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On March 9, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a final rule that extends the Optional Practical Training (OPT) period for so-called “STEM students”—students with degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
The OPT program allows foreign students on F-1 student visas to work for up to 12 months after graduation in positions related to their field of study. Since 2008, students in STEM fields have been allowed to extend their OPT beyond the 12-month limit for up to 17 months.
The new rule, effective May 10, 2016, increases the STEM extension from 17 months to 24 months, allowing STEM students a total of three years of OPT.
Additionally, the rule provides that STEM students may be eligible for two separate STEM extensions upon completion of two STEM degrees at different educational levels, as long as certain requirements are met. This means that a student with a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering and a Master’s degree in Mathematics could obtain two 24-month OPT extensions during the course of his or her academic career.
Moreover, the rule permits F-1 students participating in the OPT program based on a non-STEM degree to apply for a STEM extension based on a previously obtained STEM degree, as long as the practical training is directly related to the STEM degree.
While the rule significantly extends benefits to STEM students, it also increases government oversight over STEM extensions by, for example, requiring the implementation of formal training plans by employers, adding wage and other protections for STEM OPT students and U.S. workers, and allowing extensions only to students with degrees from accredited schools.
Even with the increased labor condition requirements, however, the new rule provides significant relief to employers looking to sponsor H-1B work visas for STEM students. Last year, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received almost three times as many H-1B applications as the number of available visas, forcing many highly skilled workers who did not get through the initial randomized “lottery” to leave the country. Under the new rule, employees on STEM extensions have more than one opportunity to participate in the H-1B lottery.
If you have any questions about the final rule or its impact on your employment of STEM students, please contact one of our attorneys for guidance.