China & Vietnam: A Study in the USA Comparison

Given the  intriguing historical relationship between Vietnam and China, I thought it might be interesting to do a brief comparison between the two as it relates to study in the USA. But first, here’s some basic up-to-date (as of 2014) information about each country.


  • The population of China is estimated at 1,393,783,836 as of 1 July 2014.
  • China’s population is equivalent to 19.24% of the total world population.
  • China ranks number 1 in the list of countries by population.
  • The population density in China is 145 people per km2.
  • 54% of the population is urban (756,300,115 people in 2014).
  • The median age in China is 35.7 years.



  • The population of Vietnam is estimated at 92,547,959 as of 1 July, 2014.
  • Vietnam’s population represents 1.28% of the total world population.
  • Vietnam ranks number 14 in the list of countries by population.
  • The population density in Vietnam is 279 people per km2.
  • 33% of the population is urban (30,482,811 people)
  • The median age in Vietnam is 30.3 years.


The 2015 populations of China and Vietnam are 1,401,586,609 and 93,386,630, respectively. This means that China has 15 times as many people as Vietnam.  For what this figure is worth – it is, after all, only an aggregate indicator of economic growth – China’s per capita income of $6807 in 2013 was 3.56 times as high as Vietnam’s ($1911), according to The World Bank.

China, Vietnam & StudyUSA

As of February 2015, there were 25,982 Vietnamese studying in the US at the secondary and postsecondary levels and 331,371 Chinese. China is the world’s leading sending country for US-bound students while Vietnam ranks 7th.  While China’s population is 15 times larger than Vietnam’s, it has 12.75 times as many students in the US as Vietnam.

If you look at secondary (mostly boarding school) vs. higher education enrollment in the latest year for which both data sets are available (i.e., 2013) the breakdown was as follows:

Secondary Total

  • China: 23,562 (#1)
  • Vietnam: 2,289 (#6)

Postsecondary Total

  • China: 235,597 (#1)
  • Vietnam:  16,098 (#8)

87.6% and 12.4% of Vietnamese enrollment was in higher and secondary education, respectively. The figures for China were 91% and 9%.

Using the NAFSA formula for 2014, with information from IIE’s Open Doors Report and the US Department of Commerce, Chinese and Vietnamese students and their families contributed $8.04 billion and $543 million to the US economy last year.

Assuming the average annual cost of attending a US boarding school is $38,580, Chinese and Vietnamese parents paid at least $909 million and $88.3 million, respectively.  (Many are full-paying students at boarding schools in the 45k-55k range.)

It is safe to assume then that Vietnamese families spent over $631 million on secondary and postsecondary study in the US for their children while Chinese families spent nearly $9 billion.  (Memo to the purists:  pardon me for mixing data from 2013 and 2014.  I don’t have the economic impact information for Vietnam and China in 2013.  These are ballpark estimates anyway; this is not an exact science.)

Two Predictions

Like most, I don’t have a crystal ball so these are just educated guesses based on the above data and some information that I have not included about the state of higher education in each country.

Something to keep in mind is that each country has experienced dramatic growth over the past few decades but that Vietnam had a very different starting point because of two consecutive wars, the devastating impact of a US-led economic embargo that dated to 1965 and was lifted in 1994 and post-war poverty.  In terms of urbanization and median age China is now what Vietnam is quickly becoming.

I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb by making the following predictions:

  1. Chinese enrollments at both levels will peak and begin to decline.  China’s population (35.7 years) is quite a bit older than Vietnam’s (30.3 median age) and there are more and more quality educational opportunities available at home.
  2. Vietnamese enrollments at both levels will continue to increase.  Vietnam has a younger median age, incomes continue to rise and it will be a while before the domestic higher education system improves to the extent that most Vietnamese of means will want to send their children to local institutions.

This is yet another reason why US colleges and universities should diversify their international recruiting strategy to include the four emerging markets identified in a recent World Education Services (WES) survey:  Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and Nigeria.


One Less Finger in the Dike: Financial Autonomy & VN Higher Education

At least seven public universities in Vietnam have applied for “financial autonomy” since the government promised late last year that it would give them full control over fiscal affairs, including setting their own tuition rates. 
Two of the applicants – Ton Duc Thang University and University of Economics in Ho Chi Minh City – have so far got the permission.

