As Deadline Nears for New Foreign-Student Monitoring System, Colleges Remain Uneasy

By MICHAEL ARNONE

   Three days before a federal deadline that requires colleges to start using a database that monitors and tracks foreign students, many colleges are still telling the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that the system is difficult to use and understand.

    January 30 marks a deadline for colleges to sign up for the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS. Those that don't will lose their ability to enroll foreign students until they do. The INS and the American Council on Education are sponsoring sessions around the country this week to answer officials' questions and get last-minute feedback. The forums represent the first time the INS has held public meetings about the system since the agency halted training sessions for it last summer.

    More than 450 college officials attended a regional forum here on Monday. Attendees coming out of the session, which packed a ballroom at the Hilton Boston Logan Airport, were ambivalent. Many said they had received clarification on various technical issues about Sevis, but some said they came out with little extra proof that the system -- notoriously buggy in its first iterations released last summer -- will be ready for the tidal wave of data colleges will soon be sending its way. "We can only take their assurances for now," said Ann Kuhlman, director of the international students and scholars office at Yale University.

    SEVIS can handle the traffic of thousands of institutions, said Jamie M. Hogg, a SEVIS-implementation coordinator at EDS, the INS's main contractor for the system. He said the system had been slow last week because of worm viruses that attacked the Internet and impeded Internet access around the world.      One source of worry to many attendees is that the INS hasn't approved most colleges to use software that would allow them to send student information in bulk, a system called batch processing. Many smaller institutions are using the current system, entering information by hand, but institutions with large numbers of foreign students say they need the batch-processing system to comply with Sevis.

    The INS requires colleges to send test data before approving them to use the batch system. As of last week, only one -- Purdue University -- had successfully transmitted student information to Sevis through the batch system. And with three days to go, barely more than half of institutions that enroll foreign students have been approved for Sevis. So far, roughly 2,700 institutions have the go-ahead, out of a projected total of 4,300, said Paul E. Ladd, counselor to the commissioner for finance and management at the INS. That total is much lower than the 7,500 institutions the INS estimated earlier, he said.

 The INS has promised to approve by January 30 every  institution that signed up for Sevis by November 15. Mr. Ladd said he didn't know how many of the 1,600-odd institutions that have yet to be approved signed up before November 15. By Thursday, the INS will try to approve all institutions, regardless of when they signed up, he said.