Aside from the regular working visa issued to foreign nationals in the US that allows them to legally work in the country, there is another popular way for international students to gain work experience after graduation. Similar to the concept of Post-Study Work opportunities in other countries, the US’ Optional Practical Training (OPT) allows foreign learners to stay after they graduate and work for companies in need of their skills.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at OPT and see how many international students are benefitting from it right now.
What exactly is the OPT?
It is a program of the US government that allows foreign students to participate in some form of employment during or temporarily after the completion of their studies. The core component of OPT is that it is “optional” or recommended rather than a requirement by the school to graduate. The original regulation that formed OPT allowed foreign students to pursue jobs “where employment for practical training is required or recommended by the school.”
While it did not discuss the ability to work after graduation, immigration or other court decisions as well as succeeding regulations made it clear that this was also permissible. In 1991, the government divided OPT into pre-completion and post-completion authorization and allowed only a single year of post-completion OPT that is directly related to the area of studies.
What is STEM OPT?
In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) accepted extensions of OPT for Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) graduates for up to 17 months because the “ability of US high-tech employers to retain skilled technical workers, rather than losing such workers to foreign business, is a significant economic interest for the United States.”
In 2016, DHS lengthened the period to 24 months, allowing for a three-year period of total post-graduation employment. The 2016 rule necessitates employers hiring a worker on a STEM OPT extension to prove that the worker is not replacing a US worker and will have a similar salary to the employer’s US workers in parallel positions. DHS can conduct an on-site audit to examine employer records and check the accuracy of these attestations.
Prevailing Rules on Optional Practical Training and Curricular Practical Training
International students can partake in various types of practical training related to their field of study while they are in the United States.
- Pre-completion OPT takes place before a student’s program end date and can last up to 12 months.
- Post-completion OPT takes place after a student’s program end date and can also last up to 12 months.
- STEM OPT is a 24-month extension of OPT for qualifying students with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).
- Curricular Practical Training (CPT) takes place before a student’s program end date and is essential to the school’s established curriculum.
To participate in any form of OPT, an international student must obtain an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The Trump administration sought to radically limit the number of visas issued for foreign students and OPT approvals afforded to foreign students already studying in the United States. During Trump’s term, the number of OPT approvals dropped. Aside from this, the travel restrictions and longer processing times for OPT applications due to the pandemic made it harder for international students to obtain authorizations. By the fall of 2020, participation in OPT programs had declined by 72%.
How many OPT recipients are employed?
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement
Not all OPT participants find jobs but a much greater share of them have secured temporary employment. As seen on the graph above, the number of “employed” STEM OPT participants has been consistently on the rise except in the year 2020 when the pandemic quashed the international enrollment numbers and made it extremely difficult for foreign learners to remain in the country. Overall, the number of OPT and CPT recipients who are gaining employment has been in constant decline since Trump took office in 2017 and pursued ways to limit the work opportunities available to foreign students.
There were 122,699 pre- and post-completion OPT students with both an employment authorization document (EAD) and who declared working for an employer in the calendar year 2020, compared to 138,898 in the calendar year 2019. This reflects nearly a 12 percent decline.
Where STEM OPT Students Come From
More than half of STEM OPT students are from India, followed by China and South Korea.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement data reveal that India represents 59 percent of all STEM OPT participants, and 40 percent of Indian STEM students are participating in OPT. This record is by far the highest share of any nationality.
What companies employ OPT participants?
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement
The largest OPT employer with 2,813 OPT employees was Amazon, which makes most of its hires under the STEM OPT program. Other technology companies— Google, AZTech Technologies LLC, Deloitte, and Microsoft—fill out the top 5 with more than 1,000 employees each. The Top 100 companies make 18 percent of OPT hires.
OPT at Present
While the F-1 visa is meant for a “bona fide student” who seeks to enter the US “solely for the purpose of pursuing…a course of study,” some form of so-called practical training has been permitted since the 1950s. According to the Federal Register, such employment was originally intended only for those who couldn’t cover their expenses, or when work outside the classroom is being required or recommended by their school.
The definition of practical training changed over the years, including which academic or vocational institutions qualify, the length of permitted employment, and whether it could be done before or after graduation. Today, the Optional Practical Training is more like a full-time job. Some students or employers refer to OPT as an internship and DHS’s website freely uses the term employment. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)
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Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As the Vice President of MSM Global, she leads MSM’s extensive back-of-the-house operations, including MSM’s human resources, financial management, information technology, and marketing, communications, and social media activities.
She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.
Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments.
U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement. (n.d.). 2020 SEVIS by the Numbers Report. ICE. https://www.ice.gov/sevis/whats-new#2020-data
Rosenthal, R. (n.d.). The STEM Graduate System Is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It. Bloomberg.com. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2021-opinion-optional-practical-training-problems-stem-graduates-deserve-better-jobs-opportunities/
Ruiz, N. G., & Budiman, A. (2020, August 14). Increase in Foreign Student Graduates Staying and Working in U.S. Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2018/05/10/number-of-foreign-college-students-staying-and-working-in-u-s-after-graduation-surges/