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F-1 OPT program: numbers increase but future uncertain

The number of STEM-OPT graduates staying back to work in the USA has increased dramatically. But the future remains uncertain. Here are some crucial factors to know of if you are planning to study and work in the US.

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A recent study by Pew Research Centre has shed light on the phenomenal growth in the number of international students staying back in the US after graduation for work. Under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, nearly 1.5 million graduates received authorisation to remain and work in the country between 2004 and 2016, with the program having grown 400% since 2008. Around three-quarters of graduates on OPT programs during this period are from Asia, with graduates from India making up around 30% of the total permit holders (the largest share for any country).

OPT is provided by the US Government under the F-1 visa programme and allows foreign students to be temporarily employed for 12 to 36 months in a field directly related to their area of study. OTP has recently surpassed the H-1B visa to become the primary way for US to retain foreign students, especially the ones graduating with STEM degrees. The three most common majors during this period were business administration and management, electrical and electronics engineering, and computer science. Among the 10 most popular majors, computer engineering (76%), mechanical engineering (75%), and electrical and electronics engineering (75%) had the highest employment rates.

Great demand exists for students graduating in STEM subjects. More than half (53%) of students authorized to work under OPT during the 2004-2016 period graduated with a STEM degree. Of the 72,151 from India employed under OPT from 2012 to 2015, 84% had STEM degrees, the highest percentage of any origin country.

Despite the positive movement in numbers, however, it is likely that restrictions will be placed on the OPT program in the near future. According to news reports, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Reinforcement, has added Practical Training Reform as a proposed rule to the Department of Homeland Security’s agenda. A proposed rule is one under consideration and it suggests changes to the program to protect the interests of domestic workers in the US, especially from non-immigrant students. While these are just announcements and the proposed rule is not expected to be enforced before October 2018, the changes might affect your future plans in the following ways -

  1. The type of work students can undertake under OPT may be restricted. This has the potential to limit your career prospects and long-term earning.
  2. OPT period may be reduced, which will not give students the opportunity for multiple attempts at H-1B lottery
  3. Proposed changes to the H-1B lottery system include extending preferential treatment to “most skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries”. OPT students can rarely classify for either of these categories, diminishing the chances to be picked.

OPT students are crucial to the US economy, and the program plays an important role in making USA a leading option for higher studies for Asian students. Any changes to the program, therefore, will be closely observed by international recruiters. Keep following for future updates.



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