This trend, which began in 2006 with increased autonomy for public universities, including student recruitment, will only accelerate in the years to come.  Other well-known and widely respected universities such a Foreign Trade University (FTU), Hanoi University and the HCMC University of Industry, are still awaiting approval.

As this 11 March 2015 article, Vietnam public colleges sever ties with state, handle own coffers, points out, tuition at Ton Duc Thang University and the HCMC University of Economics will be significantly higher than state limits, currently set at VND550,000-VND800,000 (US$25-40) a month.  The economics faculty will charge students about $600 a year, increasing to $667 this fall and again to $760 next year.

 Students pay tuition at HCMC University of Industry. Photo: Dao Ngoc Thach (Courtesy of Thanh Nien News)
Students pay tuition at HCMC University of Industry. Photo: Dao Ngoc Thach (Courtesy of Thanh Nien News)

Since there are very few free lunches in life, the trade-off for “complete freedom”, e.g., no tuition caps, is the disappearance of state funding.  What we’re witnessing is nothing less than the transformation of some of Vietnam’s top public institutions from state-funded to independent non-profit entities.  This makes sense in a country in which the economy is rapidly expanding, income and wealth are increasing exponentially and education is highly valued.

Financial autonomy has the potential of benefiting universities and the students they serve in myriad ways, assuming they have visionary leaders and a good system of checks and balances.  Ideally, it will result in improved quality as a result of higher faculty and staff salaries, reduced workload, smaller class sizes, better infrastructure, more student services, etc.  As at universities in other countries, differential tuition means that less popular but strategically important fields of study will be subsidized by some of the more popular programs.  My hope is also that money is set aside in the form of merit- and need-based scholarships for academically qualified but low-income students so that they, too, can benefit from a quality higher education without going into debt.

The times they are a-changin’ in Vietnamese higher education!



Vietnam Education Dialogue: Higher Education Reforms

cg hcmcOn July 31st and August 1st, US Consul General, Rena Bitter, hosted a conference on Vietnamese higher education.  The star-studded list of guests included Dr. Ngo Bao Chau, the first Vietnamese to receive the prestigious Fields Medal, known as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics, Dr. Nguyen Quan, Minister of Science and Technology, and Professor Bui Van Ga, Vice Minister, Ministry of Education and Training.   About 150 people attended the conference.  You can find the agenda here, along with a number of presentations in the form of PDF downloads.

The 1.5 day conference, entitled “Vietnam Education Dialogue: Higher Education Reforms” and organized by the Education Dialogue Group and Dr. Chau, “brought together senior government officials, educators, college and university representatives, and businesspeople to discuss strategies and recommend reforms to Vietnam’s higher education system,” according to a US Consulate General press release.  “The Vietnam Education Dialogue is part of the U.S. government’s commitment to this joint goal, based on enhancing educational, cultural, and people-to-people ties between the United States and Vietnam,” the statement added.

My two cents:

  • Soft Power:  Given the fact that education looms large in the US government’s exercise of soft power in Vietnam and other countries, I view these events primarily as political exercises, something to write about and showcase in a press release, media report, and post-conference diplomatic cable.   They are part of an ongoing charm offensive that began in earnest during “Education Ambassador” Michael Michalak’s tenure. 
  • Impact:  I wonder about the impact of these types of events, short- or long-term.  Aside from the fleeting PR value, you can’t claim that they’re networking opportunities on this scale – in contrast to the annual education conferences of AMB Michalak.
  • Authority:  A couple of sources told me that while the academic presenters who hold positions overseas may be experts in their fields, they wonder A) how up-to-date all of these experts are vis-à-vis Vietnamese higher education; and B) why they think that what works in another country will work in Vietnam.
  • More Inclusive?  I know this is asking a lot of what is essentially a very conservative entity with its own narrow agenda but… why not expand the circle and include other voices?  This is about dialogue, after all.


