Number of international students on Optional Practical Training in the USA: Analysis of data and trends

One of the leaked draft executive orders on Vox focuses on limiting legal immigration. It is entitled "Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs." Among its several provisions are the employment-based visas and Optional Practical Training (OPT). It states:

(iv) consider ways to make the process for allocating H-1B visas more efficient and ensure that beneficiaries of the program are the best and the brightest;

(vii) propose for notice and comment a regulation that would reform practical training programs for foreign students to prevent the disadvantaging of U.S. students in the workforce, better protect U.S. and foreign workers affected by such programs, restore the integrity of student visa programs, ensure compliance, and improve monitoring of foreign students

Vox reports that this order could "...reverse Obama’s extension of the duration of Optional Practical Training work visas and decision to allow the spouses of H-1B guest workers to also have work permits."

Optional Practical Training for international students latest immigration policy change

Optional Practical Training is a highly attractive program for international students. It helps them gain work experience, enrich their educational learning, and recover a part of their investment in education. Employers gain by bringing in global talent and explore their skillsets before deciding future steps for an employment visa.

The standard duration of OPT is one year. On April 8, 2008, DHS approved a 17-month OPT extension for a student graduating with a degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field. A new rule effective May 10, 2016, further extended 17-moht to 24-month for STEM degrees.

STEM OPT Extension is especially appealing to Indian students who are concentrated in master's programs in engineering and computer science. Data from SEVP indicates that in 2016, 83% of Indian students, 43% of Saudi Arabian students, 78% of Iranian students, and 40% of Chinese students are enrolled in STEM programs.

Here are some of the trends related to OPT during the eight years between 2007/08 and 2015/16. The academic year 2007/08 is selected to compare the enrollment trends prior to the approval of 17-month STEM Extension.

- In 2015/16, there were 90,732 more international students on OPT as compared to 2007/08
- In the eight years, the rate of growth of students on OPT was higher than growth in total enrollment
- Two out of every third international student on OPT is from China or India (2015/16)
- One out of every sixth Chinese student in the US is on OPT (2015/16)
- One out of every fourth Indian student in the US is on OPT (2015/16)

With only 20,000 H1-B visas allocated for international students graduating with advanced degrees from the US, a majority of the international students have to return to their home countries. OPT provides a critical experiential opportunity to complement the academic curriculum with practical skills.

OPT is one of the key differentiators in an increasingly competitive landscape of attracting international students from around the world. International students contributed US$ 32.8 billion to the US economy, according to NAFSA. Any policy which destabilizes the prospects of gaining work experience will hurt the American economy and higher education institutions.

- Dr. Rahul Choudaha