Policy Changes Aim to Expand Opportunities for Foreign STEM Graduates, Others | Jackson Lewis P.C.

Recognizing the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates to the U.S. economy, the Biden Administration has made three policy changes that expand eligibility.

The changes are as follows:

  • Adding 22 new degree fields to the STEM list so that more F-1 graduates can qualify for three years, instead of one year, of optional practical training (OPT);
  • Making STEM students in J-1 exchange visitor status likewise eligible for 36 months of OPT up from 18 months; and
  • Broadening eligibility for National Interest Waiver Immigrant (NIW) visas for those in STEM fields.

The new degree programs added to the STEM list include academic fields such as bioenergy, human-centered technology design, climate science, mathematical economics, data visualization, and various analytics fields previously not considered to be STEM fields: business analytics, financial analytics, and data analytics.

Granting F-1 and J-1 students, many of whom graduate with Ph.D. degrees, more OPT provides them more time to make important contributions to U.S. companies, universities, and non-profit institutions. In addition, knowing that this amount of training is available makes choosing U.S. colleges and universities more attractive. It also reduces the “brain drain” in the United States. Students who receive advanced training in this country and become more established in this country will be less likely to want to leave and bring their earned expertise to other countries.

To keep them in the United States, however, these students need a path to H-1B visas or permanent residence (“green cards”). The three years of STEM training provides some students more opportunities to “win” the H-1B lottery. Clarifying how the NIWs can be used by STEM graduates to gain legal permanent residence, without having to do a labor test to prove their employment will not adversely affect U.S. workers, also breaks down barriers.

To obtain an NIW, an applicant must prove three factors: 1) show that the proposed endeavor has both substantial merit and national importance; 2) show that the applicant is well-positioned to advance the endeavor; and 3) show that it would be beneficial to the United States to waive a job offer and, thus, the labor market test. To meet third factor, the new policy “recognizes the importance of progress in STEM fields and the essential role of persons with advanced STEM degrees in fostering this progress, especially in focused critical and emerging technologies or other STEM areas important to U.S. competitiveness or national security.” Adding 22 new STEM fields potentially expands eligibility.