To many Vietnamese, US still a top overseas study destination in spite of Donald Trump

By Mark Ashwill   September 15, 2017 | 10:00 pm PT
To many Vietnamese, US still a top overseas study destination in spite of Donald Trump
Vietnamese students take a selfie with a paper model of the U.S. Republican presidential candidate during an election watch event at the US embassy in Hanoi. Photo by AFP
Check out the facts and figures on why so many students are heading state-side.

The U.S. remains a hot overseas study destination for Vietnamese students.

Just as its economy has managed to weather the global storm of the past few years, young Vietnamese people continue to flock overseas to study in large numbers, undeterred by Brexit, the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other potentially game-changing socio-political events. Among U.S.-bound international students, Vietnam is an outlier among the top 10 sending countries. Incredibly, it displaced Canada as the fifth-leading sending country in March 2017.

The U.S. is the world’s second-leading host of Vietnamese students – after Japan – with over 30,000 at all levels, mainly in higher education, according to the latest figures. Unlike Japan, however, most young Vietnamese in U.S. higher education are enrolled in academic degree programs, mainly at the undergraduate level, while 12.5 percent are pursuing a graduate degree. In addition, 54.5 percent are female, in contrast to most Asian countries.

There are an estimated 165,000 young Vietnamese in the top 10 host countries, 83 percent of whom are in the top five: Japan, the U.S., Australia, China and the U.K. – in that order. Rounding off the top 10 are Singapore, Germany, France, Russia and Canada. 96 percent are self-financing, according to Vietnam's Ministry of Education and Training, which speaks to the growing ability to pay in recent years.

Vietnam now has 30,279 students in all 50 U.S. states, as well as one in Puerto Rico. It remains a solid undergraduate market with 30 percent enrolled in community colleges – on their way to a bachelor degree via the 2+2 option – and 30 percent attending four-year institutions. In 2009-10, an astounding 90 percent of all Vietnamese chose a community college as their point of entry into the U.S. higher education system.

The fact that community colleges and four-year schools are tied is a recent trend that is the result of a combination of factors, including more four-year institutions with lower price points, either with or without scholarships, and a growing ability to pay in a country that the U.K. real estate consultancy firm, Knight Frank, predicts will have the highest percentage growth of ultra-high net worth (UHNWI) individuals between now and 2026 (UHNWI have a net worth of at least $30 million). The number of USD millionaires is expected to increase by more than 2.5 times from 14,300 to 38,600 during the same period and, of course, there are many others who are not as wealthy but have sufficient resources to afford an overseas study experience for their children.

At the secondary level, which consists of boarding and day schools, the total enrollment is 13.1 percent, or nearly 4,000. Vietnam ranks third among U.S.-bound high school students after China and India. This trend is fueled by the desire of Vietnamese parents to give their children a head start, linguistically, socially, academically and culturally, as they prepare for higher education admission. Options range from high school completion programs (mainly in Washington State) to public and private day schools, to boarding schools. Costs vary greatly.


[High school students before a graduation exam in Hanoi. Vietnam now has 30,279 students in all 50 U.S. states, as well as one in Puerto Rico. It remains a solid undergraduate market with 30 percent enrolled in community colleges and 30 percent attending four-year institutions. Photo taken in June 2017 by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Popular states

Where do Vietnamese students choose to study? Everywhere, really, but there are 10 states that host nearly three quarters of them. Among the most popular states for Vietnamese students and parents are California (6,171), Texas (5,221), Washington (2,458), Massachusetts (1,685), New York (1,328), Florida (1,193), Pennsylvania (1,187), Illinois (915), Virginia (886) and Georgia (677).

While there are Vietnamese students in every state of the union and Puerto Rico nearly half (46 percent or 13,850) are in the top three states.The top 10 states host about 72 percent (21,721) of all Vietnamese students. A number of states have 50 or fewer: Alaska (6), Idaho (36), Montana (15), North Dakota (10), South Dakota (36) and Wyoming (17).

The reasons for the popularity of California, Texas and Washington include family ties that are the result of waves of post-war emigration, in the case of the former two. What attracts so many to Washington are its unique high school completion program and the long-term and persistent recruiting efforts of their colleges and universities, especially community colleges.

The percentage of students in the top three states has been gradually decreasing in recent years. This could be due to the recruitment efforts being made by new colleges and universities entering the market, and the fact that there are more choices available to parents and students than in the past.

The value of education

One of the driving forces behind overseas study in general is the value that parents place on education. According to the latest HSBC report in its The Value of Education series, parents worldwide spend $44,221 on their child’s education from primary school to undergraduate level. The Value of Education surveys parents’ ambitions for their children, their views on the costs and benefits of education at home and abroad, and the sacrifices they are prepared to make to ensure their children can fulfil their potential.

