In May the Obama administration decided to increase the parameters for Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, significantly increasing the number of fields involved. This is a somewhat significant development, potentially impacting thousands of students across the country.
For those unfamiliar with OPT, it is a temporary employment program connected with Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics (STEM) students in the United States on F-1 visas. OPT allows F-1 visa students to remain in the country and work for an additional 29 months before or after completion of their education.
In 2008 President George W. Bush added a 17-month extension to the program, increasing the maximum length of the visa from 12 months to its current parameters. To be eligible for the extension, the applicant must have received his or her STEM degree and have an employer enrolled in E-Verify.
The big change unveiled last month is that the administration is adding approximately 90 eligible fields to the total pool of OPT, with raises the number to 400. There will be no change to the 29-month limit.
New fields added to the program include Neuroscience, Pharmaceuticals and Aeronautics. Many of the new fields are additional disciplines under the umbrella of traditional STEM majors related to Mathematics, Engineering and Physics.
Studies have shown the vast majority of approved extension requests are for F-1 students studying math, engineering or some science-related discipline.
The U.S. has issued approximately 35,000 OPT extensions since the beginning of the program. Less than 700 extension applications have been denied. A Freedom of Information Act request by Computerworld revealed that there are 5,000 or so extension applications currently working through the system.
In some circles the Bush extension is still viewed as a controversial move. Critics thought it was a way to circumvent the H-1B cap limitation.
This expansion of the number of fields will no doubt add to that debate. On the heels of the Obama's administration's OPT expansion Charles Grassley, a senator from Iowa, requested a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation. Grassley cited concerns related to oversight, national security and potential impact on the economy and American workforce.
For us, this is a step in the right direction. It is an opportunity for graduates to gain some much-needed experience. And it is, in fact, a back-door to extending the H-1B program, but that is something we welcome.
This move puts pressure on graduating U.S. workers in some fields, but we don't expect they will have issues finding work. Graduated with these kinds of degrees continue to be scarce.
And for the most part the expansion is minimal. It is a cosmetic move, with the administration wanting to put on the icing while taking credit for the entire cake. Obama is trying to show himself as a pro-business President, when he has not been as strong in that area as his predecessor.