Boston — Foreign students are quickly becoming the x factor in a difficult equation that involves dwindling enrollment and pressing financial problems at US colleges and universities.
This is the eighth straight year foreign student enrollment has increased on US campuses, up 6 percent from the 1981-82 school year to 326,299 students, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). That figure is expected to reach 500,000 students by 1990, or roughly 5 percent of all college students.
At the same time demographic trends and economic factors are putting the squeeze on all colleges, public and private. Some educators say that such figures could tempt colleges to begin treating foreign students as a commodity, and to transform what has been a highly successful cultural exchange program into a business transaction.
A 5 percent drop in total college enrollment this fall is putting pressure on administrators to fill desks and dorm rooms, but so far, ''few if any colleges are looking at (foreign) students as walking dollar signs,'' says Ed Battle of IIE.
Still, there is concern about aggressive overseas recruiting, which, if not unethical, often fails to inform prospective students about what they can expect to encounter in the US, and what is expected of them.
Upon graduation from US college and universities, 80 percent of foreign students specializing in high-tech subjects find that they are overqualified for jobs that are available back home, the IIE says. Often the fields in which they have been trained don't exist.
As a result, many stay on in the US after graduation. Loopholes in US immigration laws make it relatively easy for foreign students to do so, by marrying a US citizen or by getting an employer to help expedite the process of gaining citizenship.
The INS is currently revising its regulations to ensure that the whereabouts and status of foreign students can be easily ascertained. The new regulations sit well with many foreign nations that have long complained that loose US immigration laws are contributing to a ''brain drain'' that is siphoning off their brightest youth.
Foreign nations are trying various ways to stem the outflow. Singapore forces all students going abroad to post an expensive bond that is returned when the student returns.
But some US educators question the haste with which the INS is moving to restrict the number of foreign students remaining in the US after graduation. They say the policy could create a brain drain in the US, which has come to rely on the expertise of foreign students who enter the US work force.
Says Richard Berendzen, president of American University in Washington, D.C., and head of a commission that studied the impact of foreign students on US higher education for the American Council on Education: ''American students just aren't enrolling in graduate school programs. Should US employers be punished for hiring foreign students who did enroll, and are therefore the only ones qualified for available high-tech jobs? We already have a shortage of workers in many key industries.''
In fact, 1 in 8 graduate school students in the US is now a foreigner, and 50 percent of all PhDs in engineering are going to foreign students - a trend that experts say may create some competition with US students.
In terms of their overall economic impact, the IIE says foreign students will pump an estimated $1.7 billion in living costs into the US economy in the 1982- 83 school year.
But the net gain or loss to the US economy from tuition payments by foreign students is difficult to calculate. Tuition payments have traditionally covered no more than 75 percent of a school's costs to educate a student, and considerably less at public institutions, says the IIE. In addition, 15 percent of foreign students report that their primary financial support comes not from sources in their home countries, but from within the US.