DURING the last hectic days of the 98th Congress, several items that should never have made it through the legislative process did, and a great many items that should have made it did not.
One of the worthy measures that got lost in the shuffle was the ''United States Scholarship Program for Developing Countries Act.'' That cumbersome title disguised a simple concept: legislation to make it possible for lower- and middle-income students from third-world countries to study at colleges and universities in this country.
In the United States we tend to think of ourselves as running far ahead of the Soviet Union in most things, but when it comes to scholarships for lower-income foreign students to attend colleges, Uncle Sam lags behind the Russian bear.
A United States Information Agency study shows that in 1982, the Soviet Union and its allies provided 102,400 scholarships for study. By contrast, USIA and the Agency for International Development funded fewer than 9,000 students. The Soviet-bloc countries awarded 37,000 scholarships to African students alone, while the United States gave only 3,000.
Similar figures are available for Asia and the Middle East, while on a worldwide scale the Soviet-bloc countries have educated more than seven times as many students from third-world countries as the United States. According to a May 1983 report by the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee: ''This nation has virtually ignored the need for development of strong exchange programs with the lesser developed nations, while our ideological rivals are increasing their efforts in these areas.''
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported in the same year that while funding for the exchange programs of the USIA had declined by 40 percent since 1965, ''Soviet bloc spending for comparable programs has increased and vastly exceeds US efforts.''
Not only does the Soviet Union finance scholarships for more foreign students overall than the United States, it also focuses on students from lower-income families.
According to the USIA, the vast majority of students coming to the United States from developing countries are from ''affluent backgrounds, identified with ruling elites and not necessarily representative of the forces of change in their native countries.''
One reason existing US programs have not reached beyond the ruling elites is that they emphasize postgraduate and professional training. The Fulbright Scholarship Program, for example, is devoted exclusively to bringing postgraduates, lecturers, and researchers to the United States. Yet in most developing countries, few families can afford the luxury of such advanced study. In Africa barely 2 percent of young people go to college, and only 15 percent even finish high school. The legislation introduced last session began to address this situation by creating an undergraduate scholarship program, in which financial need would be one criterion for admission.
Far too few students are able to come to this country and experience our society - both the good and the bad. They fail to see what the free-enterprise system can produce, not only in material terms but in terms of freedom of choice , freedom of opportunity, and freedom of expression. It is in our interest that more young people from the third world come to the United States and find out what we are like. Not everything they see will please them, but I believe they cannot fail to experience the strength of our system.
The benefits to our own students are equally compelling. The vast majority of funds spent on this program would come back to American universities, where declining enrollments are driving up university fees. In addition, our campuses would be enriched by exposure to a variety and diversity of cultures, each with its own perspective of looking at political, economic, and social problems.
I can think of few ways as efficient as a scholarship program to expand and strengthen our ties with the third world. It has been more then 30 years since the creation of the Fulbright Scholarship Program, and it is now widely acknowledged that of the resources employed in the pursuit of US foreign policy objectives, few have been as quietly effective as educational and cultural affairs aspects of foreign diplomacy.
When the 99th Congress convenes, I intend to reintroduce this bill. As congressional debate progresses, I expect to hear a good deal about what the Soviets have done in the scholarship field. That is certainly a consideration, but the overriding objective remains one of building lasting links and mutual understanding between the United States and other countries. In the words of Sen. William Fulbright: ''Far from being a means of gaining national advantage in the traditional game of power politics, international education should try to change the nature of the game, to civilize and humanize it in this nuclear age.''