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story.lead_photo.caption In this 2013 file photo, students cross Dickson Street on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville prior to a dedication ceremony for the newly completed Founders Hall. ( Andy Shupe)

A decline in the number of international students has become a trend both nationally and in Arkansas, according to data from several universities and national reports released Monday.

The U.S. hosted 1,075,496 international students last year, down 1.8% from a year earlier, according to the annual Open Doors report from the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education.

The overall decline came after years of increases in foreign students hosted in the United States. But beginning in the 2016-17 academic year, new international student enrollments started to drop off.

International students made up about 5.5% of the 19,720,000 students enrolled in U.S. higher education, according to the report.

The data is for the last academic year, while a separate survey done in October shows the pandemic is "impacting international student enrollment on a global level and across all major countries that host international students," according to a report by the Institute of International Education.

Schools responding to the October survey described a decrease in international students, even including those students taking courses online inside the U.S. or outside the country.

Several Arkansas universities this fall have reported declines in their enrollment of international students. The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and some other universities in the state have seen declines going back to years before the pandemic.

School officials referred mostly to the pandemic when asked about factors leading to declines.

But policies under the administration of President Donald Trump such as visa restrictions have "likely contributed" to the decline nationally in the numbers of international students, said Brendan Cantwell, an associate professor in Michigan State University's Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education program.

"The Covid-19 pandemic, competition from other countries like Canada, the UK, and Australia, and an increased supply of good quality higher education around the world could also partly explain the decline of international enrollments," Cantwell, a higher education researcher, said in an email.

Under the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, "I would not be surprised if we see a partial rebound of international enrollments when the policy and political environment changes under the Biden administration," Cantwell said.

Nationally, universities responding to the Institute of International Education survey this October reported an increase in foreign students seeking to defer enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities. Schools surveyed reported a 43% decline in new international student enrollments, according to the report.

At UA-Fayetteville, deferrals by international students had been rare before the pandemic, said university spokeswoman Amy Unruh. But for this fall, 110 students -- including 99 graduate international students -- deferred admission, Unruh said.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville reported that international enrollments fell to 1,211 students this fall, down from 1,408 foreign students last year. International students this fall make up 4.4% of total enrollment at UA, according to university data.

Panama topped all other foreign countries in international enrollments at UA, with 125 students attending from the country sometimes described as a link between Central America and South America. The university inked a deal with the country's science division that has led over the last decade to large numbers of Panamanians studying at UA-Fayetteville.

Unruh said there was a "sharp decline" in new international student enrollments.

There were a total of 203 new international student enrollments, she said. The total includes 89 undergraduates, a 55% decline from the previous year, Unruh said.

UA-Fayetteville has seen its international student enrollment decline now for five straight years, though before this fall the yearly declines had been modest. UA-Fayetteville enrolled 1,545 international students in fall 2015, according to university data.

Patricia Gamboa, UA's director of international recruiting and admissions, in a statement said that in the years ahead, access to travel and visas are "out of our control due to the pandemic," but "we hope that global circumstances will soon make it easier for [international students] to accept our offers and enroll in classes on our campus."

Michael Freeman, director of UA's International Students and Scholars, said in a statement that the university's programs and alumni "point new international students to the University of Arkansas."

Arkansas State University has seen yearly declines in international students for four straight years, according to university data.

International enrollments at ASU fell to 440 students this fall from 851 in fall 2016, according to university spokesman Bill Smith and data posted on ASU's website.

Smith said the decline this fall is primarily because of the pandemic.

"Embassies and consulates were closed due to the global pandemic, and this resulted in many incoming students not being able to receive visas and necessary paperwork," Smith said in an email.

China is the top country of origin for ASU international students this year, with 76 Chinese students enrolled this fall, Smith said.

At the University of Central Arkansas, data for years before 2017 was not publicly available on the school's website, but international enrollment has declined each year since at least fall 2016.

The Conway university this fall has enrolled 408 international students, down from 476 last fall and 630 in fall 2016, according to university data. UCA this fall enrolled 54 students from the Bahamas, the most of any foreign country, UCA spokeswoman Amanda Hoelzeman said.

In an email, Hoelzeman said that "economic hardships," especially during the pandemic, contributed to the decline, and that some countries are not providing financial aid for their students at the same level as in the past.

"COVID-19 has also led to embassy closings, thus reducing visa services, as well as difficulties with arranging international travel," Hoelzeman said. She added: "Given all of this, we are pleased with the fall 2020 enrollment and look forward to seeing an improvement in 2021."

Among all countries, China had the most students in the United States, according to the Open Doors report. The 372,532 Chinese students in the U.S. in 2019-20 increased by 0.8% compared with the previous year. Second was India, with 193,124 students in the United States, followed by South Korea with 49,809 students.

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