Educational Advisers: Is Being a US Higher Ed Alum Enough?

As seen on a Facebook group devoted to the work of independent education counselors (IECs):  

edusa logoIntimidated by college deadlines? #EducationUSA advisers and U.S. university alumni are here to help! Type your questions down below or shoot us an e-mail at manila[AT] or cebu[AT] for any questions and concerns regarding your college applications. Our services are completely free!  (Source:  EducationUSA, The Philippines)

This spot-on observation came from an IEC based in the Philippines:  They said EducationUSA advisers and US university alumni will answer their questions.  I said:
‘Be very careful about where you get your advice from regarding your college applications. It isn’t enough to be an alumnus of a US university or an EducationUSA adviser. Ask if they are professional college counselors…most US alumni are not.’  Good advice!  

This is akin to native speakers being hired to teach English as a foreign language.  Because they speak the language doesn’t mean they can teach it properly.  Same for US higher education alumni; they definitely have a lot to offer in terms of sharing information and experiences from a former student’s perspective but most are not trained educational advisers.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

Vietnamese student numbers growing in the US

Below is an excerpt from my recent University World News (UWN) article.  Follow this link to read the article in its entirety.


Top 10 Countries of Citizenship 11-15

There are currently 1.2 million international students studying in the United States, nearly 75% of whom are enrolled in bachelor, masters or doctoral programmes. California, New York and Texas enrol 36% of all students. Some 919,484 of them, or 77% of the total, are from Asia. Compared to July 2015, the total number of active international students studying in the US increased 13.3%.

These figures are from the latest SEVIS by the Numbers quarterly update published in December. Unlike the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors statistics, which are based on data collected the previous year and include higher education enrolment only, SEVIS data are real-time and encompass all levels of the educational system.

Spotlight on Vietnam

One of the shining highlights of the SEVIS report is the breakneck growth in Vietnamese enrolments at all levels of the US educational system, especially at its colleges and universities.

Vietnam has surpassed Japan in total enrolment. It recorded an astounding 18.9% increase from July to November 2015, the third highest after India (20.7%) and China (19.4%).

Incredibly, Vietnam now ranks sixth among all sending countries with 28,883 students studying at US institutions, mostly colleges and universities but also boarding and day schools.

Vietnam is also nipping at the heels of Canada, something that was unimaginable seven years ago when it was not even in the top 10. It climbed to eighth place in 2009 with 15,994 students and stayed there until the end of 2015.

The US has surpassed Australia in terms of numbers of Vietnamese students as there were 28,524 Vietnamese students studying in Australia at all levels as of October 2015, a 0.4% decrease over the previous year.

Interestingly, 54.7% of all Vietnamese students in the US are female and 45.3% male. That’s a difference of nearly 2,700 students.

In terms of degree-related programmes, the breakdown is as follows:

  • Language Training: 12.9% (3,732)
  • Associate: 27.9% (8,050)
  • Bachelor: 31.1% (8,976)
  • Masters: 8.1% (2,330)
  • Doctorate: 4% (1,159)

ITA Report with a Vietnam “Case Study”: Useful but Not 100% Accurate

259709-1 (ITA education report)Global competition for international students is rising quickly, especially among English-speaking countries and countries increasing their English-language course offerings. Although U.S. institutions still host the largest percentage of internationally mobile students, this share is eroding as competition increases. This report assesses global market opportunities for U.S. colleges and universities, providing guidance for U.S. institutions interested in the recruitment of international students.

The International Trade Administration (ITA) of the US Department of Commerce published a report year entitled 2015 Top Markets Report – Education:  A Market Assessment Tool for US Exporters. (PDF)  It begins with an overview of international mobility trends, including information about the top host countries…

intl overview - leading host countries

and the US share of internationally mobile students (2001 vs. 2014) .

us share of intl mobile students

The authors chose to focus on the largest markets with the most potential for growth. While 40 markets were considered, eight (8) were selected for case studies, including Vietnam, “as these markets were large, exhibited significant past growth, and/or had economic and demographic indicators of future growth.”

  • China:  biggest market, high growth
  • India:  second largest market, stable
  • Saudi Arabia:  rapidly growing market
  • S. Korea:  large stable market
  • Germany:  medium-sized market, stable
  • France:  medium-sized market, stable
  • Brazil:  medium-sized market, rapid recent growth
  • Vietnam:  medium-sized market, good growth

Appendix 1 of the report contains a description of the methodology they used to determine which countries to focus on for case studies. Specifically, the authors looked at “four main factors in assessing which markets were most promising for U.S. colleges and universities attempting to recruit foreign students in the coming years.”  The factors and their weightings are as follows:

  • The number of students from a given country currently studying in the United States (0.40)
  • The number of students from a given country studying anywhere outside that country (0.40)
  • Historical growth rates and changes in those rates regarding internationally mobile students studying in the United States (0.15)
  • Share of each country’s students studying in United States, a measure of untapped potential (expressed as a percentage) (0.05)

Mapping SEVIS by the NumbersAmong the countries listed six (6) are in the top ten of all places of origin.  Vietnam ranks 6th, according to the 12/15 SEVIS by the Numbers update (PDF download) and 9th, according to Open Doors 2015 (PDF download), using information from previous academic year.  According to the former, there are 28,883 Vietnamese students studying at all levels in the US.

There is nothing new or surprising about the Vietnam “case study,” just the usual facts and figures about growth trends, current numbers (IIE/Open Doors 2014), popular majors (i.e., business and management, the STEM fields, the social sciences, intensive English), the interest in US boarding schools and some information and predictions about future growth/opportunities.

The report notes that “in the near term, the number of Vietnamese students is likely to increase.”  The percentage increase over the past 10 years was 424%, secondly only to Saudi Arabia.  It mentioned that the growth rate decreased between 2008/09 and 2013/14 to 30% and pointed to two developments that “might further slow increases in Vietnamese student enrollment in the United States.”  Below are the points and my counterpoints.

Point #1: Improvements in domestic higher education as a top priority for the Vietnamese government, meaning that once this happens fewer Vietnamese students will study overseas.

Counterpoint #1:  Yes, it will happen eventually (and should happen!) but not in the short- or medium-term future.

Point #2: Other destinations such as Australia and Singapore that “offer proximity, affordable costs, and possible post-graduate employment.”

Counterpoint #2:  Those countries rank 2nd and 5th, respectively. (They are often second-choice countries for students who are unable to obtain a US student visa.) Other top five countries not mentioned are China and Japan.  Interest in the former is because of cost and simply because it’s China and the latter because of the large number of scholarships.  Both countries are major trading partners of Vietnam and there is significant interest among young people in their cultures.  According to a 2014 HSBC survey, Australia and Singapore – in that order – were the two most expensive overseas study destinations in the world.  The US ranked 3rd.

Not surprisingly, the report mentioned one of ITA’s pet projects, the Vietnam Education and Training Export Center (VETEC), located in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC):  “VETEC offers US institutions and Vietnamese students a broad variety of services, including year-round promotion of US education in Vietnam; advertising campaigns and promotions; on-site student advising and counseling; and facilitation of institutional contacts and exchange.”  The report concludes by asserting that similar methods “will help increase student recruitment in Vietnam over the long term.”   Good advice!  Coincidentally, those are some of the same services that my employer, Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and HCMC, has offered since its founding nearly seven years ago.

Future Projection a Shot in the Dark

While the report is generally favorable about future prospects for Vietnamese student recruitment, it’s projection of 20,100 students for 2017/18 is way off the mark.  It doesn’t take into account the record number of student visas issued in FY14 (14,822) and the impressive results of the most recent SEVIS by the Numbers quarterly updates.  As mentioned, as of November 2015 there were 28,883 Vietnamese students in the US at all levels, but mostly in higher education.


USA is Once Again the World’s Leading Host of Vietnamese Students; Ranks 6th Overall

Ranks 6th Among All Sending Countries

As I predicted earlier this year, Vietnam has surpassed Japan in total enrollment in the US, most of it in higher education.  It recorded an astounding 18.9% increase from July 2015, the third highest after India (20.7%) and China (19.4%), according to the latest SEVIS by the Numbers quarterly update.

11-15 Places of Origin Asia

Incredibly, Vietnam now ranks 6th among all sending countries with 28,883 students studying at US institutions, mostly colleges and universities but also boarding and day schools, along with some other programs.  The US has surpassed Australia (PDF), which had 28,524 Vietnamese students at all levels as of October 2015, a 0.4% decrease over the previous year.  As you can see below, Vietnam is nipping at the heels of Canada, which was unimaginable five (5) years ago.

Top 10 Countries of Citizenship 11-15

What are some of the reasons for this continued impressive growth?

  • Robust economic growth, 6.5% through September 2015, which translates into growing ability to pay for one of the world’s most expensive higher education systems;
  • Proactive recruitment on the part of growing numbers of US colleges and universities, which means more choices for Vietnamese students and parents;
  • More institutions with an overall price tag – with or without scholarships – in the 20-30k range or less; and
  • The continued popularity of US higher education as an overseas study destination.

This is in spite of a high visa denial rate over the summer, especially in the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City and growing concern about personal safety, the result of the recent spate of mass shootings.

Extrapolating from the estimate calculated by IIE based on information from Open Doors and the U.S. Department of Commerce, this means that the current contribution to the US economy by Vietnamese students is $919, 461,422. Since most students are self-financing, Vietnamese parents are spending nearly $1 billion on their children’s education in the US.  To put this in perspective Vietnam’s 2014 GDP was $186.2 billion, according to the World Bank.


What’s in a Name? (“Ivy on My Mind”)


I’ve been seeing more advertisements for education companies using the word “Ivy” in their name and got to thinking about the wisdom of overusing a marquee word.  There are at least four, as of this writing.  Talk about stiff competition!  (I believe that IvyPrep was the very first Ivy in Vietnam, which means the others listed below are the followers.)  Maybe too much of a good thing?  Maybe a dilution, or cheapening, of the magical power of this word?  Or does “Ivy” sell, regardless of how many companies use the name?

The word Ivy, of course, is a reference to “a collegiate athletic conference comprising sports teams from eight private institutions of higher education in the Northeastern United States.”  Those eight (8) institutions also happen to be ranked among the top 16 in the US News and World Report 2015 university rankings.  They include:  Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Yale University.

 As the Ivy League Wikipedia entry points out, The term Ivy League has connotations of academic excellence, selectivity in admissions, and social elitism.  The overall acceptance rates for the Ivy League class of 2019 range from 6.1% at Columbia University (2,228 from a pool of 36,250) to 14.9% at Cornell University (6,234 from a pool of 41,907).  That means that not many Vietnamese kids, nor kids of any other nationality, for that matter, gain admission.  It’s the lure, the possibility, the dream of being offered admission to an Ivy League institution that’s good for business.  Most have the same chances of winning the lottery.

ivy league academics



ivy prep

The test prep and overseas study advising market is competitive enough already.  Why not create a new name, a new identity, that enables you to distinguish yourself in a very crowded marketplace?


P.S.:  Are there any other “Ivy” companies that I’ve overlooked?  What about “Vina-Ivy”?

P.P.S.:  Ivy on My Mind sung to Georgia on My Mind.

Linden U.S. University Fairs – In Cooperation With Capstone Vietnam

144hinh_linden I’m pleased to announce that Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company based in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), is assisting Linden Educational Services with its U.S. University Fairs on 20 and 22 September in Hanoi and HCMC, respectively.

There are currently 34 colleges and universities from 18 states participating in this fair series, which is part of a regional tour that includes Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Jakarta, Indonesia.  This is another great opportunity for interested  students and parents to get first-hand information about a variety of top-notch public and private US higher education institutions at a US higher education-only fair.

For more information and to see the list of participating schools, follow this link.


Reflections on Five (5) Years of Capstone Vietnam, Educational Consulting in Vietnam & Overseas Study Trends: Part II

This is the English version of part II of a two-part interview series with me that recently appeared in the Vietnamese media.  Follow this link to read part I.

Tiến sỹ Mark_ A_ Ashwill(1)

Do you have any advice to guide parents and students – their children – who want to study abroad?

Knowing that most parents and students seek the assistance of an education agent rather than applying directly to a foreign institution, my advice in this crucial area is to choose carefully when looking for a suitable educational consulting company to work with. Many companies have no qualms about cheating their clients in their pursuit of short-term profit. Be sure to ask a lot of questions and use your personal network to find out as much as you can about a prospective company. Most importantly, the company should be working on your behalf and on behalf of your son or daughter not the institutions that pay commissions. The company you choose should provide accurate information and find the best possible matches for your child.

There is an encouraging trend of rising consumer expectations in Vietnam.  More and more parents and students are becoming educated consumers.  This means that there is both official (i.e., government) and grassroots (i.e., consumer) pressure for companies to become better than they are.  Competition and effective official oversight will take care of the rest.

My other piece of advice is to combine educational advising with career counseling. To parents – What is your child good at, where do his talents lie, what is her realized or untapped potential? To young people – What do you enjoy (interests), what are you good at (abilities), what do you value/find rewarding, what are your goals? Then you need to think about where you plan to enter the world of work and what kinds of employment opportunities might be available for someone with your qualities, qualifications and background.

As you embark upon this exciting process, there are two relevant quotes to keep in mind, one from an American author, poet, philosopher, and naturalist from the 19th century and the other from an American entrepreneur, marketer, and inventor, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple, Inc., who lived in the late 20th century. Both believed in the power of dreams and the vital importance of self-actualization.

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake. Henry David Thoreau

The only way to do great work is to love what you do. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs also had these words of encouragement – in his June 2005 Commencement address at Stanford University – to young people, or anyone for that matter, who decides to take the “road not taken,” in the words of the American poet, Robert Frost.

You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever–because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.

I have one concern and some final advice. 37.5% of all Vietnamese students in the U.S. are studying Business/Management, by far the highest percentage of any place of origin. (Indonesia is a distant 2nd at 29.5%.) Why so many? My guess is that students and/or their parents believe that you have to study business in order to do business. In fact, most employers recognize and value the creative, communicative and problem-solving abilities associated with liberal arts majors as the most valuable qualities of new staff.


In a 2013 essay entitled Business and the Liberal Arts Edgar M. Bronfman, who was chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd., advised young people to get a liberal arts degree, emphasizing the value of curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking, and describing it as “the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future.”

For all of the decisions young business leaders will be asked to make based on facts and figures, needs and wants, numbers and speculation, all of those choices will require one common skill: how to evaluate raw information, be it from people or a spreadsheet, and make reasoned and critical decisions. The ability to think clearly and critically — to understand what people mean rather than what they say — cannot be monetized, and in life should not be undervalued. In all the people who have worked for me over the years the ones who stood out the most were the people who were able to see beyond the facts and figures before them and understand what they mean in a larger context.

A famous and exceptional example of someone in living and working in Vietnam who pursued this path is Henry (Hoang) Nguyen, who currently serves as the Managing General Partner of IDG Ventures Vietnam. Henry graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, which he attended as a Harvard National Scholar, in 1995 with a BA in Classics. He then earned his MD and MBA from Northwestern University Medical School and the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago. His academic journey took him from studying the language, literature, history, archaeology, and other dimensions of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome to medicine to business, a true Renaissance man.

While I am not famous, I am also an example of someone with a liberal arts background at the undergraduate and graduate (MA/Ph.D.) levels, including political science, German history, intercultural communication, comparative literature, philosophy, economics, education, etc., who has been an educational entrepreneur for most of my career.

I know of many young Vietnamese who majored in the liberal arts (single or double-major, with or without business courses) and who have returned to Vietnam to pursue successful careers in the private sector either as owners or employees. Through their work they have made Vietnam a better place. Their broad education is one of their greatest strengths.

What are Capstone Vietnam’s plans for 2015 and beyond? What are your wishes for young Vietnamese as they relate to education and career opportunities now and in the future?

Our plans are to continue building capacity to meet the demand for existing and new services. While we’re aware of and have experienced the human resource challenges that are a stark reality for every employer in Vietnam, we are pleased with our team in both offices. Our excellent staff are dedicated, hardworking and knowledgeable. We have a solid foundation upon which to build.

These are our core beliefs and goals that will sustain us in the years to come in a very competitive environment. This is who we are and this is what we want for young people and all of Vietnam.

  • Innovation over imitation, substance over image, veracity over veneer.
  • Trust, respect, integrity, quality and service; these are actions not just words, words to live by.
  • Success measured not by short-term profit but by long-term customer satisfaction and loyalty.
  • Success measured by making an impact. By giving back. By leaving a legacy. By taking Vietnam to the next level.
  • Do well and do good.
  • Stay focused and keep your eyes on the prize!

Vietnam’s greatest resource is its people – hardworking, motivated, always on the move and in search of ways to enrich their lives and enhance their marketability through education and training. Every individual has enormous reserves of untapped potential and undiscovered talents. Our goal at Capstone Vietnam is to help our clients “reach new heights,” tap that potential, reveal those hidden talents and make a meaningful and lasting difference in the lives of individuals, organizations and society.

My heartfelt wish for young Vietnamese is that they study what they like and what they’re good at, all the while keeping a realistic eye on an ever-changing job market, that they live “in their dreams awake”, do the work that they love and make it great. And, finally, that they keep in mind and take to heart this quote from Randy Pausch (1960-2008), an American professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: “The key question to keep asking is, ‘Are you spending your time on the right things?’ Because time is all you have.”

Dr. Mark A. Ashwill is the Managing Director of Capstone Vietnam. From 2005 to 2009, he served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam. Prior to moving to Vietnam, Dr. Ashwill was director of the World Languages Institute, adjunct lecturer and Fulbright program adviser at the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY/Buffalo). In the mid-1990s, he was a primary researcher for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Case Study Project in Germany, Japan and the U.S., a Research Associate at the University of Michigan’s Center for Human Growth and Development (CHGD) and a visiting scholar at the University of Frankfurt and Northwestern University. In 2003, Dr. Ashwill became the first U.S. American to be awarded a Fulbright Senior Specialist Grant to Vietnam.

A 2011 Hobsons consultant’s report noted that Dr. Ashwill’s work and that of former U.S. Ambassador, Michael Michalak, “helped to promote the United States as a destination for Vietnamese students, and strengthened the ties between the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) and U.S. universities.” In June 2012, Jeff Browne wrote in his blog Vietnomics that “Much of the credit for the strengthening U.S.-Vietnam higher education link goes to Hanoi-based educator, Mark Ashwill, director of Capstone Vietnam and key adviser to student-run nonprofit VietAbroader, both of which help Vietnamese students navigate the American education culture.”