Ashcroft said the Internet-based system will provide rapid access to information about a student.
"We do not currently have a system that efficiently verifies if a student is in fact studying at an institution," Ashcroft said.
Schools will be required to notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service within 24 hours if a student drops out or doesn't show up and to report the student's status after each term. A student will have 30 days rather than six months to show up on campus after entering the country.
Three of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 terror attacks were in the United States on student visas. One entered on a student visa but failed to show up at the campus where he was supposed to study.
The system will link every U.S. consulate with every INS port of entry and all 74,000 educational institutions eligible to host foreign students, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, who participated in discussions on the plan. The institutions include colleges, universities, technical schools and high schools.
INS officials say a version of the system will be available July 1 and all schools should be participating by Jan. 30.
"What INS is trying to do on a very compressed timetable is orders of magnitude harder than any federal agency has attempted to do before with colleges and universities and other schools," said Hartle, whose organization represents 1,800 private and public colleges and universities.
The INS has acknowledged major gaps in tracking foreign students. Last month it imposed new restrictions on student visas, requiring any foreigner wishing to study in the United States to have an approved student visa before taking courses. Students previously could begin classes while waiting for visa applications to be approved.
The INS for three decades has required colleges and universities to compile information on international students. But because of the volume of paper it received, INS told schools in 1988 to keep the files on campus.
The INS has been under pressure from Congress since the Sept. 11 attacks to get the computerized system running.
Hartle said that when the new system is operational, foreign students accepted by a U.S. school will be sent an INS form I-20. The school will enter the student's information into the INS tracking system. The student then will have to pay a $95 registration fee and will be given a paper receipt.
The student must show that receipt and a completed I-20 form to apply for a visa at a consulate. If the visa is granted, the consulate will note it in the INS tracking system. When the student arrives in America, INS will note that in the database, which will notify the school to expect the student on campus within 30 days. If the student doesn't show, the campus must contact INS within 24 hours.