America's global trade in higher education is brisk these days, with more U.S. college students taking courses abroad and more foreign students--nearly half a million--enrolled in this country, according to an annual survey released this week.

The Institute of International Education's findings reflect the interlacing of the world's economies and the eagerness of students here and abroad to tap it, said Peggy Blumenthal, who supervises the institute's research.

"Everybody recognizes the future of the world economy is becoming globalized," Blumenthal said. "And therefore their own education needs to include an international component."

The private institute was created in 1919 to encourage American study overseas and to bring foreigners here to learn. The survey was paid for by the State Department's Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.

The survey, "Open Doors 1998/99," collected figures on foreign students last year, and on Americans studying abroad the year before, the latest figures available.

In the 1997-98 school year, nearly 114,000 Americans earned college credits abroad, 15 percent more than the year before and the most since the institute first tracked the trend in 1985-86, the survey found.

And in 1998-99, there were 491,000 foreign students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities--up 2 percent from the year before and a record since the institute first counted foreign enrollment in 1949.

For the second year in a row, New York University had the most foreign students, with 4,749. Next was Boston University with 4,447 students and then UCLA with 4,278. Columbia University was fourth, with 4,165, but it had the highest proportion of foreigners in its student body, 20 percent.

China sent the most foreign students, 51,000, followed by Japan, 47,000, and South Korea, 43,000. California, New York and Texas got the most foreign students, the survey reported.

While overall foreign student enrollment splits roughly between graduate and undergraduate programs, 81,000 were taking undergraduate courses at community colleges--a 32 percent jump in six years.

Increasingly, foreign students aiming for bachelor's degrees spend their first two years at community colleges, said Todd Davis, who did the survey. "They're using our community colleges the same way Americans do," he said. "They get a pretty good, solid education and low cost."

Northern Virginia Community College had 2,984 foreign students among its 60,000 students in the last academic year.

They included Faten Iskandar, a 20-year-old Lebanese woman majoring in graphic design and the fifth member of her family to use the college as an educational gateway to America.

"First, it's cheaper than any other place. Second, it's a really cool place to meet people from different countries and from the United States," Iskandar said from the home she shares with her brother in Annandale.

And outbound Americans are no longer only French majors spending a year at the Sorbonne.

Top study spots in the 1997-98 school year were Britain, Spain and Italy, and leading areas of study were social science and humanities, business and management, and foreign languages.

Michigan State University sent the most overseas that year, 1,454 students. Next was the University of Texas at Austin, 1,330, and the University of Pennsylvania, 1,314.

Amber Lippincott, 23, earned college credits toward a degree at the University of Northern Iowa working in Germany at a summer camp for children of U.S. military personnel. The Iowa native liked it so much she spent the next two summers managing a similar camp in South Korea.

"Going overseas is opening your eyes to so much more," Lippincott said in a telephone interview from Iowa. A leisure services major, she plans a career developing after-school programs for children.

Lippincott's forays were organized by Camp Adventure, a nonprofit organization based in Cedar Falls near the university campus.

Last year, 843 of the school's students on the campus of 13,500 earned college credits overseas--more than 70 percent through Camp Adventure.

She said the program helped her take more interest in the world outside Iowa, while deepening her regard for her home state. "You have a chance to leave and take a look back."

CAPTION: Faten Iskandar of Lebanon chose Northern Virginia Community College for its diversity and affordable tuition.