Will Vietnamese student numbers in the US recover post-COVID?Monthly Nonimmigrant Visa Issuance Statistics section of the United States Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs Travel.State.Gov website to satisfy my curiosity about the number of F-1 (student) visas being issued to young Vietnamese, especially in the often lengthy interregnum between SEVIS by the Numbers updates.
It provides the most up-to-date information about trends related to study in the USA from a government that is notoriously unreliable in these matters.
Not surprisingly, the contrast between 2019 and 2020 was striking. In the 2019 fiscal year ending on 30 September 2019, the US Embassy in Hanoi and the Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) issued a total of 16,829 student visas. A year later, on 30 September 2020, that number had plummeted to 5,718, a 66% decrease.
The statistical downturn began to take shape in April 2020, heading into what is normally the ‘high season’ for F-1 issuances in advance of the next academic year. While the US Mission in Vietnam reopened both consular sections in July, the result was many unused appointments, resulting in only 1,942 student visas issued from May through August, in contrast to 12,381 in the same period in 2019, a precipitous one-year decrease of 84%.
Waiting for the world to catch up
In February 2020, using official statistics from the previous month, I wrote about Vietnamese enrolment as of the middle of the 2019-20 academic year in “Vietnamese student enrolment in the US holds steady”. At that time, there were 29,976 young Vietnamese studying at all levels – post-secondary, secondary and primary – in all 50 states.
Over eight out of 10 were in higher education while most of the remaining students were in secondary schools, most with plans to pursue higher education in the US. (The number of Vietnamese students in the US has hovered at about the 30,000 mark since 2016, peaking at 31,613 in March 2018.)
At that time, COVID-19 was beginning its slow but inexorable spread from its place of origin to virtually every corner of the globe as it metamorphosed into a global pandemic. The first two cases in Vietnam were confirmed on 23 January 2020, a Chinese man from Wuhan who visited his son in Hanoi. Both were hospitalised three days later in HCMC after a visit to the south central resort city of Nha Trang.
While Vietnam has done an extraordinary job of containing the coronavirus, emerging as an international role model, most other countries have not, including the major overseas study destinations for Vietnamese students.
As of 8th January 2021, Vietnam, with a population of over 97 million, had a total of 1,509 confirmed cases, 118 active cases, and 35 deaths. This is all the more praiseworthy when you consider that it shares a 1,306km (812 miles) northern border with China, in addition to borders with Cambodia and Laos.
The country’s shutdown, such as it was – you were only supposed to leave your home to purchase essentials – lasted a few weeks in the spring for most of the country and an extra week for the major urban centres of Hanoi and HCMC.
Vietnam rebooted its economy on 22 April and, in spite of some very modest spikes, has been back to normal ever since. Like China and other countries, its success in containing COVID-19 lays the groundwork for modest growth in 2020 and a swift economic recovery in 2021 with one S&P analyst predicting a growth forecast as high as 10.9%. This recovery will contribute to families’ ability to afford big-ticket items such as overseas study.
The latest figures of Vietnamese students in the US are from the September 2020 SEVIS by the Numbers update.
Even though Vietnam jumped into fifth place with 25,824 students, it sent 4,152 fewer students to the US than in January 2020, a decrease of 13.85%. On the bright side, this was one of the lower percentage decreases among the top 10 sending countries, the highest of which was for Japan (-38.24%), followed by Saudi Arabia (-32.48%). The lowest was for Nigeria (-11.31%).
Among Vietnamese students at all levels, the steepest decline was for ‘secondary’ (boarding and day school) students, from 3,891 in January to 2,601 in September, minus 33% in nine months. This is not surprising, given the age of the students, in addition to financial reasons.
The delayed effect for the immediate future is that fewer Vietnamese will be entering US colleges and universities from US high schools.
As of now, 87% of all Vietnamese students are at US higher education institutions or participating in the Optional Practical Training (OPT) programme. (The figure from the 2020 Open Doors report for Vietnamese students is 8.9%.)
While one month is not long enough to identify any new trends, the fact that the US Mission in Vietnam issued 335 F-1 visas in October 2020, the start of the new fiscal year, vs 221 in October 2019, a 52% year-over-year increase, is a promising sign.
Issues and trends
There are several COVID-related issues for students and their parents who are interested in overseas study. One is the fact that Vietnam has to wait for much of the rest of the world to get its act together, which is not likely to happen until effective vaccines are widely available.
Some students will continue to go regardless, but they and their parents are among the more adventurous and risk tolerant and are therefore few and far between.
Another challenge for US educational institutions that recruit in Vietnam is the heightened competition that predates COVID-19 and is now fiercer than ever. Ireland, for example, has been using safety in the COVID-19 era as a selling point. It currently ranks 71st in the world in the number of infections, as of 8th January 2021, with 127,657 total cases, 101,986 active cases and 2,307 deaths.
One trend related to personal safety, which is of paramount importance, is that more parents will keep their secondary (junior high school) and high school age children home until university and more university students will complete their undergraduate studies in Vietnam before possibly pursuing a graduate degree abroad.
This means less short-term interest in boarding and day schools, a smaller pipeline for a high school-higher education transition and increased interest in graduate study in what has historically been an undergraduate market.
Educational institutions that have low infection rates should highlight that singular achievement among their selling points. It is concrete evidence of their level of concern about safety and the effectiveness of the measures they’ve implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among faculty, staff and students.
Another is decreased ability to pay related to the damage inflicted by COVID-19, for example, a long-term shutdown of the tourism and hospitality industry and some businesses that export to countries with a high COVID-19 infection rate. Many families whose livelihoods are in or related to those industries are more price sensitive than ever.
This is to the advantage of community colleges and four-year institutions with comparatively low price points, along with boarding and day schools in the same price range – with or without scholarships.
According to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors 2020 report, Vietnam was the second-largest sending country for US community colleges, at 10% – after China (18.6%). Vietnamese students comprise 27% of total higher education enrolment among their peers enrolled in language training, undergraduate and graduate programmes, according to SEVIS data.
Those students and parents whose first choice remains the US are hoping conditions will improve in 2021 and are looking ahead to the 2021-22 academic year with cautious optimism. For most, President Trump is not an issue, at least directly. But indirectly, his administration’s colossal mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic is.
A Biden administration will help improve what has been a generally gloomy situation by sending a more positive message of openness and tolerance to Vietnam and the rest of the world. The US continues to enjoy a positive image, in spite of everything, and many US-bound Vietnamese, especially those from central and southern Vietnam, have family ties in the US among the 2.1 million member Vietnamese American community, an added bonus.
A time to rebuild
The good news is that there is still considerable interest in overseas study, including in the US. While study in the US has lost some of its lustre and no longer sells itself, it is still very much a brand. One sliver of silver lining to COVID-19 is that is has forced the industry to work harder and more creatively. It is a time of experimentation and blazing new trails, many of which will transcend the current pandemic.
Like most colleagues, in the spirit of ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, most of my work these days is online, including digital marketing and events. Offline events such as fairs have been transformed into flex-fairs that offer a variety of participation options for educational institutions, including virtual and surrogate.
Vietnamese people know that most foreigners have not been permitted to enter the country since late March 2020 and that communication via video chat – with the assistance of an interpreter – is the only way.
Success is still possible for institutions that take the necessary steps to develop a custom-designed recruitment strategy that accentuates their strengths and reaches their target audience in laser-like fashion. What I wrote in February 2020 holds true today in what is a trying time.
Aside from a sustained and meaningful digital presence, now is the time to seriously consider in-country representation, budget permitting. This will serve institutions well after COVID-19 is but a bad memory.
What colleagues who successfully enter the market have in common are outstanding recruiters who connect with parents and students, a healthy travel budget that enables them to go the extra mile, including one or more trips to Vietnam every year under normal circumstances, the ability to invest in periodic digital marketing campaigns and a locally sensitive price point with a combination of merit- and-or needs-based aid and a quality student experience.
All of this, if done well, can generate momentum and lead to a wave of word of mouth advertising among students and their parents.
Dr Mark A 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 that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States and officially accredited institutions in other countries. He served as country director of the Institute of International Education-Vietnam from 2005-09. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam. A list of selected English and Vietnamese language essays can be accessed from his blog.