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Progress reported over visa delays

Filing process said to be moving faster

The State and Homeland Security departments have reduced from months to weeks the time it takes foreign students and scholars trying to travel to the United States to clear a key visa review, according to a new government report.

The findings are welcome news for education leaders, though they have cautioned that streamlining the visa process will not, on its own, reverse the trend of declining interest among foreigners in attending American colleges and universities.

Amid complaints from higher education groups and major business leaders, including Bill Gates, that visa hassles were discouraging foreign students from attending American schools, a General Accounting Office investigation last year found average delays of 67 days for applicants to clear a security check for scientists known as Visa Mantis. Some delays were considerably longer, and some applicants waited as long as 12 weeks just to get an interview to start the process.

In a follow-up report to be released today, the GAO finds the average wait following the interview has now fallen to 15 days, according to a source who has been briefed on the findings and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The report credits the overall improvement to better technology, coordination among agencies, and policy changes -- such as priority interviews for student applicants, though it cautions that problems remain and some scholars still face considerable delays.

The report comes a week after the government announced that it would allow international students to keep their Visa Mantis clearance for the duration of their studies, up to four years -- a change that will probably further reduce delays. Reapplications from those who had been previously cleared were a major bottleneck, and a source of anxiety for applicants, who worried they might be unable to get back to school if forced to return home in an emergency.

Peggy Blumenthal, vice president for educational services at the Institute of International Education, praised US embassies for making an improved visa process a top priority. Still, public relations challenges remain, she said.

About 600,000 foreigners study in the United States, but international graduate student applications fell 32 percent last year, according to an Institute of International Education survey. Another survey released in November indicated the number of first-time foreign enrollees in American graduate schools was down 6 percent -- the third straight decline after a decade of growth.

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