AMERICAN colleges and universities are receiving many more applications these days from Eastern European and Soviet students. Chinese students, too, are applying in greater numbers - despite a pledge by their government to enforce limits on study abroad. Under perestroika, Russian universities are free to negotiate student-exchange programs for the first time without Moscow's approval. In some cases the programs are still being set up.
``We have Soviet delegations arriving almost every other week - I think [the airlines] will soon open a direct Moscow to Minneapolis connection,'' says Robert Kvavik, associate vice president for academic affairs at the University of Minnesota.
The annual flow of foreign students to the United States - some 366,000 at last count - will never alone correct the US trade imbalance. But at a time when most American products face stiff global competition, a US college or university education continues to star as one of the nation's strongest exports.
About one-third of those who study outside their home countries choose the US. The list includes such well-known leaders as Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Philippine President Corazon Aquino.
``The US is still the place to study,'' says Martin Limbird, president-elect of the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs (NAFSA).
The number of foreign students in the US has grown steadily, though at a slower pace now than in the late 1970s, says Dr. Marianthi Zikopoulos, director of research for the New York-based Institute of International Education (IIE). She says two-thirds of the student arrivals choose public colleges and universities. Ninety percent come with private financing. An increasing proportion is graduate students. Engineering is the most popular field of study, followed by business and management.
The nations from which students come change constantly. Fewer students are now arriving from the Middle East, Nigeria, and Venezuela. Iranian students, who at 50,000 were the most numerous group in the late '70s, number less than 9,000.
More than half of all foreign students in the US are Asian. China is the leading source; Taiwan runs a close second. The number from Japan has been rising sharply.
The Chinese restrictions on study abroad require university graduates to work five years before studying outside the country. Students with relatives overseas, however, may get a waiver by paying a fee.
Some US college officials expect the rules to be unevenly enforced. Robert Brashear, who recently worked with the Chinese Education Ministry under a Fulbright grant and is now director of graduate admissions at Cornell University, says the Chinese are ``obsessed'' by the decision of many Chinese students abroad not to return home.
Still, unless enforcement patterns change, he says, local work units will decide which students may leave. At the federal level, Beijing officials have agreed to resume a small exchange of Fulbright scholars next fall.
Dr. Kvavik of the University of Minnesota, which already has more Chinese students than any other US university, says some of the early college applications from Eastern Europe are ``sad'' in that students don't know how to approach the task.
``You get these blanket statements written to the university president saying, `We're looking forward to freedom - Can you help place me?' There's no sense that one writes to the graduate school and goes department by department.''
US colleges say that trying to get accurate information about Eastern European institutions and student achievement is a new and difficult task. How to finance such students is another problem.
``I don't think many will be able to come on their own resources,'' says IIE's Dr. Zikopoulos. ``Unlike many of the Chinese, they don't have family members here who would foot their bills.''
Currently foreign students can work up to 20 hours a week in any job on campus. Anything from a family emergency to a sudden currency devaluation or political shift back home can sometimes net exemptions from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). President Bush's new executive order on Chinese students, for instance, protects them from deportation until January 1994 and allows them to work in the interim.
The INS generally takes the local job market into account, too, in exemption decisions. ``When jobs are plentiful and times are good, immigration officials tend to be kinder,'' says Ray Boxer, associate dean of students at New Jersey Institute of Technology. That institution has the highest proportion of foreign students - 23 percent - of any in the US.
``A lot of students feel that once they're here ... they should be allowed to work,'' says Joel Fleischer, coordinator for International Student Services at Miami-Dade Community College. That college, which has a large number of Caribbean and Central American refugees, draws more foreign students than any other US institution.
NAFSA, which hears many foreign student concerns firsthand, wants to extend the weekly limit on student job hours to include off-campus work.
Jerry Wilcox, who heads up the group's government regulations advisory committee, says the INS is considering a study looking at the impact of such a change.
Dr. Wilcox says NAFSA would also like to see work prospects opened to the many able and trained spouses of foreign students. ``All they can do is watch soap operas,'' he says. ``That may improve their English, but it isn't likely to improve their impression of the US.''
Many foreign students stay on for an extra year of practical training in their fields. Foreign student advisers view such job experience as important to the learning process. ``It's often a revealing way of showing American values at work,'' says NAFSA's Dr. Limbird. Also, ties formed in the workplace sometimes lead to trade relationships, he says.
Still, university officials say that maximizing the cross-cultural benefits to both sides of the joint academic experience takes constant work. The tendency of those with a common language or nationality to find comfort in their own company cuts them off from Americans. ``In a lot of places it's easy to have one's English proficiency degenerate,'' says Cornell's Dr. Brashear.
``A lot of institutions realize that the mere presence of foreign students doesn't internationalize the campus,'' Limbird says. ``You've got to have a plan to involve them as participants.''
The need, higher education officials say, is to keep the channels for sharing and learning open. It's one reason NAFSA officials are so upset about a planned sharp budget cut of federal seed money used to finance foreign student trips into the schools and the community.