Those overseas students, they keep coming and coming to the US

A record 311,882 foreign students from 184 countries were enrolled in US colleges for the 1980-81 academic year. The figure represents a 9 percent increase from the previous year and is the largest number of foreign students ever enrolled in US schools.

Is this the crest of the wave for student imports?

''Barring unforeseen circumstances, it is safe to assume from historic trends that this figure will double by 1990,'' says Ed Battle, spokesman for the Institute of International Education (IIE), which sponsors the census of foreign students.

This past year's increase occurred despite the fact that Iran, the nation with the most foreign students in the United States (47,550), sent 7 percent fewer students. Given the political and economic instability of that nation, ''It is more than likely that further decreases in Iranian enrollment will continue,'' Mr. Battle told the Monitor.

Highlights from the IIE's annual Census of Foreign Students report indicate the following:

Thirty percent of all foreign students came from south and east Asia, 27 percent from the Middle East, 16 percent from Latin America, 12 percent from Africa, 8 percent from Europe, with North America and Oceania accounting for the remainder.

The ten countries sending the greatest number of students are Iran, Taiwan, Nigeria, Canada, Japan, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, India, and Lebanon. The ten states with the largest number of foreign students are California, New York, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.

The most popular field of study for foreign students was engineering with more than 25 percent enrollment. Business and management was second with more than 17 percent.

When it comes to who pays the tuition bills, the breakdown tilts heavily to non-US sources. Either personal or family sources of income account for 67.4 percent of the funds. The students' home governments provide 12.9 percent. US-originated funding either from the government or the host university total about 17 percent of tuition monies. 2.3 percent of the students received financial support from the US government.

Men students outnumbered women 223,670 to 88,210. Historically, the ratio of men to women has been 3 to 1 with a slight increase in the number of women reported in recent years.

For the most part, foreign students are scattered thinly throughout the US, except in the case of a few graduate schools of engineering, where their numbers compose as much as 10 percent of the student bodies.

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