Expanded List of STEM Eligible Degrees Announced

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently expanded the list of approved degree programs that are eligible for the 17-month Optional Practical Training (OPT) extensions. The ICE announcement is available online.

Background: Basics of STEM Extensions

In April 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created a new program allowing certain students to obtain extensions of the standard 12-month OPT period. Under the new provisions, students completing designated science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) programs become eligible for a 17-month OPT extension.

OPT is normally authorized for a maximum of 12 months after completion of a post-secondary degree program. Graduates of STEM-approved degree programs can file for an additional 17 months, for a total OPT period of 29 months. According to ICE guidance, each student is eligible for only one 17-month STEM extension.

To implement the new program, ICE created a list of degree programs qualified for the extended OPT period. The original STEM degree list was expanded on May 12, 2011. The new list of expanded STEM degree programs is available online.

New Computer and Engineering Degrees Added

The updated list of eligible STEM degrees includes a number of new computer and engineering degrees. Many of these degrees are designated with the term "other." This is a catch-all designation within various fields of study to include programs that would not fit within any of the more specific designations. These degrees are: Computer and Information Sciences, other; Computer Programming, other; Computer / Information Technology Services, Administration and Management, other; Civil Engineering, other; Computer Engineering, other; Electrical, Electronics and Communications Engineering, other; Engineering, other; Engineering-Related Fields, other; Computational Science and Management Science and Quantitative Methods, other.

Expansion of STEM to Other Science-Related Subjects

The updated list expands eligibility to include fields other than computer science and engineering. Among the new list are: Food Science and Technology, other; Soil Science; Environmental Science; Educational/Instructional Technology; Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Molecular Biology, other; Biomathematics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology, other; Behavioral Sciences, Human Computer Interaction; Sustainability Studies; Pharmaceutical Sciences and many other degree programs, as set forth on the new list.

STEM Employers Must Register in E-Verify

In order for an F-1 student to qualify to work for an employer using a STEM extension, that employer must be registered with the USCIS's E-Verify program. Each employer of a STEM extension student must agree to report to the student's Designated School Official (DSO) when the student is terminated from or leaves their employment. It is important to note that the application for the STEM extension must be filed before the standard 12-month period of OPT expires.

A student who timely applies for the STEM extension may continue working for up to 180 days beyond the original 12-month F-1 OPT expiration date while the STEM extension application is pending. During this 180-day period, the student must conform to the STEM program requirements, including working only for an E-Verify registered employer.

Types of STEM Authorized Employment

  • A student may work for one employer or for multiple employers, as long as all of these employers are registered with E-Verify and the work is related to the student's degree program.
  • STEM work may be arranged through an agency or consulting firm. In this situation, the employment agency or consulting firm must be registered with E-Verify, but a third party contracting with the employer does not need to participate in E-Verify.
  • Changes of STEM employers are permitted, but the new employer must also be an E-Verify participant.
  • Self-employment is also possible if a student starts a new business, but this new business must be registered with E-Verify and the self-employed student must work full-time.
  • While DHS/ICE previously stated students had to be paid for their work to qualify for STEM extensions, this restriction has been removed, at least temporarily, and at the time of this writing, appropriate volunteer work may potentially qualify for STEM OPT training.

Conclusion

This new, larger expansion of designated STEM degrees eligible for 17-month extensions is welcome news to many foreign students. Under the previous designated degree lists, there were clearly degrees in the STEM areas that were excluded. This more inclusive list will allow for a total of 29 months in OPT for additional students, provided they find appropriate employment in their respective fields. F-1 students who are unsure of whether their programs qualify for STEM extension should contact their DSOs or seek qualified immigration advice to determine their eligibility.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.

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