AT LAST, a piece of good news for foreign students studying in the United States: The State Department has announced that lengthy procedures to obtain security clearances for science and engineering students will become shorter, and the clearances will last longer. According to foreign student organizations, troubles with these clearance procedures were the main cause of unpredictable delays -- sometimes lasting months -- that foreign students encountered while trying to return to this country following trips abroad. In some cases, the requirements forced students to leave in the middle of their courses or prevented professors from returning in the middle of the year.
Perhaps this change can be attributed to the fact that a former Stanford University provost, Condoleezza Rice, is now the secretary. It also represents the culmination of a laudable effort begun in the past year by her predecessor, Colin L. Powell. Thanks in part to post-Sept. 11 changes in visa procedures and the dreadful anecdotes they produced, the number of foreigners applying to study at American universities each year since 2001 dropped dramatically, from about 660,000 to about 560,000, in a brief three years. The number of foreigners applying to U.S. graduate schools declined even more dramatically. Because a disproportionate number of those students pursued engineering and science degrees, graduate programs in those areas have been weakened. The pace of intellectual "outsourcing" of scientific research has increased, and some universities have suffered financially as well. More important, the sharp drop in the numbers of students -- following years of increasing growth -- promised to damage American cultural and scientific influence overseas.
To reverse that decline, Mr. Powell asked U.S. consulates in August to expedite the processing of student visas. According to the State Department, the average wait time for a student visa is now only a few days, and the average wait time for a security clearance is about 14 days, down from a high of about 75 days. But more effort will be needed to build up the numbers again. Britain, Australia, Germany and other countries seek to attract the best foreign students, in an attempt to pick up where America left off. The United States also has to think along these more active lines and to eliminate remaining bugs in the system, including the onerous visa fees that some foreigners have to pay. Foreign students are critical to the U.S. economy and foreign policy. They should be welcomed.