Washington State & Vietnamese Students: A Story of Requited Love

Mark Ashwill, Managing Director of human resource development company Capstone Vietnam, writes about one success story of a US state recruiting Vietnamese students.

Washington state’s success in recruiting Vietnamese students is noteworthy.  In 2014/15, there were 27,051 international students studying in WA, a 5.9% increase over the previous year. WA was the 11th leading host of international students in the US. These students and their families contributed $789 million to the state economy, in addition to all of the other tangible and intrinsic benefits they bring to WA, 49 other states and the District of Columbia.

Among the over 27,000 international students enrolled in WA colleges and universities, 2,164, or 8%, were from Vietnam, making it third among sending countries after China and Saudi Arabia. To put this in national perspective, 11.50%, or more than 1 in 10, of all Vietnamese students were in WA last year.

In fact, WA has been so successful recruiting in Vietnam that it is the 3rd leading host of Vietnamese students after California and Texas. Why? It’s not because there are so many Vietnamese-Americans living in the Seattle area, unlike the usual locations in CA and TX, i.e,. San Jose and Orange County. (Seattle ranks 11th among US cities with large Vietnamese-American populations with 13,252, according to the 2010 US Census.  In contrast, San Jose, CA had over 100,000.) Neither is it because of the climate, which in all fairness is much milder than many of the places where happy and satisfied Vietnamese students are studying in the East, North and Midwest.

Killing Two Academic Birds with One Stone

First, it offers a very unique program called Running Start that allows high school students to study at a community college, thereby completing requirements for the high school diploma and the associate degree. The program was created by the WA Legislature as a component of the 1990 parent and student Learning by Choice Law. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) website, “Students receive both high school and college credit for these classes and therefore accelerate their progress through the education system.” This program has been wildly popular among many Vietnamese parents, as well as those from China, South Korea, Indonesia and other countries, who appreciate the advantages of saving both time and money.

Timing & Persistence Pay Off

Secondly, WA schools, especially community colleges, have been coming to Vietnam much longer than most.  Some launched their recruitment efforts in “the early days,” i.e., 12 or 13 years ago, when the market was much less competitive.  Many continue to come not once but two or three times a year to participate in US higher education fairs, offer info sessions and work with their extensive network of education agents, among other activities, in addition to ongoing marketing and promotion efforts, e.g., Facebook ads.  WA higher education has become a brand, thanks to their efforts and word-of-mouth advertising of the thousands of student they’ve recruited over the years. Their ROI has been significant and their work has opened up pipelines that continue to flow.

It’s no surprise that three of the top five host institutions for international students in WA are community colleges, in or near Seattle, each with a large contingent of Vietnamese students:

University of Washington, Seattle:  8,035
Washington State University, Pullman: 2,448
Seattle Central College, Seattle:  2,171
Green River Community College, Auburn: 1,736
Edmonds Community College, Lynnwood:  1,620

Seven of the top 40 associate’s institutions hosting international students are from WA, including Seattle Central (#4), Green River (#10), Edmonds (#12), Bellevue College (#18), Shoreline Community College (#22), North Seattle College (#23) and South Seattle College (40).

Try Harder! 

What I tell colleagues who are not from CA, TX or WA, which enroll over half of all Vietnamese students, is that they have to try harder, to paraphrase an old AVIS tagline.  Colleagues from those three states have a natural competitive advantage because of family ties, mainly the result of post-war waves of emigration, and the WA-specific reasons I mentioned. For colleagues from one of the other 47 states, this means a adopting a long-term vision and investing considerable resources in terms of staff time and recruitment, both armchair and in-country.

I also advise them to explore the possibility of offering a high school completion program similar to Washington’s Running Start Program. Why should WA have all the fun? On the other hand, I’m well aware that this a political issue usually decided by the state legislature and thus not realistic for many states. Washington’s gain is their loss.

Dr. Mark Ashwill is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company in Viet Nam with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam.