Can Vietnam buck the Trump effect on recruitment?

The latest Student and Exchange Visitor Information System or SEVIS update – which contains basic information on the more than 1.2 million international students studying in the United States at all levels – is out, and many of the results, while not encouraging, are not surprising.

Among the top 10 places of origin, seven recorded decreases, ranging from -2.2% (China) to -11.5% (Mexico). Other countries with declining student populations in the US from autumn 2016 to this spring were South Korea (-2.68%), Saudi Arabia (-7.3%), Canada (-3.35%), Japan (-8.1%) and Taiwan (-3.5%).

The downward trend is a harbinger of a significant shift away from the US that is currently occurring in many countries to the benefit of friendly competitor nations like Australia and Canada. Since these figures are for the spring semester and are based on applications submitted before or shortly after the US presidential election, the real proof in the statistical pudding will be in the autumn 2017 update.

Many of the numbers confirm what many colleges and universities that host large numbers of international students and colleagues who do the hard work of recruiting them are seeing and hearing. There are forces at play over which they have no control, including the much-discussed ‘Trump effect’ (see Mexico, for example) and the world price of oil (see Saudi Arabia).

Vietnam displaces Canada

There are some surprises and bright spots, however, in this general climate of gloom and doom. Among the top 10 places of origin, three sent even more of their young people to study in the US: India, Vietnam and Brazil. (Based on anecdotal and survey evidence, there is likely to be a decline in the number of Indian students studying in the US, the result of the February shooting of two Indian men who worked for the technology company, Garmin, one of whom died from his injuries.)

Vietnam was the only country to move up in the ranking of sending countries, displacing Canada in fifth place as I predicted last year. (This is after leapfrogging over Taiwan and Japan.)

Vietnam now has 30,817 students at all levels and in all 50 US states, including one in Puerto Rico. It remains a solid undergraduate market with 30% enrolled in community colleges – on their way to a bachelor degree via the 2+2 option – and 30% attending four-year institutions. In 2009-10, an astounding 90% of all Vietnamese chose a community college as their point of entry into the US 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 UK real estate consultancy, Knight Frank, predicts will have the highest percentage growth of ultra-high net worth individuals between now and 2026.

This year graduate students comprise 12.5% of the total enrolment with 8.5% (2,608) in masters and 4% (1,247) in PhD programmes. The MBA is still very popular, as are related programmes in accounting and finance.

On the academic side, some high demand fields are computer science, mathematics and the physical and life sciences. In addition, 10.5% (3,233) of Vietnamese in the US are studying English, most at institutions of higher education. This is up from 10.1% (3,054) in November 2016.

There was also a sizable increase in high school enrolment, which encompasses boarding and day schools. It jumped from 12.4% (3,756) in November 2016 to 13% (3,998) in March 2017. The gender distribution remained basically the same; 54.6% and 45.4% of all Vietnamese students are female and male, respectively, in contrast to most other sending countries in South and Southeast Asia where there are more male students.

Popular states

Among the most popular states for Vietnamese students and parents are – in descending order – California (6,283), Texas (5,382), Washington (2,504), Massachusetts (1,718), New York (1,344), Pennsylvania (1,204), Florida (1,201), Illinois (925), Virginia (909) and Georgia (675). While there are Vietnamese students in every state of the union and Puerto Rico, nearly half (47% or 14,169) are in the top three states.

The reasons for the popularity of California, Texas and Washington remain unchanged: family ties that are the result of waves of post-war emigration, in the case of the former two, and the high school completion programme that is unique to the latter, along with 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 actually been decreasing in recent years. This is due to the recruiting efforts of new colleges and universities entering the market and the fact that there are more choices available to parents and students than in the past.

In fact, the top 10 states host about 72% (22,145) of all Vietnamese students. A number of states have 50 or fewer Vietnamese students: Alaska (6), North Dakota (10), Montana (15), South Dakota (35) and Idaho (50).

Where to Vietnam?

The question on many people’s minds on both ends of the recruitment pipeline is this: will Vietnam be the outlier, largely exempt from the ‘Trump effect’ that is depressing enrolments from many top source countries and a steady diet of media reports about international students and immigrants as the victims du jour of discrimination and even hate crimes? Only time will tell, but it is a distinct possibility based on current trends.

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 Viet Nam. He blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam.