Cornell Won’t Make STEM Retroactive For Its 2020 MBAs, Leaving Many In The Lurch

Getting STEM designation for its one-year, two-year, and Tech MBA programs should have been an unalloyed positive for the Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management. And for the MBA classes of 2021, 2022, and beyond, it undoubtedly will be. Certification as a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics degree conveys to employers that holders of the degree have certain highly desirable skill sets — and gives graduates a longer work stay in the U.S. and a better chance of securing a coveted H-1B visa.

But while Cornell Johnson’s future graduates will benefit from the new STEM status of its three main degree programs, last year’s graduating MBAs have been left out, despite earning the same degree, because Cornell has decided against making the designation retroactive. That puts dozens of international MBAs in immigration peril: Without the STEM stamp of approval, they may have to leave the country, and soon.

Between 50 and 60 Cornell MBAs from the Class of 2020 are in this predicament. About a dozen, all from India, contacted Poets&Quants to describe lengthy but fruitless efforts to persuade Cornell Johnson to reverse its decision and make the STEM certification retroactive, citing the fact that many business schools have done so. All of Johnson’s peers in the top 15 of the B-school rankings have made their 2020 graduates STEM degree holders, they point out, by designating, retroactively designating, or otherwise creating a STEM pathway in their MBA programs.


“Johnson has got the STEM MBA for graduates starting from 2021 and beyond, and we were asking them to make it retroactive for us as well,” one 2020 Cornell MBA tells P&Q. “We have had multiple rounds of discussions with them asking to get this done, but they have not been able to do it. And now they actually refuse to talk to us anymore. They simply say blanket statements like, ‘We are worried that there could be federal audits around this.’ Basically because of this they do not want to go ahead with this.”

Another Cornell MBA adds: “We struggled to secure even interview calls as recruiters only preferred international students with a STEM degree. Still, a lot of us were able to find a full-time job even during this difficult time. However, we are still living in uncertainty after all the struggle and hard work, as we don’t have a STEM degree. Hence, we may have to leave the USA within a few months.”

Can Cornell Johnson make its STEM designation retroactive? The Class of 2020 MBAs, who asked for anonymity for this story for employment and other reasons and who include graduates of all three programs, say yes — and they point to plenty of precedent from other B-schools to back up their position.


Graduating with a STEM degree gets non-citizens three years of Optional Practical Training work in the U.S. before they need a visa to stay longer. That means three cracks at securing an H-1B visa, which are granted annually in late March or early April by the U.S. government. MBAs have roughly a 30% chance of getting an H-1B with each attempt. Many B-schools have made their MBA programs — or tracks within their MBA programs — STEM in the recent past, and simultaneously (or soon thereafter) made the move retroactive to include previous classes, to better position their international students in this system (and to shore up flagging international application numbers). Among them:

The Cornell MBAs point out that all Cornell’s peer B-schools in the top 15 have awarded their 2020 students with STEM classification, retroactively or otherwise. NYU Stern School of Business and Columbia Business School are interesting cases because they, like Cornell, are subject to New York State regulations — yet they found a way to do the retroactive STEM designation. “To the point of New York state regulations, some of our colleagues also found out what NYU and Columbia did, just to make sure that we are aligned with the New York state, and still our dean pushed back, saying, ‘No, we are still different,'” one Cornell 2020 MBA tells P&Q.

But perhaps the most compelling example is further down the rankings: the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester, one of the first B-schools to embrace STEM. Rochester Simon, another B-school in New York State, designated its MBA as STEM in 2019 and applied it retroactively to 2018 for all majors, including Strategy, Banking, and Corporate Finance. P&Q caught up with outgoing Simon Dean Andrew Ainslie in 2020 and asked him what it takes to make an MBA program STEM, and make the move retroactive.


Ainslie noted 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?”

Rebekah Lewin, Simon’s assistant dean of admissions and financial aid, told P&Q last year that 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.”


Cornell’s Class of 2020 MBAs have crunched the numbers and say that for many of them, 50% to 80% of the courses they took “easily classify as STEM.”

Jonah Rockoff, senior vice dean for curriculum and programs at Columbia, another New York school, echoed 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.”

And 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, said in 2020: “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.”


Cornell Johnson Dean Mark Nelson

H-1B visa lottery results will be announced at the end of this month or early in April. A hard deadline to leave the country for those who do not secure a visa will be sometime in July.

Reached for comment, Cornell Johnson Dean Mark Nelson replied by email: “Following a lengthy and thorough process, we are pleased to be able to offer our residential MBA programs as STEM programs for the classes of 2021 and thereafter. Unfortunately, after a very careful review, the university concluded that we could not appropriately reclassify the degrees of students who graduated in 2020 or prior and grant STEM designation. We are working with students from the 2020 cohort to help them in what we know is a difficult employment and immigration context.”

But difficult does not adequately describe the predicament these international Cornell MBAs. The stress of not knowing whether they will be able to stay in their new homes or be forced to uproot compounds the anxiety and challenges these MBAs have faced in the last year, a year of pandemic and lockdown. Without STEM, they say, they have struggled to find work when competing against MBAs from peer schools who graduated with STEM degrees. “Firms hiring MBAs are specifically asking for this and asked us to reach out if Cornell awards the STEM OPT option,” one Cornell MBA tells P&Q. “This was not the case in the past where almost no schools had STEM OPT.

“The economic uncertainty because of Covid have made firms very conservative in their approach to recruiting international students. With only one shot at the H-1B lottery, almost all firms don’t want to take a chance with Johnson 2020 students this year.”

For those who did secure a job, meanwhile, “it is a near certainty that we will be fired post-March 2021, if we don’t get selected in the H-1B lottery,” another Cornell graduate says. “Previously, firms relocated such employees internationally. However, this is unlikely to happen in 2021 because visa restrictions and/or closed borders by several countries — for example Singapore severely restricted employment visas because of Covid, and Europe and Canada restrict travel from the U.S. There has been significant reduction in employment opportunities because of Covid in most countries where firms usually relocated such employees. So, the appetite to absorb from U.S. has severely diminished this year.”

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