The overwhelming majority (87 percent) financially support their children’s education and are prepared to make personal sacrifices so that their children may succeed (82 percent). Strikingly, 74 percent of all parents surveyed use day-to-day income to fund their children’s education.

Here’s a key excerpt about Vietnam that reflects the global scene:

Vietnamese parents place a great importance on their child’s education with spending on education accounting for nearly a half (47 percent) of the total household expenditure. In their efforts to improve the quality of education for their child, more and more parents are considering sending them abroad to study. By the end of 2016, the number of Vietnamese students abroad had reached 130,000 with a mere 4 percent of them being state funded. Furthermore, whether they study domestically or overseas, Vietnamese students have a strong preference for science, technology, engineering and mathemtics (STEM). For example, according to the 2016 Top Markets Report Education Overview, STEM ranked second in the fields chosen by Vietnamese students in the U.S. (28.4 percent), just after business and management (32.6 percent).

Based on various country and regional surveys conducted in 2016 and 2017, it’s clear that the majority of Vietnamese are very optimistic about the future and that education plays a pivotal role. Vietnamese parents are investing significant sums of money in their children’s education starting at a very young age, some at a greater sacrifice than others, depending upon their social class. Dr. Phung Xuan Nha, Vietnam’s minister of education and training, acknowledged this fact at a conference last December when he said: “Vietnamese parents can sacrifice everything, sell their houses and land just to give their children an education.”

View of the U.S.

Another important factor that explains the high level of interest of studying in the U.S. are the generally positive views that most Vietnamese have, if not of President Trump, then towards U.S. culture and Americans. According to the results of a Pew Research Center Global Attitudes and Trends survey released in late June, “Donald Trump’s presidency has had a major impact on how the world sees the United States. Trump and many of his key policies are broadly unpopular around the globe, and ratings for the U.S. have declined steeply in many nations.”

The results of an Ipsos MORI poll of 18,000 respondents across 25 nations mirror those of the Pew survey. Only 40 percent think the U.S. has a positive influence on the world stage, less than China at 49 percent but not far ahead of Russia at 35 percent. The top three countries are Canada (81 percent), Australia (79 percent), and Germany (67 percent). The U.S. “approval rating” plummeted by 24 percentage points.

While Vietnamese don’t think very highly of Trump, something they have in common with people in most countries, their favorable view of the United States has actually increased from 78 to 84 percent, the second-highest rise after Russia. That figure rises to an astounding 92 percent among young Vietnamese aged 18-29. Even favorable views of U.S. Americans are at 86 percent, tied with South Korea for the highest percentage among all of the 37 countries surveyed.

There are a number of possible reasons that could explain positive Vietnamese views of the U.S. and its people:

A reaction against China, the result of current concerns about territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, known in Vietam as the East Sea, and Chinese influence on Vietnam's economy.

Another more deep-seated, historical reason could be that the official view during the American War in Vietnam that it was a war between governments not peoples, which resulted in many Vietnamese differentiating between the U.S. government and U.S. Americans.

The fact that so many Vietnamese, especially in central and southern Vietnam, have family ties in the U.S., mainly the result of post-war waves of emigration.

The influence of U.S. soft power, including music, movies, television, goods and services, etc. For example, 57 percent of Vietnamese respondents said they like American music, movies and television.”

Also in June 2017, the American Council on Education, in its Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses report, conducted every five years, revealed that “58 percent of the recruiting plans cited by respondents include geographic targets. By a clear margin, the top three target countries are China, India and Vietnam.”

Immigrant investor program

A growing number of parents whose children are studying in the U.S. are also taking advantage of the EB-5, a U.S. government program that allows entrepreneurs (and their spouses and unmarried children under 21) to apply for a green card (permanent residence) who invest in commercial enterprises associated with regional centers approved by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services that promote economic growth. While most EB-5 visas have gone to Chinese investors in recent years, Vietnam ranks second, followed by India, Brazil, Taiwan, South Korea, Iran and Venezuela.

This program, created by the U.S. Congress in 1990 to stimulate the U.S. economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors, enables the sons and daughters of participating investors to work long-term without worrying about whether or not they will be able to obtain a work (H1-B) visa.

The writing's on the wall

Vietnam is defying the odds, as it has in so many respects in the recent past and throughout its long, tumultuous and inspirational history. From an institutional perspective, it has become a fiercely competitive market, not only among U.S. schools but also those coming from countries that have recently discovered Vietnam as a potentially promising recruitment market. This is good news for parents and students, who have more opportunities to choose from at a more reasonable cost

While the wave of interest in study in the U.S. will eventually break because of demographic and development-related factors, such as an aging population and an improvement in the quality of the domestic higher education system, demand is likely to continue to gain momentum, barring unforeseen political and economic circumstances. Since no one has a crystal ball, however, medium-term outcomes are anyone’s guess.

*Dr. Mark Ashwill is managing director and co-founder of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.

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