Colleges Begin Tracking Foreign Students' Status ; It's Tedious to Put Data Online and Register Dorm Rooms as Street Addresses, but Administrators Have Two More Weeks to Comply

Article excerpt

For years, nobody really cared much if a student from abroad dropped a class or moved out of his apartment. Now, any change of status is potentially worthy of scrutiny.

Last Thursday was the original deadline for colleges and universities to begin using the Immigration and Naturalization Service's new computerized student-tracking system. Those that do not can no longer admit foreign students.

At the very least, the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS (pronounced sea-viss), is supposed to ensure that foreigners granted student visas actually show up for classes.

After Sept. 11, outraged members of Congress clamored for a way to ensure that would-be terrorists would not be admitted to the United States under the guise of studying. Concerns intensified when, six months after the attacks, a flight school received notification from the INS that student visas had been extended for two of the hijackers who died in the attacks. A third hijacker had a visa to attend school in California, but eluded attention when he didn't show up for classes.

On Thursday, the INS unexpectedly granted a 15-day grace period because many university officials complained that the system is not working properly.

"After about 10 a.m., it takes an unbelievably long time - about three to five minutes per page - to input [student information]," says Kimberly Gillette, the international student adviser at Minnesota State University's Moorhead campus.

Fortunately for Ms. Gillette, only about 170 of the 7,500 students on campus are from overseas, so she can do most work in the morning before the system bogs down badly. But at larger schools such as Rutgers's main campus in New Brunswick, N.J., with nearly 2,500 international students, the system's slowness is a problem.

"If you call me a year from today I might say it's a good system," says Marcy Cohen, director of the campus's Center for International Faculty and Student Services. "But right now there are so many glitches and variations to deal with it's mind-boggling."

One recent example: SEVIS requires a street address for each student, but at Rutgers (as on many campuses) there are no street addresses for the hundreds of dormitory rooms. Students get their mail through a post office box that is assigned to them throughout their stay. So the information systems experts at the school have had to jury-rig an addressing system.

"I think SEVIS must have been designed by someone from a small liberal-arts college, because it doesn't seem geared to large universities," Cohen says ruefully.

Even so, the INS was reporting Friday that about 3,000 colleges and universities have signed up to use the system. …