U.S. officials are urging foreign students to apply for visas to attend American colleges and universities.  The number of student visa applications declined following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and now officials are trying to reverse that trend by streamlining the approval process and assuring foreign students they are welcome to study here. 

The number of foreign students applying for visas to study in the United States has fallen sharply since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

About 560,000 applications were filed in 2004. That is down by about 100,000 from a few years ago.

The Assistant Secretary for Education and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. State Department, Patricia Harrison, fears that news stories about difficulties some foreign students have encountered applying for visas may discourage scholars from studying in the United States.

"The perception is, or had been, right after September 2001 that there were extreme difficulties, but beyond the difficulties, that we did not want foreign students coming to this country.  Nothing could be further from the truth," she said.

U.S. policies regarding student visas were revised following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Hani Hanjour, the hijacker that slammed a passenger plane into the Pentagon, was in the United States on a student visa, even though he never attended school.

The new policies require student visa applicants overseas to agree to multiple interviews and submit to fingerprinting.

These procedures initially slowed the application process, but U.S. officials say steps have been taken to streamline the system.

More than 350 new consular officers have been hired since 2002, and U.S. embassies and consulates have been ordered to expedite student visa applications.

The State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs, Janice Jacobs, says these improvements led to a small increase in the number of student visa requests last year.

"I think all of this shows that we are finally turning the corner after 9-11 and starting to see again an increase in numbers.  Again, the numbers are much smaller than they were before 9-11, there is no question about that, but they are for the first time starting to go up again, which I think is very good news," said Ms. Jacobs. 

The Department of Homeland Security requires foreign students attending school in the United States to register information such as their address and academic status with the government.  Colleges and universities are also required to submit such information.

Michael Garcia, Homeland Security's Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says hundreds of thousands of foreign students will arrive in the United States in the next few weeks to begin a new semester of study.

Mr. Garcia recommends that both students and schools update their information in a timely manner.  

"We urge you, encourage you, to take the time to do this now and avoid unnecessary delays for legitimate students and help us focus on those real violators, violators who may in fact pose a risk to our national security or public safety," he said.

Foreign students add to the diversity and vitality of U.S. campuses, gain a better understanding of American life and society and contribute about $13 billion a year to the U.S. economy. Officials hope efforts to improve the visa application system will result in an increase in the number of scholars from overseas.