Lunch time at American University's student cafeteria recalls the confusion of tongues at Babel. Jean-clad Arabic, Swahili and Spanish speakers munch their hamburgers in increasing numbers here and on many other U.S. campuses. Some university officials maintain that these foreign students will be the saviors, and even the shapers, of American higher education.

As any college administrator can glumly tell you, the baby boom ended just about 18 years ago. To ofset the disappearing American college student, administrators can point to one bright statistic: the growing population of foreign students seeking an American education. The number of students from abroad has jumped to 264,000 in 1979-80 from 135,000 ten years ago. There are estimates that their population will reach 1 million by 1990.

Despite numerous problems in educating the increasing numbers of foreign undergraduates, such visiting students do possess one significant advantage over their American peers: they pay their own way. At Georgetown University, for example, 45 percent of the American students receive financial aid, while nearly every foreign student -- and this is almost universally the case -- is supported by his or her family or government.

Because Washington is an international city with a large, stable diplomatic community, it is enormously attractive to foreign students considering an American education. Washington colleges, consequently, have a disproportionate share of the nation's foreign students. The District has more than 8,500 of them at its 16 colleges, a number exceeded in only seven states. Howard University, American University, and George Washington University are all among the top 20 colleges nationwide in their foreign student popuulations, with these students comprising 18, 12, and 9 percent of enrollment, respectively.

Because of its appeal, the District has been able to avoid the problems associated with I-20 merchants, the unscrupulous foreign student recruiters who sell student visas -- I-20's -- to foreigners on behalf of financially desperate American colleges. But Washington's appeal also means that local schools rely more heavily than many on a steady supply of foreign students.

Today's foreign student is unlikely to be the upper-class European of yesteryear. In spite of actions taken since the hostages were seized in Iran, Iranians still make up the largest single group of foreign students, with oil exporting nations, together accounting for more than one-third of the U.S. foreign student population. While today's visiting students may want to soak up some American ambience, they have an essentially serious purpose in coming to the U.S. They are here to get professional and technological training that is often unavailable in their native countries. Mmore than half receive degrees in engineering, business and science.

Non-Western foreign students also admit to a further attraction in studying in America rather than Europe; it's easier to find work here to help make ends meet, even without a work permit.

As with all large groups of people, as with American students themselves, foreign students are a mixed lot. Washington professors say, however, that it's often difficult to judge a student's proficiency if he or she has yet to master English.

"The largest single cause of heartbreak and dissatisfaction for foreign students is the English language," says Richard Berendzen, president of American University. "For example, Farsi [the language of Iran] is very far from English. It's not like someone from a Western European country learning English."

Students entering Washington colleges usually must pass an English language aptitude test, and many colleges require those who fail to take intensive training in English as a second language as a prerequisite for entering regular classes. But professors say passing marks by no means insure fluency

"Even with a passing grade their ability in English varies widely," says Michael Soteriades, chairman of the civil engineering department at Catholic University.

In spite of difficulties with English, Soteriades has found, as have many other educators, that American students are often far inferior to foreign students both in the quality of their secondary school education and in their ability to do college work.

"I find by and large foreign students are better prepared in the fundamentals of math and science than American high school graduates," Soteriades says. "I am also appalled by the Americans' lack of knowledge of grammar. Our education system is only paying lip service to this."

"The level of English preparation is a critical stumbling block for foreign students," says Alison Brooks, associate professor of anthropology at George Washington University. "I spend a lot of time doing remedial work in English with them. But they are very motivated and dedicated -- they don't want to lose their student visas. But the level of preparation of American students has declined so radically that I might have to work as hard with an American student who's never written a term paper."

The deterioration of American education, particularly in the sciences, coupled with the intense effort on the part of foreign students to acquire technical skills, has resulted in technical and engineering departments in some universities that are increasingly comprised of foreign students. For example, at Catholic, which does not have a large foreign student population, Soteriades estimates nearly half the students in the civil engineering department are foreigners.

