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Extension to the Optional Practical Training Program

Since the rise of the Asian Tigers, the powerful economic conglomerate that is comprised by the major Asian economies, and now with the skyrocketing BRIC countries that include Brazil, Russia, India and China, the demand for graduates in degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (“stem”) has never been higher. In these countries, where the need to accelerate their growth and development is vital, individuals with these certifications who graduate from U.S. universities are being offered tempting packages meant to lure them into using their expertise there. Yet in spite of the fact that Americans with STEM degrees are in low supply given that not enough American students are interested in these fields, instead of going out of their way to retain foreigners who earn these degrees in U.S. universities to work and contribute their skills and knowledge in the United States, many students have no other choice but to leave because they cannot secure a position that would allow them to retain a legal resident status. But all of this may have changed, at least to a certain extent. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security took a strong step forward by expanding the list of STEM fields for foreign graduates applying to the program called Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows them to apply for practical work experience in the U.S. for up to 12 months. Those students who graduate form certain STEM degrees can even extend it to 17 months. DHS has expanded the list of qualifying degrees to include agriculture, computer science, engineering, biology and physics.

Since the rise of the Asian Tigers, the powerful economic conglomerate that is comprised by the major Asian economies, and now with the skyrocketing BRIC countries that include Brazil, Russia, India and China, the demand for graduates in degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (“stem”) has never been higher. In these countries, where the need to accelerate their growth and development is vital, individuals with these certifications who graduate from U.S. universities are being offered tempting packages meant to lure them into using their expertise there. Yet in spite of the fact that Americans with STEM degrees are in low supply given that not enough American students are interested in these fields, instead of going out of their way to retain foreigners who earn these degrees in U.S. universities to work and contribute their skills and knowledge in the United States, many students have no other choice but to leave because they cannot secure a position that would allow them to retain a legal resident status. But all of this may have changed, at least to a certain extent. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security took a strong step forward by expanding the list of STEM fields for foreign graduates applying to the program called Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows them to apply for practical work experience in the U.S. for up to 12 months. Those students who graduate form certain STEM degrees can even extend it to 17 months. DHS has expanded the list of qualifying degrees to include agriculture, computer science, engineering, biology and physics.

This expansion on behalf of DHS clearly indicates that they are aware of the important role they can play in attracting students to remain in this country and understands the importance of their contribution to the U.S. economy. While their expanding of the list of those with STEM degrees is one great step forward, it should not be an exhaustive list. In Washington Post article titled “Silicon Valley needs humanities students,” an academic and technology entrepreneur argued that disciplines such as history and psychology are instrumental to the development of critical person-focused views of the value of new technology and understanding what motivates people. “We need musicians, artists, and psychologists, as much as we need biomedical engineers and computer programmers.” Thus, while an extension of OPT to include more talented students is welcome, it would be wise to expand access to the 17 month extension to include a wider pool of talent outside technical and scientific fields. Nevertheless, a wider expansion of this program would not be enough to satisfy all of our socio-economic needs. The necessity for a far-reaching immigration reform policy could not be stressed enough given that our current broken system places many limits on the U.S.’s ability to maintain its demand for a healthy higher education that tends to all of our countries’ labor and economic needs. If the proper adjustments aren’t made to meet our nation’s demand, we may one day face the reality of being out-competed by our up-and-coming global competitors.

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