Foreign-Student Influx Continues More Students from E. Europe and USSR Opt for Degrees from US Colleges and Universities. HIGHER EDUCATION: DEMOGRAPHIC SHIFT

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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? …