Vietnam: A Rising Star on the U.S. Higher Education Scene

As Vietnam, once war-ravaged and closed to the world, takes its place upon the world stage, it is not only businesspeople, tourists, war veterans, students and NGO workers who have (re)discovered this beautiful and inspirational country. Educators who represent a variety of institutions and companies that encompass the “good, the bad and the ugly” are also coming in droves. For many, Vietnam has become a land of opportunity for recruiting students, setting up training centers (e.g., hard and soft skills), and establishing academic partnerships, faculty and students exchanges, among many other possibilities.

In recent years, Vietnam, has boasted the second fastest economic growth rate in the world after China. It was at the Sixth Party Congress in 1986 that Vietnam’s leadership made the fateful decision to “bend rather than break” by changing course from a centrally planned to a “market economy with socialist orientation.” The economic and political reforms of the late 1980s began to bear fruit in the 1990s and kicked into overdrive in the last decade. To its credit Vietnam has made great strides in poverty reduction and has a per capita income that is approaching middle-income status, according to the World Bank ($1,052 in 2009).

Vietnam is one of the great success stories of the developing world. It is on track to becoming a regional powerhouse with a population of 89 million, the world’s 13th largest, a literacy rate that exceeds 90 percent, a life expectancy of 74 and a median age of 27.4, compared with 36.8 in the United States. While over half of the workforce is involved in agricultural production, nearly 80 percent of the nation’s GDP comes from the manufacturing and service sectors. Last year, Vietnam attracted US$21.48 billion worth of foreign direct investment, which was earmarked for projects in residence and restaurant services, real estate, processing industry and manufacturing.

Opening Up to the World

According to a recent survey [2] conducted by Pingdom, a Swedish company, Vietnam ranks 20th in the world in terms of Internet users just behind Canada. This is about 27 percent of the population or 24.3 million Internet users, an extraordinary accomplishment that bodes well for Vietnam’s successful integration into the global community. As you would expect, the majority of Internet users in Vietnam are young. A cursory glance at the top 10 sites in Vietnam, according to Alexa.com, reveals what the Internet is used for and illustrates how connected young people are to each other and the rest of the world: searching for information (Google, Yahoo!), social networking (Facebook), file sharing (MediaFire), watching videos (YouTube), listening to music (Zing.vn), etc.

Education: The Catalyst for Continued Economic and Societal Development

As in other countries at Vietnam’s stage of development, the education system has not kept pace with the economy and is unable to meet the exponentially growing demand for skilled labor. The state of education at all levels is one of most widely discussed and hotly debated topics in the media, as well as in the corridors of power.

The obsessive interest in education is the result of three main factors: 1) the premium that Vietnam as a Confucian culture places on education; 2) the urgent need for highly trained and educated workers; and 3) the youth of the population. Over half of all Vietnamese are under the age of 25. This is what’s commonly referred to as the “demographic dividend” that Vietnam hopes to capitalize on in the coming decades.

The higher education system is faced with many challenges. The government has attempted to respond to demand by increasing capacity through the establishment of new universities and the privatization of the country’s higher education system, the latter with decidedly mixed results. The official goal is for 40 percent of all young people to have access to postsecondary education by 2020. The current figure is about 15 percent; in this respect, the country’s higher education system retains an elite orientation. According to the Ministry of Education and Training, 1.5 million candidates took the university and junior college entrance examinations. Of the 1.2 million whose goal was to attend a university about 21% were admitted, which is the U.S. equivalent of a highly selective school.

The main obstacles to quality are low faculty and administrator salaries, a teacher-centered methodology, overly theoretical instruction, outdated curricula and materials, a shortage of qualified lectures and professors, a lack of university-industry cooperation and substandard libraries and other facilities. Some of the aforementioned problems can be solved by changes in policy and a shift in priorities, while others require increased funding. Not surprisingly, t he most common employer complaints about quality of graduates center on a lack of communication and critical thinking skills, foreign language proficiency, creativity, practical experience, and leadership skills.

Overseas Study

The only viable option for those of means and others, who by dint of hard work and intelligence are able to obtain scholarships, is overseas study. The official estimate is that there are 60,000 young Vietnamese studying abroad. The actual figure is probably closer to 100,000. Australia is the world’s leading host of Vietnamese students followed by the United States. Other popular countries include China, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.

