On July 12, 2023, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the addition of eight new fields of study to the STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. The OPT program allows foreign national students holding F-1 status to gain practical experience in their field of study for up to one year after graduation. However, if students choose to study a designated STEM field, they are eligible for an additional two-year extension, bringing the total post-graduation work authorization to three years.
The new fields of study added to the list include Landscape Architecture, Institutional Research, Mechatronics, Robotics, and Automation Engineering Technology/Technician, Composite Materials Technology/Technician, Linguistics and Computer Science, Developmental and Adolescent Psychology, Geospatial Intelligence, and Demography and Population Studies. By adding these fields to the OPT program, the United States can ensure that U.S. employers can benefit from students earning degrees in competitive STEM fields. According to the Pew Research Center, the STEM workforce in 2019 comprised of 36 million people (23% of the total U.S. workforce) in a broad range of occupations. STEM jobs have consistently grown faster than non-STEM jobs since 2010, and this trend is projected to continue in the future. Descriptions for each new STEM field are as follows:
- Landscape Architecture: a program that prepares individuals for the independent professional practice of landscape architecture and research in various aspects of the field. The program includes instruction in geology and hydrology, soils, groundcovers, and horticultural elements, project and site planning, landscape design, history, and theory, environmental design, applicable law and regulations, and professional responsibilities and standards.
- Institutional Research: a program of study that prepares individuals to be institutional researchers at a postsecondary educational institution. The program includes instruction in data analysis, data-driven decision-making, data mining, higher education administration and organization, research methods, and statistics.
- Mechatronics, Robotics, and Automation Engineering Technology/Technician: a program that prepares individuals to apply basic engineering principles and technical skills in the support of engineers to the design, development, and operational evaluation of autonomous, computer-controlled, electro-mechanical systems. The program includes instruction in computer and software engineering, control engineering, electronic and electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and robotics.
- Composite Materials Technology/Technician: a program of study that prepares individuals to apply basic engineering principles and technical skills in support of engineers and other professionals engaged in the development, manufacture, and use of composite materials in aircraft technology, automotive technology, boats, medical prostheses, and wind turbines. The program includes instruction in computer-aided design and drafting, composite materials and processes, composite maintenance, composite manufacturing, composite repair, material science, and mold manufacturing and production.
- Linguistics and Computer Science: a program that focuses on the relationship between computer and human language and computational techniques applied to natural language. The program includes instruction in computer programming, human languages, linguistic analysis, logic, natural language processing, semantics, machine learning, psycholinguistics, software engineering, and syntax.
- Developmental and Adolescent Psychology: a program that focuses on the scientific study of the unique stages of psychological growth and development of individuals from adolescence to adulthood. The program includes instruction in cognitive and perceptual development, emotional development, personality development, the effects of biological maturation on behavior, theories of cognitive growth and related research methods, testing and assessment methods for different age levels, research on child and adolescent behavior therapy, and the psychology of aging.
- Geospatial Intelligence: a program that prepares individuals to analyze security and intelligence problems using a geographic perspective by relating human actions to cultural, political, economic, social, and physical landscapes. The program includes instruction in aerial photography analysis, cartography, geographic information systems (GIS), physical geography, remote sensing, spatial programming, and quantitative methods in geographic research.
- Demography and Population Studies: a program that focuses on the systematic study of population models and phenomena, including related problems of social structure and behavior. The program addresses instruction in population growth, spatial distribution, mortality and fertility factors, migration, dynamic population modeling, population estimation and projection, mathematical and statistical analysis of population data, population policy studies, and applications to problems in economics and government planning.
Studying STEM fields has become increasingly popular in recent years, as more and more students recognize the value of these fields in the job market. Indeed, more international students come to the United States than to any other country (18% of international students worldwide). According to the National Science Foundation, in 2019 foreign-born workers made up for 19% of the STEM workforce, increasing from 17% in 2010. Furthermore, foreign-born workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher accounted for a significant portion of workers in science and engineering (S&E) occupations. Specifically, they accounted for 21% of workers in S&E occupations at the bachelor’s degree level, 38% at the master’s degree level, and 45% at the doctorate level. This is particularly true for computer and mathematical scientists, where foreign-born workers accounted for the highest shares at all degree levels. The demand for skilled workers in these fields far exceeds the supply, and many companies struggle to find qualified candidates. Adding these fields to the OPT program may help ensure that foreign national students who earn degrees in these fields can contribute to the U.S. economy by working in high-demand fields.
Adding STEM fields to the OPT program provides economic benefits. The National Foundation for American Policy reports foreign students who earn degrees in STEM fields contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy each year. These students often go on to work for U.S. companies and contribute to innovation and economic growth.
In addition, the extension of the OPT program could also benefit U.S. colleges and universities by attracting more international students to their programs. By adding STEM fields to the OPT program, U.S. colleges and universities may be able to attract more international students to their STEM programs, which might help to offset declining enrollments in other fields.