Higher Education Admission Reform in Vietnam: The Next Generation

vnu-hn logoBelow is the English version of an article of mine that was published on the Vietnam National University-Hanoi website earlier this month.  Follow this link to read the Vietnamese translation:  ĐHQGHN đi đầu trong đổi mới căn bản và sâu sắc hệ thống tuyển sinh ĐH của Việt Nam.

Just as Vietnam revealed its practical side by making the fateful decision to change socioeconomic course in 1986 with the renovation reforms (Đổi Mới) that set in motion the “market economy with socialist orientation” that we see today, Vietnam National University-Hanoi is leading the way in the much-needed reform of the country’s university admission system. This step forward is a testament to growing recognition that the current system no longer meets the needs of Vietnamese society, as well as to the determination of the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) to replace it with something more workable and more equitable.

Every summer, poignant and inspirational stories abound about young people who make great sacrifices in their quest to gain admission to one of Vietnam’s 419 institutions of higher education. They do so by participating in the annual rite of passage that is the university entrance examination. I remember one story about a young woman last summer who traveled 38 hours by bus with her father, a farmer who didn’t want his daughter to become a farmer. She and nearly 2 million other high school graduates took a handwritten exam consisting of three (3) subjects and lasting 90 or 180 minutes, depending upon the subject required to enter the postsecondary institution of their dreams.

Vietnamese parents are looking anxiously for their children at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology on July 4, 2013. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Vietnamese parents are looking anxiously for their children at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology on July 4, 2013. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Two grueling days and exams in three subjects based largely on rote memorization. A month later, students and parents find out the results, which determine which university they will attend and, some say, the rest of a student’s life. This is especially problematic for lower-income students who need a credential from a reputable university that will help them rise in the socioeconomic ranks and who don’t have the luxury of retaking the exam the following year, should the result be unacceptable.

The cost is significant for those traveling great distances to take the exam, plus room and board for a few days. There is also the prohibitive cost of supplementary education, which includes cramming for the exam. It is estimated that urban students spend about twice as much time as rural students in extra lessons at all levels of schooling, which reflects the urban/rural income gap. Finally, there is the expense of grading the exams (and the cost is borne by the government), a labor intensive process involving a legion of teachers and lecturers.

All test takers and the country as a whole pay a steep price as measured in high levels of stress and inefficiency. In a higher education system that is rapidly evolving from elite to mass, a process that once worked no longer makes sense. Society has changed; so, too, must the ways in which young people are evaluated for higher education admission.

In the tradition of comparative education that Vietnam has used to great effect in a variety of fields, colleagues from VNU-Hanoi, including the Institute for Education Quality Assurance (INFEQA), have looked far and wide for models that could possibly be adapted for the Vietnamese context. This includes the United States, whose higher education system has much to offer Vietnam and other countries as both positive and negative role models.

Post-workshop group photo with Dr. Nguyễn Kim Sơn, Vice President, VNU-Hanoi (to my left), and other VNU colleagues.
Post-workshop group photo with Dr. Nguyễn Kim Sơn, Vice President, VNU-Hanoi (to my left), and other VNU colleagues.

Last October, I spoke to a group of admissions colleagues from VNU-Hanoi in a workshop entitled “Dossier Evaluation and Interviews in Competence-Based University Admissions,” organized by INFEQA in Kim Boi, Hoa Binh. During two morning sessions, I discussed some distinguishing features of U.S. higher education, including size and diversity, enrollments, cost, transferability of credits & portability of credentials, the admissions process as both art and science, the Common Application, national college admission exams (e.g., SAT and ACT), different definitions of selectivity, and rankings methodology.

The bulk of the presentation, however, focused on seven schools that fall on a continuum of selectivity, their requirements and the differing ways in which they screen and evaluate applications. They ranged from open admission (e.g., a community college) and ”minimally difficult” to ”moderately difficult”, “very difficult” and “most difficult,” (e.g., Harvard), plus two nationally-ranked graduate programs in computer science and business (i.e., MIT and Northwestern University).

In December 2013, I was invited to a policy meeting convened by President Phùng Xuân Nhạ to receive additional feedback about the proposal from various experts, including former university and MoET officials, to reform the university admission process.

