MUCH as Olive Oyl often found herself the rope in a tug of war between cartoon characters Popeye and Bluto, foreign students in the United States increasingly find themselves the center of a push-pull match that divides educators, politicians, businessmen, and various factions of the government.
Even while Congress is considering proposals from the Reagan administration to increase support for scholarships to foreign students, recent Immigration and Naturalization Service regulations have bolstered one educator's view that ''foreign students are the most regulated foreigners in the country.''
Marvin Baron, president-elect of the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs (NAFSA), estimates that colleges waste resources and thousands of hours of staff time each year helping these students fill out forms - up to four pages long - informing the government of a change in majors or requesting permission to seek a higher degree than previously planned.
''Changing majors is an American tradition,'' says Mr. Baron, who is also deputy director of advisers to foreign students and scholars at the University of California, Berkeley, who adds that some immigration offices have asked for detailed travel plans and curricula vitae.
''It can be a little confusing for foreign students,'' Baron concludes, ''who may start wondering how much they're wanted here.''
In fact not everyone thinks they should be here - at least not in ever-growing numbers or for unlimited periods. Moves in Congress to control the length of stay of foreign students stem in large part from concern that Americans pay for their presence: either immediately, by subsidizing their education, or in the long run, through jobs filled by those who work illegally or stay on after graduation. Yet education officials point out that more than 80 percent of all foreign students are funded from abroad and that eventually better than 90 percent (excluding refugees) return home.
Next after economic concerns come complaints about foreigners taking slots American students might have filled, slowing classroom pace, and taking too many teaching-assistant posts. Now with growing numbers of foreign students filling vacant research positions, the question of national security has been raised.
Despite a reluctance among college officials to speak of foreign students and economic gain in the same breath, there is ample evidence that these students provide a significant economic boost both to their local communities and to the US as a whole. The Institute of International Education in New York estimates the students will spend more than $1.8 billion on living costs alone during the current school year. And in a 1983 IIE report titled ''Absence of Decision,'' Profs. Michael Nacht of Harvard University and Crauford Goodwin of Duke University describe ''the education of foreign students as one of the United States' few (with grain and armaments) remaining export industries on an upward trajectory, and one with few strong competitors.''
In addition, it is clear that some college departments and even entire schools would close without their foreign enrollments. Among the most striking examples are engineering and computer science departments, whose graduate programs have been abandoned by many American students in favor of lucrative jobs with private industry. Foreigners make up more than half of all graduate students in many engineering schools: almost 60 percent at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, about 78 percent at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, for example.
This is true even at the nation's most prestigious schools: Foreigners earn more than half of all doctoral degrees in engineering awarded by Stanford University; at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more than 20 percent of total enrollment is foreign.
''The result is that foreign students are keeping alive some important fields and research,'' notes Baron - a point that some educators say will make it necessary for this country to encourage foreigners to continue their research here.
The foreign connection also keeps alive a number of colleges. And with American undergraduate enrollment dropping, pressure continues to grow for schools to attract more foreigners. At a recent conference on international education sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, one participant from a public college in western Colorado said his school sent him specifically to discover how it might reverse falling enrollment - and suggestions that the school close - by attracting foreigners.
The problem is that often such schools are not adequately equipped to handle foreign students. Some do not even attempt to and have become associated with the ''diploma mills'' - schools that issue anyone a diploma for a fee - now being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Recently countries have begun paying more attention to substandard institutions, with some now keeping lists of schools they will not allow their students to attend. Kuwait's embassy in Washington, for example, says it has a ''working list'' of such schools.
Aside from the positive economic benefits of having foreign students, the international perspective a varied foreign population brings to campus is also an asset. Yet most college officials admit that they do not take full advantage of foreign students while they are here. As several administrators indicate, US colleges tend to pay lip service to the role foreigners can play in enriching campus life, but in the end it is assumed they are here to learn from the Americans.
In a unique move that has attracted favorable attention, the state of Oregon has adopted a plan that permits elimination of out-of-state tuition for foreign students who agree to participate - by giving presentations on their countries; assisting teachers in relevant courses; and leading class discussions on world affairs - in public school classrooms. Other schools periodically hold seminars and discussions in which foreign student participation is encouraged, but such programs are surprisingly rare.
In the eyes of many college officials - and the US government, which continues to support such programs as the Fulbright scholarships that bring foreigners here - one of the greatest long-term effects is that most foreigners who study here gain a positive outlook on the US. Many leave as supporters of its system of government and continue to buyAmerican products once they've returned home.
And many of them end up in influential posts in government and industry. Robert Kaplan, outgoing president of the NAFSA, likes to recall a trip to Saudi Arabia during which he visited eight former students. Of the eight, six held Cabinet posts.
In a recent IIE publication, ''Fondness and Frustration,'' Professors Nacht and Goodwin conclude from their study of Brazilians who studied in the US: ''The most powerful impression from our field work was the significant impact of American higher education upon Brazilian society.''
Interviewing alumni of US colleges now holding top positions in Brazilian companies, schools, government, and the media, the two professors found great respect for America's ''open society'' and the wish on the part of many of those interviewed that their children might have a similar experience.
And, despite frequent feelings of alienation upon their return home or regrets that means for maintaining contacts were too weak, not one person interviewed regretted having studied in the US.