"There is a real danger of the U.S. becoming unsophisticated in science and technology," observes AU president Berendzen. "In the '60s and '70s the ideas that chemistry created napalm so chemistry was bad, that Lake Erie was polluted, so industry was bad, took hold. So, too, did the notion that if anything was difficult or not 'relevant' you should get rid of it.

"But Third World countries are putting money and people into technological fields. There is a certain irony that people come here because we are the leaders in these fields, then they go home and improve on what they learned here."

While the United States may be in danger of eventually losing its preeminent position in science and technology to some of the countries whose students are now being educated here, foreign students are creating a small financial boom in this country. Berendzen estimates they may bring at least $1 billion into the U.S. And AU is making the most of it.

During the past year AU established the office of Inter-American Programs headed by economist Ronald Muller. Under its aegis degree programs are created -- in conjunction with sponsoring government agencies or industries in Latin America -- to meet professionals' educational needs in countries not yet able to keep up with higher education demands.

This program makes it possible to get an MA from American University in applied economics without leaving Mexico. or learning English. Most of the degrees, however, require some time on the Washington campus and intensive English preparation.

A report from a recent conference on foreign student recruitment, sponsored by a number of education associations adn the U.S. International Communication Agency, warned of the possibility that the foreign student market might dictate what is offered on American campuses: "Programs that are of special appeal to foreign students, for instance, may be added at the expense of programs that are of special interest to certain departments where enrollments are falling off," the reports finds.

But to economist Muller viewing higher education as an industry like any other is the only route to follow.

"Universities are one of our major declining industries. We must export and adapt them," he maintains. "We are selling a service called higher education, and that should be adapted to people who are going to buy it. It's the wave of the future for smart universities and something the U.S. can genuinely give the Third World."

Muller asserts that his program will avoid what he calls "the Iran syndrome" or the dumping of thousands of unprepared students at unprepared colleges. But as the taking of the hostages shows, international events can have an enormous impact on the fortunes of foreign students.

"One of the things we have to be careful about it how unexpected political events get reflected on campuses," says Berendzen. "With Ethiopia going through national problems, many Ethiopian students here were left destitute. And upheavals in Central America have had many universities scrambling to find relief aid for students from those countries."

Foreign students themselves have noticed a decided cooling of their welcome since the hostage situation.

"We've all had that difficulty since the Iran crisis," says Sabah Al-Mohammad of Kuwait, who is getting a master's degree in criminology at American. His education is being paid for by the Kuwaiti police which he expects to rejoin. "People thought we were Persian and would shout things at us. Well, even if we were Persian, people didn't have to be rude. We thought Americans would be more thinking."

"In the past year there's been increased hostility," says Gonzalo Delgado Jacob of Bolivia, a George Washington student. "Occasionally I get called 'spic'."

Even before the hostages were taken, Delgado Jacob found true the frequently stated observation that foreign students tend to hang out with their countrymen. "I myself haven't mixed much," he says.

Colleges like to gloss over the economic benefits of foreign students and concentrate on the "international community" which students bring to a campus. Nevertheless, in the face of their undeniable language and culture problems, just getting such students into the mainstream of student life has created a small industry to service their needs.

At Howard Univeristy, with its large foreign population, that creates a lot of work for the International Student Services office.

"These students have a very big cultural adjustment to make," says director Barry Bem. "It ranges from adjusting to a new, often less structured school system, to climate, food and greater female equality. Because they usually do come here often to get a degree in the professions, they often can't understand why they have to complete general education requirements."

In spite of the difficulties, those who deal with foreign students, such as Richard Berendzen, cite the goodwill factor that accrues to the U.S. through future foreign leaders who've been educated here. When reminded that Sadegh Ghotbzadeh and Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani were educated at Georgetown and Harvard, respectively, Berendzen qualifies his enthusiasm only slightly. "It's naive to think we made ardent fans of every student who comes here," he says.