Rather than just relying on the entrance exam score to determine which institutions a student is admitted to in a once a year “make or break” scenario, the proposed new system includes a Vietnamese SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test or VSAT), plus subject tests in the following subjects: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Literature, History and Foreign Languages.  The VSAT will be administered by computer four (4) times a year in February, March, November and December at six (6) difference test centers throughout Vietnam, which will reduce the cost of travel. Test reports will be sent to the institutions to which students have applied. In addition to the VSAT score, the admission process will take into consideration high school grade point average (GPA).

Once the system has been tested and tweaked, other admission criteria such as letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose (SOP) and an admission interview can be added for certain institutions and programs. The most logical step is to then adopt this system for use by all colleges and universities in accordance with their level of selectivity. In an era of growing demand and rapid expansion of the nation’s higher education system, the current entrance exam, which may have served its purpose in the past, is costly, inefficient and a major source of stress among students and parents.

I am impressed by the prudent and measured approach to an issue that will positively influence the lives of millions of young people in the coming years and, ultimately, contribute to the modernization of the nation’s secondary and higher education systems. It’s gratifying to see Vietnam taking the necessary steps to reform its university admissions process by replacing the traditional university entrance exam with one that is more efficient, more objective and that assesses higher-order cognitive skills.

Mark A. Ashwill is the Managing Director of Capstone Vietnam, a human resource development company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).  From 2005-09, Dr. Ashwill served as country director of the Institute of International Education-Vietnam.

“With A Boost From Bill Gates, Vietnam’s Entrepreneurs Put Profits Into Philanthropy”

Sharing is not a strange idea for ordinary Vietnamese, but big-scale altruism is rare so far, given that serious wealth accumulation started in Vietnam only in the past two decades.

This is an issue I’ve discussed with some of you over the years.  First, make money and lots of it, thanks to the economic reforms that date to 1986, secondly, show everyone how successful (i.e., wealthy) you are and, thirdly, begin to ponder your legacy.  In the final analysis, quite literally, we all have a finite number of days on earth and not many of us want to be the richest person in the cemetery.  This is the next logical step after the conspicuous consumption of the nouveau riche phase, which is in full bloom.  There are only so many houses you can live in, cars you can drive, clothes you can wear, and trips you can take.  Who better than Bill Gates, one of most famous and respected people in Vietnam, to provide the spark?

Bill Gates and Le Van Kiem share a moment.  Photo courtesy of Forbes
Bill Gates and Le Van Kiem share a moment. Photo courtesy of Forbes

A sure sign of Vietnam’s economic development is that the country is now producing notable philanthropists. In April Le Van Kiem, chairman of the Long Thanh Investment & Trading Corp., became the first Vietnamese to join forces with Bill Gates, the philanthropist and Microsoft MSFT -0.7% co founder. At a meeting in Singapore the two agreed to set up the Vietnam Health Fund to improve health care in the country. Le pledged $5 million over the next five years, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will match each dollar, as well as all other donations from local philanthropists. The goal: $50 million. In May foundation officials organized a meeting in Ho Chi Minh City with other wealthy individuals to round up support.

My prediction is that this budding philanthropy movement will gain significant momentum as the movers and shakers of today come of age.  I expect to see large sums donated and invested in high priority areas such as health care, education and rural development.  A little goes a long way here and people of means can leave a legacy by improving the quality of life for countless people.

Follow this link to read the rest of this 25 June 2014 Forbes article.  Note that it mentions the new Fulbright University – Vietnam (FUV) as a possible beneficiary of Vietnam’s nouveau philanthropists.


Trends in Vietnamese Academic Mobility: Opportunities for U.S. Institutions

I’m pleased to share a report that was released earlier this week by World Education News & Reviews, published by World Education Services (WES). 

A 2012 WES report identified Vietnam as one of the top four emerging countries from which to recruit international students.  Since that report was published, Vietnamese enrollment in U.S. HEIs has increased by 8%, and there is reason to believe that this growth trajectory will continue.

The article, entitled Trends in Vietnamese Academic Mobility: Opportunities for U.S. Institutions, provides a useful update about conditions in Vietnamese higher education and trends in overseas study, including the U.S.  Its conclusion?  In sum Vietnamese students continue to seek education abroad, which presents opportunities for HEIs looking to diversify and internationalize their campuses.

