While numbers held steady this year, many schools are bracing for a decline in international students in 2021.

Georgia bucked a rare national decline as its international student population grew 2.7 percent to 24,265 over the previous year, though their spending fell and early surveys suggested the pandemic will significantly dent next year’s totals.

The U.S. hosted more than 1 million students for the fifth straight year, but the total dropped by 1.8 percent. That was the first annual decline since 2004-05, when the student totals were less than half of today’s, according to the Institute for International Education‘s annual Open Doors Report released Monday.

Demand from China remained steady, despite geopolitical tension, visa challenges and general COVID-related angst that showed up too late in the school year to affect the 2019-20 count.

Because the pandemic emerged in March, with students in the midst of the spring semester, any hesitance to enroll in the U.S. based on health or online-learning concerns will likely show up only in next year’s figures.

Swings in the Chinese student total ultimately make the difference, as the country accounts for 34.8 percent of the total. Driven by graduate enrollment and participation in the Optional Practical Training program, Chinese student enrollments grew at a modest 0.8 percent in the 2019-20 period, climbing to about 372,000.

That number is unlikely to be sustained next year, even if bilateral relations improve under a new Biden presidential administration. 

Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has stepped up scrutiny of Chinese academics over concerns about intellectual property theft and espionage.

Then, when COVID-19 struck, Mr. Trump briefly issued an order that would have canceled visas for foreign students if their universities shifted to online learning. The move was reversed after it sparked confusion and outcry among students, immigration attorneys and companies that rely on foreign-born graduates, particularly in the STEM fields.

But some recruiters say the damage has been done: Enrollments are rising in places like Canada and Australia, traditional U.S. alternatives. Sensing the inevitable, some universities have begun diversifying in new markets to offset expected declines in traditional strongholds.

Beyond China, India sent 4.4 percent fewer students  to the U.S. in the past year, putting making it once again the No. 2 place of origin with some 193,000. South Korea took its customary No. 3 spot with 49,809, a drop of 4.7 percent. Only three of the top 10 sending nations saw their numbers grow, with Brazil and Taiwan joining China on the plus side.

Experts say pandemic-induced economic stress, travel restrictions and lingering health concerns will likely keep some students closer to home, while the shift to online learning will force some to postpone venturing overseas. An IIE survey of 710 institutions revealed a 16 percent decline in international student enrollments related to the pandemic this fall. 

For Georgia’s part, the 2019-20 numbers were relatively consistent from the previous year, with China, India, South Korea and Nigeria taking the top four slots among sending nations. Brazil displaced Vietnam as the No. 5 source for foreign students.

China accounted for 32.8 percent of Georgia’s international student body, with more than 7,950 students — about a 7 percent increase. The rest of the top five stayed relatively stable.

Student spending in the state on tuition and other fees was down by 1.3 percent but still stood at $839.2 million for the year, a number that would rank in the top 10 if measured as an export market.

No Georgia universities made it into the national top-25, but the state’s own top five posted a relatively resilient showing:

  1. Georgia Tech – 6,726 students (flat)
  2. Savannah College of Art & Design – 4,189 (up 8 percent)
  3. Emory University – 2,935 (down 6 percent)
  4. Georgia State University – 2,804 (flat)
  5. University of Georgia – 2,474 (flat)

On the outbound side, Georgia students going abroad grew 7.1 percent to 12,630.

See the full Open Doors data for international students here, or view the Georgia fact sheet below:


As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...

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