Determining Financial Need: Lessons from Vietnam

Many US colleges and universities, especially those with healthy endowments (i.e., highly selective liberal arts colleges but also some visionary state universities that are able to offer scholarships to international students, including by charging in-state tuition), award millions of dollars worth of merit- and need-based scholarships every year to international students.  They do this for the usual reasons:  1)  to diversify their international student populations; and 2) to brand their institutions in markets that they’ve identified as strategically important.  Vietnamese students, especially with the assistance of organizations such as VietAbroader and USGuide, among others, have become very adept in recent years at identifying and spreading the word about these opportunities.  In fact , you could say it’s become something of an exact science.

So how do institutions determine financial need in a country like Vietnam?  It’s not easy.  Unlike the US, which has many official paper trails that give schools a pretty accurate indication of a family’s ability to pay, “paper” and actual income and wealth in a country at Vietnam’s stage of development  are usually two very different things.  Like other countries, everyone wants a scholarship, including the sons and daughters of the nation’s über rich.  (To put this in context, when I say “über rich,” I’m referring, for example, to people who own cars that are worth as much as or more than your home.)  Scholarships are prestigious, confer bragging rights and, of course, save money along the way.  What’s not to like?

Here’s an example that proves my point that schools need help distinguishing between actual and faux need.  A young Vietnamese woman received a very generous (merit- and need-based) scholarship from a well-known and highly selective East Coast liberals arts college.  Once she arrived on campus, other Vietnamese students knew immediately that the school had been had.  She was in fact the daughter of a man who worked in ministry X, whose paper salary was quite low (in the hundreds per month), but whose family was, in reality, very wealthy.  If the college in question had worked with a reliable and trustworthy partner on the ground, it could have determined in short order that the family had  no need for a scholarship of that magnitude.

Stay tuned for part II in which I describe exactly how to screen those who actually deserve these types of scholarships, according to the institutions’ criteria; how to separate the deserving from the posers.  You can bullshit an admissions officer sitting in an office 13,000 kilometers away but you can’t do it to people on the ground who know all the angles and ways to skin the proverbial cat.


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