep in mind that "medium" works best in a time of expanding globalization. Things are tougher now.

Consider that a B.A is much more expensive. In Western countries, it is often extremely expensive. Furthermore, even with the high cost, it is not clear that students indeed learn from their years studying abroad. In fact, high fees encourage grade inflation and researchers have argued that it is primarily the highest performing and motivated students (especially ones concentrating on substantial academic subjects) that benefit from their experience. Yet, given the job market, even they do not necessarily find employment when they return. The middle option is not necessarily a safe bet.

As for the "mild" option, I understand why parents only wish to invest in something serious. Certainly, study abroad is different from a vacation. However, if a program can provide immersion in a needed skill—say learning English—it might provide lasting benefit, especially if the student uses the opportunity fully.

Moreover, I have seen for myself some of the problems associated with Vietnamese young people not developing the skills and habits expected of adults. At the same time, we should not overlook the pressure these same young people face, as well as the difficulties of becoming independent when one has never had a chance to live on one’s own. There are circumstances when a relatively short period of living and studying abroad can accomplish more in the way of maturation than four years of pursuing a degree, particularly if the latter is done in a halfhearted fashion.

Finally, if a young person is particularly talented and driven, advanced degrees must be considered. Although it remains possible to be self-taught, in today’s world professional success typically begins with an advanced degree. Whether this degree must come from a famous university, or simply a reputable one, is a question that requires more debate. It is not obvious that a foreign degree invariably confers lasting benefits. What does seem clear is that demonstrating one can perform at the very high skill level is increasingly required for highly sought positions. When students are fully aware of the risks, and feel they will make the most of an opportunity to succeed, it is worth investigating advanced degrees abroad.

There is more to say on all these topics. But for now, the best way to conclude is to remember that there are no perfect answers, risks are always present, and different people should choose different options. Education is an important matter. I wish all students the best, no matter what they decide.

*David Pickus received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago. He taught at Arizona State University, RenMin University in Beijing and other institutions in the U.S., China and Europe. He has published books and academic essays on topics related to history, education and globalization. He is currently an Associate Professor of History at a university in Da Nang, Vietnam.

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