USA looks to renew STEM post-study extension

15 October, 2015

The USA's Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has submitted proposals for new rules on the 17-month post study extension period for international students graduating from STEM subjects, in response to a court ruling that will rescind the current regulations in February.


DHS has submitted the as yet unknown proposals for Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approval, after which they can be published in the Federal Register for a period of public comment.

In a Columbia District Court ruling in August, the 17-month extension to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) post-study work period was annulled due to “a serious procedural deficiency” when the measure was first introduced in 2008, where DHS failed to provide notice and invite public comment. The rescindment of the ruling was stayed until February 12, 2016.

Under current OPT rules, international students are permitted to work for a 12-month period in a position related to their field of study, while international STEM subject graduates students can work for 29 months.

The Columbia court ruling followed a challenge to the legality of OPT filed by the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), which claimed damage to its members from the programme.

The ruling withdrew the STEM extension on procedural grounds, but stated that applying an extension is within the scope of DHS’s regulatory authority, and also ruled that the original OPT is beyond the six-year statute of limitations. WashTech has issued a notice of appeal against these decisions.

The OPT system has been a source of political debate in recent years. President Obama issued an executive action initiative in November 2014, following which DHS Secretary, Jeh Johnson, said, “The OPT programme should be evaluated, strengthened and improved to further enhance American innovation and competiveness,” and stated plans to extend the programme.

However, in a letter to DHS Secretary Johnson, Senator Charles Grassley expressed concerns about plans to expand the programme, citing a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report of March 2014, which he said showed that OPT contained inefficiencies, was susceptible to fraud and was not adequately overseen.

In an analysis on STEM OPT, Nafsa: the Association of International Educators commented that a future rule may include measures such as: seeking to distinguish STEM practical training from other work; establishing a continuing academic nexus; enhancing reporting requirements; and adding provisions to protect US workers.

If new reporting requirements are proposed to address concerns of abuse, Nafsa said it “would argue that the burden of compliance should be distributed equitably among employers, students, schools and the government, recognising that overly burdensome reporting obligations will discourage use of the benefit”.

The STEM OPT has been been a factor in the consistent growth in international students in the USA over recent years; the most recent Open Doors data from the Institute of International Education (IIE) reported an all-time high of 886,052 overseas students at universities and colleges in 2013/14.

In a special StudyTravel Magazine feature on post-study work rights last year, a survey of agents found that 86 per cent believed such rights were an important consideration for students in their market.

Following the Columbia district ruling, Steve Tobocman, Director of Global Detroit, a regional economic development group that promotes the recruitment of international graduates, said he expected a broader STEM extension policy to be in place before February and that there would be no disruption for current participants.

Matthew Knott
News Editor


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