HOW IT WORKS — AND WHAT MIGHT THREATEN THE STEM WAVE
The STEM Optional Practical Training program is available to eligible F-1 visa students with STEM degrees from accredited U.S. colleges or universities. The OPT program itself was launched in 1992; in 2008, Michael Chertoff, then secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, controversially extended the program by 17 months for graduates of STEM-certified programs. The extension was expanded to 24 months in 2016. Eligible business school graduates may apply for the additional two years of work on top of the initial one-year, post-completion OPT granted to all non-STEM-degree F-1 visa students; to be eligible, they must have a STEM degree from an accredited U.S. school and must secure employment with an employer that includes a minimum of 20 hours of work per week and formal training within the STEM field.
The OPT program is seen as a way for B-school grads to acquire an H-1B visa, which are limited by law. In 2017, 180,440 new H-1B visas were issued. But according to just-released data by the Institute of International Education, the policy changes allowing STEM students to remain in the U.S. on OPT opportunities for three years after the completion of their studies is the likely biggest factor driving a massive increase in students on OPT programs, which increased by 9.6% to 223,085 between 2016-2017 and 2018-2019.
In 2014, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers sued Homeland Security, saying it exceeded its authority in both the establishment of the STEM OPT program and later extensions. WashTech’s lawsuit challenging the legality of OPT — filed because the union, which represents computer programmers, says the program hurts American tech workers — was allowed to proceed in July 2019 by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The court set a deadline of October 25 for accepting amicus curiae briefs, which are arguments written by outside parties seeking to influence the court’s decision. A decision on the case is expected in May.
Big Tech, including Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, have been granted the right to participate in the case; they argue that the OPT is a vital pathway for highly skilled international workers to put their talents to work helping the U.S. economy. But Ron Hira, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Howard University, says the program is ripe for exploitation by schools and employers looking to get around visa restrictions.
“There are some questions about whether the OPT really should exist at all, because it was supposed to be a pilot project back in the early 90s,” Hira, who studies the program, tells Poets&Quants. “From my point of view, aside from the legal stuff, I think you can justify — from an educational standpoint — 12 months, that there’s some training and all that makes some sense. I think it’s really a huge stretch to argue that someone needs 36 months for training internships.”
STEM DEBATE: EXPLOITING A LOOPHOLE OR BRINGING IN VITAL TALENT?
Some P&Q readers agree that STEM is being abused by B-schools. A repeat commenter on our STEM coverage, “CitizenOfACorruptNation,” writes that “OPT amounts to the government offering a $10,000 per year incentive to employers for hiring a foreign student instead of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. This bonus takes the form of the employer being exempt from paying payroll tax for their foreign student workers (due to their student status, which they technically still have under OPT in spite of having graduated). Why hire Americans, eh?
“Since this tax exemption from payroll tax was pointed out in the lawsuit against the Dept. of Homeland Security,” the reader continues, “and has been one of the major points raised by critics, DHS is well aware of it. Yet they refuse to address it or even acknowledge it.”
Andrew Raupp, executive director of STEM.org Educational Research, a nonprofit based in Detroit, Michigan, tells P&Q that yes, STEM is “a flashy marketing tactic” for B-schools. But he adds that overall, it’s still a good thing — for the schools, for students, and for the U.S.
“Is it helping students? Yes,” says Raupp, who has worked on STEM issues for more than a decade. “Is it a flashy marketing tactic to get more people in because they have to draw from kids abroad because domestic numbers are down in their business programs? Absolutely. These are all interesting things that are happening, and we’re paying very close attention to it.
“We need students from abroad to come here and to participate not only in STEM but in colleges and universities. Many of them start small businesses and are very entrepreneurial. So when you’re looking at this global geopolitical shift where we talk about the ‘Eurasian century’ and that sort of thing, we’re sort of seeing power heading eastward — so we need to absolutely make sure that we’re making our colleges and universities attractive when providing these types of programs.”
DON’T MISS STEM MBA PROGRAMS AT U.S. B-SCHOOLS
AND SEE P&Q’s COVERAGE OF TOP B-SCHOOLS’ EMBRACE OF STEM: