<p>Georgia Tech hosts more than 4,700 international students, more than twice the number of Emory, its closest competitor with 2,300, according to the Open Doors report.&nbsp;</p>

Copyright: Georgia Institute of Technology

Georgia Tech hosts more than 4,700 international students, more than twice the number of Emory, its closest competitor with 2,300, according to the Open Doors report. 

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Spending by foreign college students in Georgia eclipsed a half-billion dollars for the first time this year, making higher education a more valuable export than state mainstays like kaolin and carpet, according to a new report.

Though it has a long way to go to displace products like poultry and aircraft, spending by students on tuition, fees and living expenses grew by $38 million in 2012-13, a 7.5 percent uptick to $500.9 million, according to the annual Open Doors report by the New York-based Institute of International Education

Considered a service export by the U.S. Commerce Department, foreign student expenditures directly or indirectly supported 7,239 jobs in Georgia, the report said. 

While its job impacts may not be as large as sectors like manufacturing, student spending tends to be "interwoven to a very high degree into the fabric of the community,” Jeffrey Humphreys, director for the Selig Center for Economic Growth at University of Georgia.

Foreign student spending as an export hasn’t been promoted as much as it could be, said Dr. Humphreys, who studies the economic impact of public universities on the state.. 

"We still are very competitive in terms of higher education on a global basis and we do export that commodity globally,” he said. "Certainly that is an area that should be of interest to policy makers."

Of course, the real benefit to higher education is increased lifetime earnings as a result of the degree, Dr. Humphreys said. To capture that, the state has to focus on the much harder task of keeping graduates within in its borders. 

In Georgia, foreign-student spending increased partly because the raw numbers grew to 16,670, up 5.4 percent from 16,193 the previous year. The figures include private institutions, and Atlanta-based Emory University and the Savannah College of Art & Design were among the state’s top five host institutions. 

Georgia trailed the national growth rate of 7 percent, perhaps because of a downturn in enrollments at Georgia Institute of Technology, which at 4,740 foreign students attracts more than double the amount of Emory, its closes competitor at 2,303. 

Still, this year brought glimmers of hope that the rest of the state’s top five could slowly catch up. While Georgia Tech slid 4.6 percent and dropped out of the top 25 in the nation, the others moved forward: Emory (13 percent), University of Georgia at 1,708 (13 percent), SCAD at 1,608 (15.5 percent) and Georgia State University at 1,597 (1.2 percent). 

Overall, the U.S. hosted 819,644 International students, an annual record. They created or supported 312,975 jobs on nearly $24 billion in spending.  

The continuing influx of Chinese students was largely to thank. With growth of 21.4 percent to 235,597, more than one in every four foreign students in the U.S. now hails from China, and they’re coming earlier. Long lopsided, the proportion of undergraduates to graduates students from China has nearly reached parity. 

Speaking at a U.S.-China forum at the Carter Center Nov. 11, former President Jimmy Carter said even more exchange is needed to foster understanding. Still, he was happy to see that what started as a trickle during his administration during the late 1970s has turned into a flood. 

"That makes my heart beat a little bit faster, that makes my face flush and makes me feel a little bit proud,” the former president said after reading the 235,000 figure in the newspaper. 

Other countries also had strong showings, spurred on by government scholarships. A Brazliian effort to provide its science students with more international exposure spurred 20 percent growth to 10,900 students. A program in Saudi Arabia saw that country’s numbers surge by 30 percent to 45,000, making it No. 4 among sending nations. 

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