Our growing distress at the plight of America's image has a common refrain: "If only they knew the real America." If only they could experience the generosity of the American spirit, see our commitment to tolerance and free speech and witness the workings of our democracy. Ironically, over the past two years we have been sabotaging one of the best tools for dispelling misperceptions about this country and making friends: educational exchanges.

This state of affairs cannot continue. Leaders at the highest levels of our government recognize that the problems in our visa processing system -- which have contributed to declines in applications by international students to top university programs, and in delays for foreign scholars and scientists seeking to enter the United States -- can and must be fixed. The secretaries of state and of homeland security, as well as their senior staffs, have articulated what is at stake for the United States: Failing to attract the world's best and brightest to our academic institutions is not only bad for our universities and our economy but has long-term national security implications. We simply cannot afford to be complacent about our role in educating the world's future leaders.

We are now entering the crucial summer application period for student visas, and this is not just a year like any other. If we don't turn the trend around this year and regain our footing as the premier academic destination for the world, we risk entering a period of decline in international student and scholar numbers that will not be reversible in the short term.

To turn the State Department's "Secure Borders-Open Doors" slogan into reality, the secretaries of state and homeland security must articulate an operational, balanced visa policy. A speech is not a policy. A policy must guide the behavior of those who manage the visa process. Under current practice, nearly all visa applicants, no matter how low-risk, must submit to personal interviews. Nearly all applications of scientists at the graduate level and above, no matter how routine, are sent to Washington for interagency review, as are those of most Arab and Muslim men, no matter how low-risk. Most repeat visitors and those who leave the country temporarily are put through the same reviews all over again.

This overkill does not help our security. It clogs the process with routine reviews, preventing more intensive focus on problem cases and needlessly impeding those legitimate visitors whose access to our country is important to us. The State Department has taken important steps to improve the situation, but much more needs to be done. Controls on advanced science and technology need to be refined; consular discretion in waiving the requirement for a personal appearance should be restored, under careful State Department guidelines; and repetitious processing should be eliminated as much as possible.

A policy must also create a system for finding applications that have disappeared into the pipeline of interagency review, so that people will not have to wait indefinitely, with no information, to learn whether they'll be granted visas. The State Department has taken steps to make the screening process more efficient by improving interagency data sharing, extending the clearances granted to certain scientists and scholars, and chipping away at the number of clearance cases that take more than a few weeks. Guidelines must be added to improve the transparency and predictability of the interagency review process, with time limits for agencies and a means by which people can inquire about the status of their applications.

Finally, Congress must act to provide the resources for a balanced, effective visa-processing system. Resources for our consulates abroad must be brought in line with the increased scrutiny of visa applicants that Congress has demanded, and funds must be provided to pay for the sophisticated data systems necessary for the interagency review process.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge have said that they believe the nation's approach to visa processing must strike the proper balance between control and openness. They must now ask their agencies for a plan to fully address the problems and implement the solutions that will help the United States regain its position as the world's premier academic destination. They will find willing partners in America's colleges and universities.

The writer is executive director and chief executive of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a professional association dedicated to international education.