Student exchange programs have been a post-World War II success story of which all the participating nations can be proud. The good news is that the United States is acting to restore the strong role the Reagan administration had once appeared ready to abandon. The need is to ensure that the new initiatives serve the broad purposes of individual education and international understanding - rather than any narrow national propaganda purposes.
The latter purposes might be inferred from some of the discussion of new exchanges intended to address the so-called ''successor generations'' in Europe. These are the young people who have not shared their elders' postwar experience of working closely with America for mutual benefit in the first flush of the Marshall Plan and Fulbright scholar
ships program. They lack some of the previous generation's more positive impressions of the United States to temper the impressions left by Vietnam, Watergate, and nuclear anxiety.
Such young people would hardly be convinced by calculated pro-American approaches. Thus it was well for the US to enlist its European partners at the Versailles summit last year in a joint expansion of youth exchange programs.
The US had been lagging behind Britain, France, West Germany, and Japan - not to mention the Soviet Union - in the percentage of its national budget designated for international educational exchanges. When the Rea-gan administration came in, it sought to cut the Fulbright program, the very symbol of fruitful nonpropagandistic exchange, to less than half of its $48.1 million budget, from 120 countries to 59. But last year's program remained at about $51 million, and the new request is for $49 million plus $17 million from the administration's $85 million Project Democracy pending in Congress.
A rider to current legislation specifies that US exchange programs be doubled by 1986. The question is whether Congress will provide the money as well as the impetus for such a worthy goal. The administration at the moment argues that such a rate of increase could not be accomplished without cutting back books, periodicals, broadcasts, or other elements under the umbrella of US information services.
The new US exchanges under the Versailles initiative are targeted at a younger-than-Fulbright group: those from 15 to 19 years old. The participating summit countries are to be free to define the youth activities to be supported. They include stays with families in local communities in programs arranged through existing exchange agencies. Already, in an example of Yankee enterprise, several million dollars have been raised from private sources by Charles Wick, head of the US Information Agency.
The more of such activity the better so long as it does not become counterproductively linked with promoting any administration's particular policy aims. The inquiring young are quick to note any contradictions between proclaiming democracy and governing short of full accordance with it. Democracy at work remains its own best salesman.