Foreign Students, All Clear

Protecting the United States from another Sept. 11-type attack shouldn't mean reducing one of the nation's best exports: foreign aid and PR programs - sources of new ideas and scholars.

That's why it's critical that the federal government meet its own Jan. 30 deadline to set up a usable and fair screening system to track foreign students at US campuses.

The deadline was set by Congress in last fall's Patriot Act, after it was learned that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers attended US flight schools, and one of them entered on a student visa but never showed up for class.

The need for better scrutiny of student visas was made even clearer last spring, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) notified one flight school that visas for two of the dead hijackers had been extended.

All of the 7,400 schools that accept foreign students need to start using the government's Student Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, by Jan. 30. But the INS has been slow to make sure this computer system - which will link the remotest US embassy visa office to the most rural US school - is up and running without hitches. For now, the INS is focusing its attention on flight schools and English-language schools, which are more likely to lose track of students who entered the US under false pretenses.

The project has been compared to sending a man to the moon, and many foul-ups have universities worried that foreign students won't be able to study in the US.

For a country that's the mecca of higher education, that would be a huge loss. The US draws 28 percent of all students studying abroad (Britain is second at 14 percent). Last academic year, it accepted 582,996 students, and despite visa delays and other concerns after Sept. 11, that number is expected to be stable or increase this year. Foreign students account for 3.5 percent of students at US colleges.

A boom of foreign students in the US continues, with students from India taking the lead over those from China for the first time last year. Those who stay in the US after graduation often make valuable contributions, while those who return home uplift their country and, hopefully, take back good impressions of the US.

Balancing national security with the nation's enviable draw as a center of academic excellence needs to be carefully done. Making foreign students wait long for a long time to hear if their visa has been denied or approved reduces their enthusiasm to study in the US.

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