After Donald Trump became president, employers and universities feared that international students would no longer be allowed to take optional practical training (OPT). Many students would not come to America in the first place without the OPT and the opportunity to gain practical experience and potentially later a work visa. Despite placing restrictions on OPT on the regulatory agenda and enacting inhospitable policies toward students and employers more broadly, the Trump administration has not eliminated optional hands-on training. After Joe Biden became president, businesses and universities found a new reality: the U.S. government is expanding the number of students eligible for OPT in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. (STEM).
What is Policy Change? In a Federal Register notice to be published on January 21, 2022 (but available as a preview here), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced, “The Secretary of Homeland Security Amends List of Degree Programs designated DHS STEM. [for OPT] by adding 22 eligible fields of study.
Why is the policy change important? “The government uses the list of STEM-designated degree programs to determine the eligibility of F-1 students for a 24-month extension of their optional practical training (OPT) after completion, based on their science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degree,” Berry Appleman and Leiden noted in a notice. “Additions to the roster make more students eligible for the STEM OPT extension.”
What are the new fields? The 22 new fields added to the list for STEM OPT are Bioenergy, Forestry, General, Forest Resource Production and Management, Human-Centered Technology Design, Cloud Computing, Anthropozoology, Science Earth Systems Science, Economics and Computing, Environmental Geosciences, Geobiology, Geography and Environmental Studies, Mathematical Economics, Mathematics and Atmospheric/Oceanic Science, Data Science, General, Data Analytics, General, business analysis, data visualization, financial analysis, data analysis, other, industrial and organizational psychology and social sciences, research Methodology and quantitative methods. (More details are available in the Federal Register notice.)
Why do employers view this action favourably? “I think the additions of STEM fields are positive and show that DHS is paying attention to changing fields of study,” Kevin Miner, a partner at the law firm Fragomen, said in an interview. “The addition of various areas of data analysis and business analysis is of particular importance to many employers. Many students have focused their training on data or business analytics, which is an important need for employers looking for new hires. Although this curriculum was highly quantitative and math-focused, these students were often not eligible for STEM extension simply because STEM fields had not followed this educational trend. Adding these degree programs to fields eligible for STEM extension should help retain these talented students in the U.S. workforce.
Dan Berger of Curran, Berger & Kludt agrees with Miner. “It’s positive and represents a serious effort by the Biden administration over the past few months to see what can be done to support international STEM students and professionals,” he said in an interview. .
What other fields could be added? “A missed opportunity here was for DHS to recognize that nursing should be eligible for STEM extension,” Miner said. “Given the huge shortage of nurses in the United States and the growing need resulting from both Covid-19 and the aging American population, it would be of great benefit to the country to recognize nursing degrees as eligible for STEM. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing is a highly science-based field and should not be excluded from STEM eligibility.
Dan Berger also hopes DHS will add more healthcare-related areas in the future.
Research shows that STEM OPT is good for the US economy: Some stick to a zero-sum perspective and argue that any new entry into the labor market must hurt American workers. Economists know that is not the case. Business Roundtable partnered in a study with the University of Maryland Inter-Industry Forecasting Project and analyzed the effects of restricting OPT. “Contrary to claims that immigrants displace American workers, reducing the OPT would cause the unemployment rate to rise 0.15 percentage points by 2028, another illustration that immigration increases employment opportunities for native-born workers in general,” the study found. (Emphasis added.) “A total of 443,000 jobs would be lost in the economy by 2028, resulting in 255,000 fewer positions for native-born workers,” with significant OPT restrictions, the report concluded. ‘study.
Madeline Zavodny, a professor of economics at the University of North Florida, reviewed nearly a decade of data on elective practical training and concluded, “Findings indicate that the OPT program does not reduce job opportunities for American workers in STEM fields”.
The National Foundation for American Policy study found that “a greater number of foreign students approved for OPT, relative to the number of American workers, is associated with a lower unemployment rate among these American workers. “. Furthermore, “data analysis shows that unemployment rates are lower in areas with more international students doing OPT as a share of workers in STEM occupations.”
Two years ago, employers and universities did not anticipate that more international students would become eligible for STEM OPT. As part of a move to attract global talent and better compete with China, the Biden administration sees attracting more international students in science and technology fields as good for America and the U.S. economy. .