One after another, the testimonials of desperate international MBAs pour in.
“It has been a very stressful path post-MBA with respect to recruiting and securing work authorization.”
“With six-figure loans and an uncertain professional future, most of us may have to leave the U.S. to face extreme financial hardship.”
“The COVID crisis has led to unbelievable uncertainty in our lives.”
Facing the loss of six-figure salaries at jobs they love, foreign MBAs who graduated from U.S. business schools last year are running out of time. Most were granted one year to work in the U.S. post-graduation, but that year runs out this summer — when, with massive debt loads, and as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, they will be forced to leave the country.
By and large, alumni from schools with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics MBA degrees do not have this problem. Per federal rules, a STEM designation gives degree holders an extra two years of Optional Practical Training, or OPT, without needing to secure a hard-to-come-by H-1B visa. But in a few cases — 24 major programs added some form of STEM pathway in the last year — schools’ recent designations missed the previous year’s graduating class, leaving those MBAs in limbo.
This is the predicament that dozens of MBAs from the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management Class of 2019 find themselves in. Several contacted Poets&Quants independently to tell their stories. Being MBAs, they are also proactive, having found what they hope is a solution: for Kellogg, which added a STEM major to its MBA in November, to make the designation retroactive to include graduates from the previous spring who had met the coursework requirements. That would give them 24 more months to live and work in the U.S.
Otherwise, more than 50 Kellogg Class of 2019 alumni — and their families — may be dislocated.
KELLOGG SAYS ‘NO’: RETROACTIVE STEM WOULD MEAN SCHOOL IS ‘OUT OF COMPLIANCE’
“Unfortunately, no,” says Mike Mazzeo, Northwestern Kellogg’s senior associate dean of curriculum and teaching, when asked whether the school could do what the alumni asked.
“We care deeply about all of the members of our community, and our alums are really important to us,” Mazzeo tells P&Q. “This is why we have given so much attention to this issue and responded to multiple inquiries of this group of alumni. Last fall, when we launched our new major that has the STEM designation, we explored the possibility of retroactively applying that major to recent graduates who had qualified by taking the appropriate coursework. And we brought together a group of experts — and when I say a group of experts, that’s kind of what’s necessary. It’s not like I, as the senior associate dean for curriculum and teaching, can just press a button and have that apply. The university is subject to regulations from the Department of Homeland Security, from the Department of Education.
“And so we had our registrar’s office and our international office work together to try to determine if we could do that, because certainly if we were in compliance with the federal regulations, that would be something that we would want to do. But unfortunately, moving forward with a retroactive STEM designation puts Northwestern out of compliance with these federal regulations, from these local agencies, and going forward with something that was outside of the compliance with the regulations wouldn’t be helpful for anyone — for our alums, for our current students, for our future students. And so there’s no win for anyone if Northwestern is out of compliance and if Kellogg is out of compliance.”
WHERE IT’S BEEN DONE, AND HOW THEY DID IT
However, many schools have made their STEM designations retroactive — including Kellogg peers like Columbia Business School and UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business. What does it take? P&Q asked Andrew Ainslie, dean of the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester, whose MBA program was the first to be designated STEM in its entirety, back in 2018. Ainslie notes that DHS requirements for STEM designation stipulate that programs must dedicate a high percentage of their credit hours to courses in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics; he says the Simon School was guided by a mandate that as long as past students took enough courses to pass the threshold, they could include the STEM MBA on their résumés. In 2018, when Simon made its STEM splash, Ainslie estimated that 70% of past graduates would qualify for the amendment.
“What we did is, for every one of our students from the prior year, we went through their transcripts,” Ainslie tells P&Q. “So the thing that makes this difficult is, what electives did they do and are the electives STEM eligible or not? In other words, did they do enough electives that were STEM? If they did a whole bunch of soft OB classes, they were out of luck. If they did some tough finance and operations classes, or programming classes, then actually we could STEM designate them.
“Now our core is unusually STEM-y, so that really helped us a lot. But please understand this is a lot of work and we did it immediately and immediately let people know.
“And another complication that a lot of students don’t realize is that the company has to also be willing to STEM designate the employee’s position. Usually it’s important that the job description be written property as well. So there’s a double requirement. So if Kellogg is willing to backtrack and look through what classes each student did — did you do more than enough classes that are more than sufficiently STEM? — then they could conceivably get them there.”
But what was true for Simon and the University of Rochester might not be true for Northwestern Kellogg or any other institution seeking a STEM designation. For one, states may have different requirements, and institutions different thresholds. Rebekah Lewin, Simon’s assistant dean of admissions and financial aid, says her school was able to offer STEM retroactively because of the groundwork done well before the designation was made. “Since our STEM designation occurred within a few months of graduation for the Class of 2018, we were able to secure permission for those students to benefit from the designation if they fulfilled all curricular requirements,” Lewin says. “The majority of Simon MBA students in the Class of 2018 qualified due to the quantitative nature of our curriculum.”
Peter Johnson, assistant dean for the UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business full-time MBA program & admissions, asked whether there were extra hurdles to Haas’ retroactive STEM designation, says: “Not really — it was just the university selecting a point in time and confirming that any changes in the curriculum that supported the new designation were already in place.”
Jonah Rockoff, senior vice dean for curriculum and programs at Columbia, echoes Simon’s Dean Ainslie: “Judging from our experience and that of other schools we consulted, retroactivity depends on whether the change in program designation is based on the curriculum taken by past graduates or current students. Our MBA curriculum underwent a gradual but fundamental shift towards the scientific study of management and widespread use of quantitative methods, and this was reflected in data we analyzed from recent graduating cohorts. So it was natural to update the designation of our most recent alumni in addition to those who are graduating this year and in the future.”