While the report is generally accurate, especially the sections that focus on the U.S., there are a couple of inaccuracies that I would like to point out:

  1. The top three overseas study destinations for Vietnamese students are Australia, the U.S. and China – in that order. 
  2. There are more than 100,000 young Vietnamese studying overseas, according to the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training (MoET,  2012).

To that I would add several clarifications:

  1. Last year, 60% of all Vietnamese undergraduates were enrolled at a community college, down from about 70% the year before.  That, of course, means that 40% of all undergrads from Vietnam were studying at a four-year institution.
  2. While it’s true that 38% were business majors, significant percentages of students were undeclared (10.2%) or studying engineering (9.9%), math/computer science (7.5%) physical/life sciences (7.5%) and social sciences (5.1%). 
  3. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the market has become much more competitive in the last 5-10 years, which means that in order to succeed institutions must devise a diversified and long-term recruitment strategy. 

This ICEF Monitor piece from April 2014 covers some of the same ground:  Spotlight on Vietnam:  quality issues, demand for study abroad and graduate employability using the first guest post I wrote for them in April 2013, entitled Why Vietnam?  A market snapshot, as a point of departure.


Of Emigration, Brain Drain & Brain Gain: Some Reflections

Over the years, I’ve known and helped many young Vietnamese who have studied overseas.  Some I knew in passing; others became friends.  Quite a few made the decision to remain overseas either in the country in which they studied or a third country.  By doing so, they slowly but surely began the transformation from Vietnamese national to Việt kiều (overseas Vietnamese).


I think of the implications of this more now that I am living in their (home) country, some in mine and others elsewhere.  I have the gnawing feeling that another country’s (brain) gain is Vietnam’s loss and on glass is half empty days I can’t help feeling that Vietnam would be a better place in some ways, if some had remained.

On the other hand (and perhaps from a more rational perspective), I know that many would not be where they are now, academically, personally and professionally, were it not for the opportunities afforded them by U.S. and other foreign institutions of higher education and economies, opportunities not yet available in Vietnam.  I also know that many of them contribute to Vietnam as cultural ambassadors, and through a sharing of expertise and remittances, which reached a record $11 billion last year.  Some lose touch with their home country network, find their niche, including a great job opportunity, fall in love, or all of the above.  These are a few of the reasons they choose to remain.

[Interestingly, Vietnam is a “top ten” country in three interrelated categories in 2013:  number of students in the U.S. (#8), number of immigrants to the U.S. (#5 after China – PDF download) and remittances (#9), according to the World Bank.  About 45% of all overseas Vietnamese live in the U.S.]

Contrary to the third pillar of U.S. student visa policy (i.e., plans to return to one’s home country after graduation or an OPT experience), emigration is a personal decision and indeed a universal human right.  As a side note, the U.S. and other countries with graying populations desperately need a certain percentage of international students to remain and make important contributions to the economy and society-at-large.  (Of course, many do; it’s just not policy yet.  We’re is still at the wink-and-nod stage.)  Political and business leaders at the highest levels, including President Obama, are finally coming to this realization.  My prediction:  there will be some fundamental changes in U.S. student visa policy in the not too distant future.

The encouraging reality is there are many young Vietnamese who have had neither the desire nor the opportunity to study overseas who are taking up the slack.  They are smart, ambitious, connected, proficient in key foreign languages and determined.  Some of them are better qualified on a number of levels than some of their foreign-educated peers.  They give me hope for the future of Vietnam.

departure-signAnother hopeful reality is that a growing number of Vietnamese are returning home after graduation or a work experience.  (This is based on my observations and anecdotal evidence; unfortunately, there is no official source for this information.)  In addition, many overseas Vietnamese are “coming home” and a growing number of foreigners have decided to make Vietnam their home for the long-term.  (Follow this link to read a relevant blog post written by a young Vietnamese-American who has been living in HCMC for seven years.)  Both groups are part of a phenomenon known as brain circulation, defined as “the circular movement of skilled labor across nations.”  They are working in collaboration with foreign- and domestically-Vietnamese and in a variety of sectors and fields to create a better Vietnam.

Your thoughts?