Will New STEM OPT Extension Rule Create a Win-Win Solution?

(Excerpt of the Forbes article co-authored by Rahul Choudaha and Di Hu)

International students who graduate with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees may now participate in Optional Practical Training (OPT) for a longer duration, according to the recent rule from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The rule is expected to make American higher education attractive to international students.

What is OPT and who are STEM international students?

OPT is temporary experiential learning and temporary work opportunity that must be directly related to an international student’s major area of study. According to the “SEVIS by the Numbers” report released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, nearly 1.2 million active students enrolled in a full course of study on F-1 or M-1 nonimmigrant visa status. Here are the highlights from the report specific to the STEM data:

  • Nearly 40% of all international students are in STEM programs
  • One out of three STEM students in the US is in California, New York or Texas
  • 87% of all STEM Students are from Asia
  • 81% of Indian students and 40% of Chinese students are in STEM programs

What is the new OPT rule and what will be its impact?

The recent rule provides expanded opportunities for international students and employers to engage in productive workplace learning opportunities. At the same time, it significantly increases the compliance work for international offices of university campuses.  

Two specific changes stand out in making U.S. colleges and universities more appealing in the race for global talent. First, the extension of 17 months for STEM degree is now further extended to 24 months. So, students can gain practical training for up to 36 months. Second, it will enable students to apply for an extension at two different points of their academic career as compared to only once.  

“Many prospective international students consider OPT as a means to earn money and defray the costs of their education, or to gain valuable work experience that can lay a firm foundation to a successful career”, says Eddie West, Director of International Initiatives at National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

We (the authors) believe that the new rules are likely to have two unintended consequences:

  • With the opportunity of gaining three years of practical experience after bachelor’s degree, a new wave of growth is likely in STEM programs at the bachelor’s degree level.
  • Non-STEM programs like business and social sciences do not benefit from the extension. This may widen the gulf between STEM and non-STEM programs in terms of international enrollment.

In sum, the new rule will create a win-win situation, where international students will be able to gain more experience and recover part of their investment before returning to home country or planning to stay and employers will benefit in terms of finding technical skills and adding diversity on their teams without worrying about visa sponsorship. In addition, several higher education institutions with STEM programs may see increase in enrollment in times of stagnancy. And, finally the U.S. economy would benefit from more research, innovation and technological excellence.

Do you agree? How do you think the new OPT Extension rule would affect international student career success?


Related links:

STEM OPT Hub, Study in the US, Department of Homeland Security

Optional Practical Training Extension for STEM Students (STEM OPT), USCIS

STEM OPT Rulemaking, NAFSA: Association of International Educators

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