The Double-Edged Sword That Is US Higher Education

TDT logoI was recently invited by Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh, President of the Tri Viet Institute for International Studies and Exchange within Ton Duc Thang University and Senior Advisor to the President of TDT  University, to speak to interested students, faculty and staff about US higher education in comparative perspective with an implicit focus on Vietnam. 

As with people, every country has characteristics and features that are worthy of emulation and those that are not, especially in other countries that have very different histories, political systems, etc.  The US, including its higher education system, is no exception.  This was the theme of my presentation to over 150 members of the TDT University community.  In addition to the presentation, I participated in a brief dialogue with Mme Ninh and engaged in a lively discussion with the audience. 

To me, it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography.  (George Santayana)

mark at podium2 (resized)
Making a point.

So that the audience would know where I’m coming from, figuratively speaking, I began my remarks with this description of perspective:  I carry a US passport but it doesn’t define me.  Below is an outline of my presentation, which was given in English and Vietnamese.  The “distinguishing features” included size=choice, diversity, mass education, quality, cost, transferability of credits and portability of credentials and internationalization. I concluded with some comments about US Higher Ed as a Cautionary Tale (i.e., negative role model), US Higher Ed as a Source of Inspiration (i.e., positive role model) and the implications of overseas study for Vietnam.

  • Distinguishing Features of US Higher Education
  • US Higher Ed as a Cautionary Tale (i.e., negative role model): e.g., high cost, student loan debt ($966 billion as of 12/12 with average debt of $34,703); the challenge of creating global citizens in a nation in which the majority of its citizens are nationalists, too many colleges and universities = duplication, overlap and inefficiency, unaccredited schools/rogue  providers (“The US exports some of the world’s best and worst higher education.”), etc. 
  • US Higher Ed as a Source of Inspiration (i.e., positive role model):   system of accreditation, many schools and programs that meet the needs of a variety of learners, flexibility (seamless transfer and transition), gen ed requirements and the philosophy behind them, philanthropy, private=non-profit
  • Vietnamese Students & Overseas Study:  What Does It All Mean? (i.e., implications)

Q & A

maa with mme ninh (resized)

There were some excellent questions from the audience.  One student asked how to select US graduate programs and another, who happens to follow this blog, asked me why I had removed one unaccredited US school from my list of such schools.  Answer:  because the president informed me that her “university” is no longer recruiting in Vietnam.  (The list consists of US-based rogue providers operating here.)  Yet another student asked me about my impressions of Vietnamese students:  are hard working, dedicated, have initiative, are involved in meaningful extracurricular activities, etc. 

The last question was from a young Vietnamese woman who had studied at one of America’s finest (and most expensive) universities.  It was about how US higher education offers so many opportunities for students to broaden their personal and academic horizons and how this system could be replicated in Vietnam.  Where to begin?  An entire workshop could be devoted to these issues.  The answer would involve history, starting points, extenuating circumstances, funding, policy, etc.  I’m reminded of something an expat friend who runs a high-tech company here has said on more than one occasion, and I’m paraphrasing here:  Vietnamese universities have done rather well with the resources that they have

Article & Backgrounder

Here is an article in Vietnamese that was posted on the TDT University website:  Viện liên kết và trao đổi quốc tế Trí Việt tổ chức buổi Tọa đàm chuyên đề “Tổng quan về Hệ thống giáo dục đại học Hoa Kỳ” (Tri Viet Institute for International Studies and Exchange Holds a Seminar on “An Overview of the Higher Education System of the United States”). 

If I were to select a backgrounder for this talk, this post from April 2012 would be it:  Counterpoint: A US American’s Critique of a Harvard Position Paper (and More) – Countries as Role Models:  A Double-Edged Sword (aka Yes, No, It Depends)


11 thoughts on “The Double-Edged Sword That Is US Higher Education

  1. What percentage are really looking for a way to leave and take their family money with? %? And what about the woeful secondary education failure in the USA?

    • Would you like to venture a guess? I guess you could start by taking a look at immigration stats in recent years and drawing some conclusions from that. For information about emigration the legal way, take a look at this May 2012 post: “Vietnam is a ‘Top Ten’ Country in Another Category”:

      About the “woeful secondary education failure” in the US… Since education is under local control, which means most of the funding is local, schools and real estate have something in common: location, location, location! If Mommy and Daddy are po’, chances are your K-12 education is not going to be, how shall I put it, satisfactory. (J. Kozol’s classic “Savage Inequalities” comes to mind.) That’s one of the drawbacks of funding schools through property taxes. Then you have boarding schools and private day schools, which fall into a different category altogether.


  2. A point to raise for students who wish to work in the US after studying is that the US job market is going through a hard time. College-educated Vietnamese certainly neither desire nor are able to retreat to low-skilled labor like this In some ways, Vietnamese students studying abroad may even be luckier than their American counterparts because Vietnamese parents shell out savings to pay for tuition.

    In terms of replicating US success, I think the key is to aim for soft skills, vocational training and investing money where it’s due. Humorous blog post by Google’s Neil Fraser on how he “bought” a Computer Science teacher for an elementary school in Da Nang.

  3. As an international educator with decades of experience, I want to commend Mark for this post. My comment is that any international student considering attending an American institution of higher education cannot possibly imagine the diversity of the educational landscape in the country. It is as vast and diverse as the geography of the country’s 50 states. This offers any student an opportunity to consider their options based on many criteria: climate, curriculum, size of institution, length of study – two vs. four years, focus of specialized graduate departments, among others. I think I lean more toward the “inspirational” side of the tale —one needs to put the output of our educational system in perspective: we’ve been doing a good job of educating international students since early in the last century…

    An under-rated accomplishment in American higher education is the professionalization of student affairs administrators and staff who provide support outside the classroom: in particular, the offices of career services [a role not usually found outside of North American or European institutions]. In today’s marketplace, there is a great deal of value in having a professional staff on campuses who follow the changes in the job market, arrange for internships with employers, bring recruiters to campus, and also provide coaching on resumes and conducting job interviews.

    Martin Tillman, President
    Global Career Compass

      • We all agree. American Unis are well administrated. Bills and payroll met on time etc….VN institutions have much to learn here but I have seen improvement especially in HCM City.

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