Vietnam’s record surges in economic growth have been accompanied by rapidly rising levels of (urban) income and wealth among those with the necessary education and connections. It is estimated that Vietnam has $40 billion in cash, including $10 billion in foreign currency reserves, $20 billion held by banks, and $10 billion in the hands (and safes) of individuals. How is the last $10 billion being spent? To purchase big ticket items such as cars, real estate, gold and overseas study, to mention just a few.

In addition to a higher education system faced with formidable challenges and a growing ability to pay, other factors that explain the popularity of overseas study are greater access to information, the prestige and marketability of a foreign degree and a situation in which demand outstrips supply.

Vietnam and U.S. Higher Education

When President Bill Clinton visited Hanoi almost 10 years ago, he addressed a very enthusiastic and attentive crowd at Vietnam National University [3], where he noted that the histories of the United States and Vietnam  “are deeply intertwined in ways that are both a source of pain for generations that came before, and a source of promise for generations yet to come.”  Educational exchange, always a source of promise, has become one of the bright spots in a flourishing bilateral relationship.

When I first traveled to Vietnam in 1996, one year after the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries, there were fewer than 1,000 Vietnamese students in the United States. According to the latest U.S. government information, there are now 15,300 young Vietnamese studying in all 50 states and at all levels, including high school. This makes the United States the world’s second leading host of Vietnamese students – after Australia. Amazingly, Vietnam ranks 8th among all countries sending young people to study in America. (These statistics are from the June 2010 SEVIS quarterly update [4] from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.)

According to the 2009/10 Open Doors [5] report, which uses data snapshots from the previous fall semester, there were 12,283 students from Vietnam studying in the United States, a 46 percent increase over the previous year. This comes on the heels of 45 percent and 31 percent increases the previous two years, all of which have propelled Vietnam into the “top 10” places of origin – alongside countries at more advanced stages of development and with much higher per capita incomes. Vietnam is now the fastest growing market of international students coming to the United States to pursue higher education.

Unlike other Asian countries, the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese postsecondary students enter undergraduate programs and most begin their U.S. study experience at a community college as a gateway to a four-year school and a bachelor’s degree. Among international students attending community colleges, Vietnam ranks 2nd between South Korea (1) and Japan (3). There are also growing numbers of young Vietnamese enrolling in private boarding schools with the goal of attending a U.S. university or college.

In just a few years Vietnam has catapulted from obscurity to the country du jour in the internationalization plans of a growing number of U.S. institutions of higher education. U.S. higher education fairs in Vietnam routinely attract record numbers of students and parents eager for information about study in the USA.

The U.S.’ Competitive Advantage

In March 2009 the Institute of International Education (IIE) in Vietnam conducted an impressionistic (i.e., unrepresentative) online survey using SurveyMonkey and mass e-mails to members of IIE-Vietnam’s student databases in its HCMC and Hanoi offices, of the Attitudes and Perceptions of Prospective Students from Vietnam [6].

The results described in the briefing paper reveal what most of us who are familiar with Vietnam know – that the United States is the first choice destination for overseas study. Below is a summary of the positives and negatives from the survey.

Some Positive Impressions of the US

Some Negative Impressions of the US

In addition to student recruitment, U.S. colleges and universities are engaged in a wide variety of other Vietnam-related activities, including transfer programs (2+2, 1+3), in-country degree programs, curriculum transfer, faculty training, workshops and study abroad programs, to mention just a few.

The Next Frontier

Since the cost of higher education in the United States is high, there is no guarantee of obtaining a student visa, urban incomes are on the rise, and many people cannot leave jobs and families behind to study abroad, degree programs offered in-country or online are attractive options for many students. Furthermore, because Vietnamese are brand conscious, U.S. institutions naturally have a competitive advantage in the higher education market. The list of U.S. programs in Vietnam is long and growing. Below are a few different types of activities:

There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills!: Enter the Bad and the Ugly

Among the growing number of U.S. universities and colleges that are looking to Vietnam as a promising market for student recruitment, online and in-country education and training programs, most are well-intentioned and accredited. Others, however, see a golden opportunity to reap substantial profits from a market that has rosy long-term prospects. These less than stellar institutions are flocking to Vietnam like flies to honey, lured by the prospect of an “easy sell” and “easy money.”

