Vietnam’s Stock Continues to Rise in the World of U.S. International Student Recruitment

By: Mark A. Ashwill


IEM Spotlight Newsletter, Vol. 12, Issue 1 - May 2015

Demand for overseas study remains strong among Vietnamese students. In 2013, there were 125,000 Vietnamese students studying overseas, a 15 percent increase over 2012, according to the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET). The top five host countries were Australia, the United States, Japan, China, and Singapore, accounting for two-thirds of the total enrollment.  The United States continues to be the preferred destination, based on this ranking and anecdotal evidence. 

Of those studying abroad, 90 percent were self-financed, which means that Vietnamese parents are investing nearly $2 billion in the overseas education of their sons and daughters, according to a Ministry of Finance estimate from 2012. That amounts to over one percent of the nation's gross domestic product.   

The driving forces behind this trend include: ongoing concerns about the substandard quality of domestic higher education; increased access to information, mainly via the Internet; the growing ability to pay for higher education; the high value placed on education; and aggressive recruitment efforts of many U.S. colleges and universities.

  • Vietnam was ranked 75 among 93 countries in the Global Talent Competitiveness Index, which measures a nation's performance based on the quality of talent it can produce, attract, and retain. According to the new study, "Vietnam scores relatively high in global knowledge skills despite its low performance in developing the country's own talent via formal education" (Source: INSEAD, in collaboration with the Human Capital Leadership Institute of Singapore and the Swiss human resources company Adecco). 
  • The population of ultra-rich individuals in Vietnam will more than double in the next 10 years, making it the fastest growing in the world, according to a prediction made in the annual Wealth Report released in March by the global real estate consultancy Knight Frank. 
  • The results of the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, released last year, revealed that emerging and developing countries are more optimistic than their richer counterparts that the next generation will have a higher standard of living. Forty-eight percent of Vietnamese people surveyed felt that having a good education was the most important way to get ahead in life. Working hard, knowing the right people, and being lucky came in at 36 percent, 28 percent, and 24 percent, respectively.

So Far, So Fast

2015 is a year of noteworthy anniversaries in Vietnam, including the 40th anniversary of the end of the American War, as it's known here, in which 3.8 million Vietnamese perished. One of the turning points of the postwar period was the decision to shift from a centrally-planned economy to a market economy "with socialist orientation," which was ushered in with the renovation reforms of 1986. Another turning point was the decision made by the United States in 1994 to lift the devastating economic embargo it had imposed on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam ("North Vietnam") in 1965, followed by the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995. 

Vietnam is one of the great success stories of the developing world. The tremendous growth in overseas study is just one of many chapters in the larger inspirational story of Vietnam in the postwar era. When I first traveled to Hanoi in 1996 to set up a summer study abroad program for U.S. students, the economic reforms had just begun to kick in and the per capita income was a paltry $337, making Vietnam one of the poorest countries in the world at that time. In 1997-98, there were 1,210 Vietnamese enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities, many with funding from foundations, governments, and other sources. There are now nearly 26,000 students enrolled at all levels. 



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Vietnamese students gathering info about U.S. education.

Based on Open Doors 2014 data, Vietnam ranks eighth among all sending countries, fifth in undergraduate enrollment—almost evenly split between community colleges and four-year schools, and third in international enrollment at community colleges. 10,867 F-1 (student) visas were issued in the fiscal year 2013, a five percent increase over the previous year. (I heard from a reliable source that this figure jumped exponentially in the fiscal year 2014.) 


Using real-time Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) figures from the Department of Homeland Security, there were 23,407 Vietnamese students enrolled at both the secondary and postsecondary levels in the United States, as of October 2014. That represented a dramatic 21 percent increase since July 2014, second only to China (22 percent).

According to the latest SEVIS by the Numbers quarterly update from February 2015, Vietnam now ranks  seventh among all places of origin with 25,982 students in the United States at all levels, surpassing Taiwan and nipping at the heels of Japan, which has only 205 more students. The increase of 11 percent over last October was the highest among the top 10 places of origin. 

Among the key countries in Asia, Chinese students held steady while the number of students from South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan actually declined. Vietnam remains one of the fastest growing markets in the world for U.S.-bound international students, a trend I expect to continue for the foreseeable future. 

Riding the Recruitment Wave

With the spotlight shining brightly on Vietnam for quite some time now, and enrollment increases that range from modest to striking, the market has become extremely competitive. Institutions that are successful are generally those that have identified Vietnam as a strategic priority and are willing to invest the requisite human and financial resources. In some cases, the earlier they entered the market, the more successful they have been in opening up "pipelines" of Vietnamese students and becoming an overseas study "brand." Their successful recruitment efforts have been augmented by positive word-of-mouth advertising, the best marketing of all. 

Here are some other factors to consider when recruiting in Vietnam: 

  • Over 50 percent of all Vietnamese students are in three states, i.e., if your institution is not located in one of these states, you need to try harder (to borrow an old advertising tagline). 
  • It is important to develop a diversified recruitment strategy.
  • Monitor your progress closely and be prepared to make mid-course corrections, if necessary.
  • The use of education agents (choose carefully!), while important, is not enough. (Read the December 12, 2014 University World News article, "Walking the walk – Ethical agency-based recruitment," in which I report on the state of educational consulting companies in Vietnam.

In short, you need to combine armchair with in-country recruitment tools and techniques implemented within the context of a long-term vision. These include effective use of alumni and currently enrolled students as institutional ambassadors and cheerleaders, online marketing, localization of promotional materials and fairs, info sessions, targeted high school outreach, and long-term in-country representation, if possible, to name just a few. Those colleagues who view Vietnam as a country du jour and expect immediate results, or those who work exclusively with education agents are doomed to fail. 

A Look Ahead

Vietnam is a country on the move. Daunting obstacles have been overcome and suffering redeemed. Phenomenal progress has been achieved with new summits yet to be conquered. Vietnam's greatest resource is its people—hardworking, motivated, always in search of ways to improve their lives through education and training. How can your institution benefit from incorporating Vietnam into its internationalization strategy? What contributions can you make to help take Vietnam to the next level under the rubric of global service and in the spirit of doing well and doing good? Given the increasing number of Vietnamese returning home and the landmark contributions they are making in the public, nonprofit, and private sectors, to the benefit of themselves, their families, and their country, as well as the significant contributions of those who make the very personal decision to remain abroad, student recruitment is one such area. 

Dr. Mark Ashwill Mark A. Ashwill is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. From 2005 to 2009, he served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam. A 2011 Hobsons consultant's report noted that Dr. Ashwill's work and that of former U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak "helped to promote the United States as a destination for Vietnamese students, and strengthened the ties between the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) and U.S. universities." In June 2012, Jeff Browne wrote in his blog Vietnomics that "Much of the credit for the strengthening U.S.-Vietnam higher education link goes to Hanoi-based educator, Mark Ashwill, director of Capstone Vietnam and key adviser to student-run nonprofit VietAbroader, both of which help Vietnamese students navigate the American education culture." Ashwill can be reached at   

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