Foreign students at USC
Foreign students at USC

WASHINGTON - After rising sharply over the past decade, the rate at which foreign-student graduates are applying to stay in the U.S. to work has waned.

A record 276,500 foreign graduates received work permits through a U.S. program called Optional Practical Training (OPT) in 2017, according to Pew Research Center, an independent research group. That was in addition to nearly 1.5 million foreign graduates who received OPT work permits between 2004 and 2016.

But the rate of growth slowed, Pew found. 

"The number of enrollees grew by 8 percent in 2017," Pew reports, "compared with 34 percent in 2016." ?
 
Trends in OPT generally follow international student enrollment on U.S. college campuses, says Rajika Bhandari, senior adviser for research and strategy for the Institute of International Education (IIE).

"It is not surprising that OPT enrollment would begin to taper as international student enrollment also began to slow," Bhandari says. "The slowing down of overall international student enrollments is attributable to a mix of factors, including competition from higher education systems across the world and changes to government-funded scholarships in Saudi Arabia and Brazil – both among the top 10 sending countries to the United States."

The number of international students -- including OPT students -- grew by 3.4 percent in 2016-2017, according to IIE's Open Doors annual report on international students in the U.S. Compare that to increases of 7.1 percent in 2015-2016, and 10 percent in 2014-2015. 

Also, in 2016, the U.S. government introduced a travel ban on immigrants -- including student immigrants -- from seven Muslim-majority countries. It later removed Iraq from the travel ban, leaving six countries -- Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Libya -- restricted from entering the United States. But most of the 1,078,822? international students enrolled in the U.S. come from China (33 percent) and India (17 percent), followed by 5 percent or less from South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, Mexico and Brazil, respectively. 

OPT program

Foreigners who study full time in the U.S. typically have F-1 and M-1 visas and are restricted from working off campus, according to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services website. The F or M visa expires three months after graduation, unless extended for additional study. However, the OPT program offers graduates a temporary work visa, as long as the work is in the graduate's field of study. Other employment is prohibited. 

Before 2008, most OPT visas were issued for 12 months of temporary work. But in 2008 and 2016, the federal government expanded OPT rules, which greatly increased student availability in the workforce.

For science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degree holders, the government in 2008 extended the OPT visa to 29 months. Then, in 2016, the U.S. government extended the OPT duration to 36 months for STEM students, which increased the number by about 400 percent.

This made those international graduate OPT holders more desirable to employers, says Neil Ruiz, lead author of the Pew report. At the same time, it made STEM degree programs more desirable to international students.

Except for business and management degrees, STEM is the No. 1 program of choice for international students, according to the Institute of International Education, which reports each year about the state of international students in the U.S.

“Those are the majors of foreign graduates who are staying in the U.S. that have seen the biggest growth,” Ruiz told VOA.

Recent changes to OPT 

But in January 2017, President Donald Trump's administration changed the rules governing the program. The change limited OPT participants to work directly for an employer, excluding employment as contractors, who are not hired directly by a company, but by a service or agency.

Ruiz says the rate of growth of foreign graduates staying in the U.S. to work posted its largest drop in 13 years last year.

Bhandari, the senior adviser for IIE, argues that this will do little to stop international students from seeking jobs in the U.S.

She says the terrorist attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, led the government to take a much stronger position on immigration. This led to one of the biggest decreases in international students at U.S. colleges and universities in the country’s history.

But students returned a few years later, Bhandari adds, citing the high demand internationally for American higher education. The U.S. is not only known for quality of education, but freedom of thought and innovation.

“The U.S. really provides this perfect environment for people who want to stay on and … be innovators and really contribute in a meaningful way to a knowledge economy,” Bhandari says.

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