Foreign students: a change of face in US. Asians fill the gap as fewer Mideast students stroll American campuses

The strong dollar and a shortage of hard currency in many countries are changing the face of America's foreign student population but not its numbers. Although there has been a sharp drop in students coming to this country from such oil-producing nations as Iran, Nigeria, and Venezuela, the gap has been increasingly filled by students from South and East Asian countries, which have been enjoying stronger economies.

Taiwan, rather than Iran, is now the prime country sending students to the United States. And students coming to the US from Malaysia, Korea, and Indonesia increased by more than 20 percent last year, according to the newest ``Open Doors'' report of the Institute of International Education (IIE).

Growth in the US foreign-student population has been slim over the last few years compared with the 1970s when the number of overseas students here doubled. But there are currently 338,894 here, and the number continues to grow.

That fact, in the face of global economic conditions, strikes John Reichard, executive vice-president of the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA), as remarkable. ``If the dollar continues as strong as it is . . . it will put extreme pressure on governments and private sources to send fewer students,'' he says.

Alfred Julian, an IIE analyst who has monitored foreign student statistics closely over the years, says South and East Asian countries will probably continue to be prime sources of foreign students in the near future. Just next month, the IIE expects to open its first office in the People's Republic of China (PRC) to counsel and advise the 500,000 young people who, Chinese officials predict, will be wanting information on US educational opportunities.

More than two-thirds of all foreign students in the US are supported by personal or family funds. The Soviet Union tends to be much more active in giving scholarships to foreign students from developing countries -- particularly undergraduates. In an effort to be more competitive, the Reagan administration recently received $9.5 million from Congress for the first year of a new five-year effort to bring 10,000 Central American students and professionals to this country for study and training. Based on a recommendation by the Kissinger Commission, the US will for the first time aim scholarships at economically disadvantaged foreign students who may one day attain leadership positions at home.

Although convinced education is probably this country's best diplomatic tool, University of Wisconsin foreign-student adviser Michael Dean admits concern that selecting Central American students could become too much of a political process. ``If we're looking just at the countries we want to be our friends, it makes us look like we're bribing them.''

It's the reason he and others working closely with foreign students favor broadening the Central American initiative to include developing countries around the world. A bill being considered in Congress would do just that.

Although foreign students seeking undergraduate degrees in this country outnumber those pursuing graduate degrees, the proportion of graduate students is expected to grow as the cost of studying abroad increases. Malaysia is setting up its own junior college system, patterned after the US model, with an eye to sending better-prepared students here for advanced study.

A number of state universities in the US also have found it necessary to close to foreign students undergraduate enrollment in some popular technical fields. Both the University of Illinois and the University of Texas, for instance, admit no foreign students to their undergraduate engineering programs.

But William Paver, assistant director of admissions at the University of Texas, notes that enrollment in such fields is often dramatically different at the graduate level. Many American students in technical fields think they can get a good enough salary with an undergraduate degree, Mr. Paver says. They decide to join the work force, he says, rather than continue studying. Thus graduate departments, from engineering to agriculture, have come to rely heavily on foreign-student enrollment.

Many private colleges now view foreign students as a very important, albeit partial, answer to declining enrollment. Their recruiting efforts overseas have been stepped up in recent years, but in a more thoughtful and ethical way than in years past when some private institutions used to ``behave very badly,'' according to NAFSA's John Reichard.

Though most educators argue that an international student body benefits Americans and foreigners, no one has devised a method of measuring that impact. Educators insist some benefits go virtually unnoticed.

At Miami Dade Community College North, a four-campus institution with the largest foreign-student population in the US, the local Pakistani Club was persuaded to admit Indians without incident. Even students from warring countries such as Iran and Iraq (as well as Arabs and Israelis), often take meals together and play on the same international soccer team, says International Student Coordinator Hank Pitt. ``It's all rather unbelievable -- like the lion lying down with the lamb,'' he says.

South African blacks, including coloreds and Asians who come to this country under a scholarship program managed by IIE, often take up studies in the math, science, business, and accounting fields. Program officer Hilda Mortimer says these fields, in particular, are frequently closed to such students at home. So far 80 students under the three-year-old program have returned home, she says, and appear to be ``appropriately employed.''

Educators say most foreign students take studies as seriously as their American counterparts who shun student activism. ``They're a pretty serious lot,'' says Wisconsin's Michael Dean. ``If you schedule an event too close to exams, they won't show up even if there's free food.''

Though there is considerable speculation, it isn't known how many foreign students stay on to get US jobs rather than return home. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has no hard figures. ``We believe that most of them return home and we observe that they do,'' says IIE's Midwest director Bob Houston.

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