Degree programs offered by unaccredited schools, or diploma mills, defined as: “An institution of higher education operating without supervision of a state or professional agency and granting diplomas that are either fraudulent or because of the lack of proper standards worthless” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary), are less expensive than other programs, feature lenient admission criteria, a relatively light workload, and require less time to complete. In other words, they embody the folk wisdom that “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

I recently posted a list of unaccredited U.S.-based or affiliated schools on my blog, An International Educator in Vietnam [24], which attracted quite a bit of attention in the Vietnamese and English language media in Vietnam. The purpose was to educate “consumers” of U.S. and other foreign higher education so that they can make an informed decision about the value of the education and training being offered. (I also added a list of nationally accredited U.S. schools operating in Vietnam and plan to do the same for regionally accredited institutions.)

Most of the schools on my list, 24 and counting as of this writing, are mainly interested in making money and lots of it. And they find plenty of local partners willing to cooperate and people willing to hand over thousands of dollars in order to obtain a U.S. “degree.” As an Australian colleague who happens to be an expert in this area commented on my blog: “Credentialism, greed and a touch of corruption. Put them all in the mixer and, voila! The perfect market for degree mills!”

The unfortunate reality is that most of the unaccredited schools doing business in Vietnam are “made in the USA” or attempt to wrap themselves in the American flag in order to positively influence the bottom line. To the extent that they are successful in enrolling large numbers of Vietnamese students in programs of marginal quality who then graduate with largely worthless degrees, the reputation of legitimate (i.e., officially accredited) U.S. higher education may be tarnished. In that sense this is a battle – pardon the military metaphor – that is being fought in both countries.

There is a tentatively happy ending to this story. Earlier this month, an official from the Ministry of Education and Training stated in an interview that unauthorized joint training programs are illegal and that the Ministry will not recognize the diplomas of programs offered in cooperation with unaccredited foreign partners.

U.S. Students in Vietnam

While the flow of students is mostly in one direction, not unlike bilateral trade, Vietnam is an appealing destination for a small but growing segment of U.S. students who are looking for an off-the-beaten path experience. According to the latest statistics (i.e., 2007/08), there are fewer than 700 U.S. students in Vietnam. Most participate in short-term programs, including study tours.

Schools that offer programs in Vietnam for U.S students include Hobart and William Smith Colleges & Union College, Loyola University Chicago, Lewis and Clark College, the School for International Training (SIT) and SUNY-Brockport, University of Michigan and Westfield State College, among others. There are also opportunities for recent U.S. graduates to come to Vietnam to teach English through the sponsorship of a non-profit organization, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department (FLTA program) or with a proprietary school.

Looking Ahead

Vietnam is a rising star on the U.S. higher education scene. In the past decade, it has become a country whose name appears with increasing frequency in the internationalization strategies of U.S. colleges and universities. In the short time that my company, Capstone Vietnam [25], has been in existence, we have received requests for and are actively exploring a number of project ideas, including setting up a representative office or training center (e.g., English language instruction), launching marketing and promotion campaigns, organizing higher education fairs, arranging study tours to the United States and Vietnam, offering summer programs for Vietnamese high school students and establishing new K-12 and postsecondary institutions with private U.S. and local investment.

Vietnam is at a crossroads. In order for socioeconomic development to continue at the current pace, it will need to keep sending students overseas for higher education, upgrade the quality and increase the quantity of postsecondary study and training opportunities, and encourage the establishment of more quality in-country joint training programs offered by officially accredited foreign education providers, as outlined in the educational services section of the WTO Agreement.

Higher education is one of the crown jewels of American society and one of the United States’ most valuable service sector exports. American colleges and universities are well positioned to make meaningful and lasting contributions to Vietnam’s educational system and development, while enjoying a range of tangible and intrinsic benefits. Those with the vision and courage to take the leap have a chance to become a “source of promise” of which President Clinton spoke during his historic visit to Hanoi ten years ago.

Mark A. Ashwill is managing director and founder of Capstone Vietnam Co., Ltd., a Hanoi-based human resource development company. Dr. Ashwill served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam from 2005 to 2009. He is the author of Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads [26] (with Thai Ngoc Diep), published in 2004 by Intercultural Press.

Dr. Ashwill maintains a blog, An International Educator in Vietnam: Information, Insights & (Occasionally) Intrigue, at markashwill.wordpress.com [24]. Most of the information and documents cited in this article appear on or are linked from his blog. He can be reached at markashwill[at]capstonevietnam.com [27].