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Studying abroad: another field where East, West compete

By Lucia MouatStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 1983


In many Latin American countries, upper-level government jobs are held by officials who were educated in the United States. Entry- and lower-level management positions tend to be filled by those educated in Soviet-bloc countries - and their numbers are growing at a far faster clip.

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One reason: The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe offer full five- to seven-year scholarships on a generous basis to students in developing countries. The US offers far less financial help on a more selective basis and with tighter time restrictions. Latin Americans on Soviet-bloc scholarships currently outnumber those on US government scholarships by about 18 to 1. In Africa, the ratio is an even more striking 40 to 1 in favor of the Communist bloc.

''We're definitely out-scholarshiped,'' confirms David Larsen of the International Institute of Education (IIE), the largest US educational exchange agency.

Studying in a particular country is, of course, no guarantee that a student will be won over by the merits of its particular political system. A senior African diplomat once remarked that if developing countries wanted students to return home as committed communists, they sent them to France, but if they wanted confirmed capitalists, they shipped them off to Moscow.

But those who closely monitor foreign-student patterns in this country see the scholarship imbalance as one more reason US colleges and universities and, indeed, the nation as a whole must begin to develop a well-thought-out policy regarding the increasing number of foreign students arriving on US shores.

By the IIE's last count a year ago, there were 326,299 foreign students in US colleges and universities. Most are from developing countries. Iran, Taiwan, and Nigeria head the list. And the total number of foreign students is expected to triple within the next decade or so.

''Absence of Decision,'' a recent report issued by the IIE, turns the spotlight on many existing policy gaps. Researchers found that the leaders of few colleges have thought through such basic questions as how many foreign students they would continue to welcome (though most felt a proportion higher than 50 percent would be undesirable), why they really want them to come, and whether or not the college is equipped to offer the visitors enough help in and outside the classroom to ensure a positive experience.

''Many colleges treat foreign students just as if they were Americans,'' notes Dr. Larsen, who directs the IIE's educational associate program and headed up a recent IIE regional seminar here for educators, which underscored many of the points raised in ''Absence of Decision.''

''We have to realize that if we're going to invite people to come and take their money, we're obliged to give them more than a number of credits and a diploma,'' continues Larsen, who says he thinks foreign students deserve much more access to travel and hospitality in American homes than many now get. ''These are young and impressionable people who can feel very lonesome. But if they're not provided with opportunities to interact with Americans, they probably won't.''

Certainly some foreign students - particularly Iranians during the American hostage crisis and Saudi Arabians when they have flaunted their cash - have felt the sting of public criticism from some Americans in whose communities they live. Often the more students from the same country, the more the friction. Neighbors have sometimes accused the students of creating ghettos and adding an extra burden to police and school services.

This kind of geographic imbalance is easy to come by. A recent graduate may spread the word at home about ''his'' school or, if he moves into a responsible government position, may ask his alma mater to take 100 or 200 of his nation's best students. Such student concentrations are easier to administer for the foreign government and are seen as a convenient way for students to keep their cultural identity intact. For many colleges, eager to fill classrooms and dormitory beds, such offers can be hard to refuse.

But the dangers have been so well publicized in recent years that many colleges and government education ministries are beginning to grow more cautious. Indeed, Ross Peacock, coordinator of international admissions for Ohio's Denison University, which wants to increase its foreign-student population, says his only advice from Denison's few dozen current foreign students is to be sure to recruit a well-balanced global mix.