Vietnamese student numbers growing in the US

There are currently 1.2 million international students studying in the United States, nearly 75% of whom are enrolled in bachelor, masters or doctoral programmes. California, New York and Texas enrol 36% of all students. Some 919,484 of them, or 77% of the total, are from Asia. Compared to July 2015, the total number of active international students studying in the US increased 13.3%.

These figures are from the latest SEVIS by the Numbers quarterly update published in December. Unlike the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors statistics, which are based on data collected the previous year and include higher education enrolment only, SEVIS data are real-time and encompass all levels of the educational system.

Spotlight on Vietnam

One of the shining highlights of the SEVIS report is the breakneck growth in Vietnamese enrolments at all levels of the US educational system, especially at its colleges and universities.

Vietnam has surpassed Japan in total enrolment. It recorded an astounding 18.9% increase from July to November 2015, the third highest after India (20.7%) and China (19.4%).

Incredibly, Vietnam now ranks sixth among all sending countries with 28,883 students studying at US institutions, mostly colleges and universities but also boarding and day schools.

Vietnam is also nipping at the heels of Canada, something that was unimaginable seven years ago when it was not even in the top 10. It climbed to eighth place in 2009 with 15,994 students and stayed there until the end of 2015.

The US has surpassed Australia in terms of numbers of Vietnamese students as there were 28,524 Vietnamese students studying in Australia at all levels as of October 2015, a 0.4% decrease over the previous year.

Interestingly, 54.7% of all Vietnamese students in the US are female and 45.3% male. That’s a difference of nearly 2,700 students.

In terms of degree-related programmes, the breakdown is as follows:
  • • Language Training: 12.9% (3,732)
  • • Associate: 27.9% (8,050)
  • • Bachelor: 31.1% (8,976)
  • • Masters: 8.1% (2,330)
  • • Doctorate: 4% (1,159)
The rest are not on degree-related programmes. That means that a total of 24,247 Vietnamese students are either enrolled in a degree programme or preparing for admission to one.

Secondary enrolment, which includes boarding and day schools, stands at 11.5% of the total, or 3,329 students, up from 2,289 a couple of years ago when the Institute of International Education released a report entitled Charting New Pathways to Higher Education: International Secondary Students in the United States, a first look at international secondary enrolment.

At that time, Vietnam ranked sixth – with Brazil fifth and Mexico fourth. Interest in boarding schools, many of which charge an average of US$50,000 a year, remains strong.

Other categories include 'other', which is likely to be vocational or trade schools such as cosmetology and dental hygiene programmes (3.1% or 906 students), primary schools (0.6% or 184 students) and flight school (0.6% or 185 students).

All 50 states have Vietnamese students, ranging from six in Alaska to 6,151 in California and everything in between, according to the interactive 'Mapping SEVIS by the Numbers' website.

The state in the Midwest with the most is Minnesota (541), while the southern state with the most Vietnamese students is Florida (1,052), followed by Georgia (606). There are a number of states with untapped potential such as Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, South Carolina and West Virginia.

In line with international student enrolment in the US, but also for unique historical reasons, in some cases, the top five states for Vietnamese students are California, Texas, Washington, Massachusetts and New York.

The first two are because of family ties, the result of waves of post-war emigration; the third because of the popularity of its high school completion programmes and the recruitment activities of its community colleges, dating back to the early days (10-15 years ago); the fourth because of the high concentration of higher education institutions and the reputation of Boston; and the fifth simply because it’s New York.

The top three states host nearly half (47%) of all Vietnamese students, which means universities not located in one of those states have to try harder in their recruitment activities. The other states rounding out the top 10 hosts of Vietnamese students are Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois and Georgia. In total the top 10 enrol 20,797, or 72% of all students from Vietnam.

Some reasons for the continued impressive growth

There are a number of reasons for this upward trend, some of which are related to Vietnam’s economic growth rate, one of the highest in the world, and the preference for the US for those who wish to study overseas.

They include:
  • • Robust economic growth, 6.5% in the nine months through to September 2015, which translates into growing ability to pay for one of the world’s most expensive higher education systems;

  • • Vietnam has the fastest growing percentage of ultra high net worth individuals (UHNWI), those having a net worth of at least US$30 million, in the world, according to the global real estate consultancy, Knight Frank. In its 2015 Wealth Report it predicted that the percentage of UHNWI would double by 2024, an increase of 159%. Ho Chi Minh City is among the cities that will experience the most rapid growth in wealth, in addition to Jakarta, Mumbai and Delhi.

  • • A survey conducted by Nielsen concluded that Vietnam ranks third in the world in terms of fondness for branded goods, only surpassed by China and India. As the most popular overseas study destination, US higher education is a brand.

  • • Proactive recruitment on the part of growing numbers of US colleges and universities, which means more choices for Vietnamese students and parents; and

  • • More institutions with an overall living cost per year – with or without scholarships – in the US$20,000 to US$35,000 range or less.
This is in spite of a high visa denial rate over the summer for many universities, especially in the Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, and growing concern about personal safety as a result of the recent spate of mass shootings.

Vietnamese parent investment in US education

Extrapolating from the estimate calculated by the Institute of International Education based on information from the Open Doors data and the US Department of Commerce, this means that the current contribution to the US economy by Vietnamese students is US$919,467,364, a conservative figure considering that some of those 28,883 students are enrolled in US boarding schools, many of which cost US$50,000 per year, with a much greater overall cost.

This means that Vietnamese parents are spending nearly US$1 billion on their children’s education in the US. To put this in perspective, Vietnam’s 2014 gross domestic product, or GDP, was US$186.2 billion.

Looking ahead

I fully expect this pattern of growth to continue for the foreseeable future, with Vietnam overtaking Canada, currently with 31,717 students in the US, in the next couple of years.

While quite a few Vietnamese students make the fateful decision to remain overseas – either in the US or a third country – growing numbers are returning home to participate in and benefit from a rapidly developing economy and society to their benefit and that of the US.

Dr Mark Ashwill is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. He blogs at An International Educator in Vietnam.