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Although the U.S. remains far and away the leader of the pack among industrial nations in attracting foreign students to its colleges and universities, its lead appears to be eroding.

The Institute of International Education reports that the U.S. played host to 453,000 foreign college students in the past academic year, more than one-third of the worldwide contingent of such students. But that's a mere 0.6% annual increase at a time when global competition for foreign students is heating up.

One reason more countries are wooing foreign students is the economic benefits they bring. In the U.S., for example, they spend a huge $7 billion a year on tuition and living expenses, and provide vital support for many graduate programs in science and engineering--making higher education the nation's fifth largest "exporter" of services.

Foreign students also help build economic ties with fast-growing nations overseas. Indeed, though the ranks of Chinese and Asian foreign students at U.S. colleges fell last year for the first time in recent memory, they have been rising sharply in Australia and Japan.BY GENE KORETZ

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