The U.S. government offers international graduates of STEM programs extended work visas. Now that some unconventional degrees qualify, some argue that the educational visa system is broken.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security expanded opportunities for international students who have earned U.S. degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to extend their stays in the United States.
The government maintains a list of qualifying fields to try to expand the number and diversity of individuals in the United States who contribute to competitive STEM fields. Many of the 22 new qualifying fields of study on the updated government list, including general forestry, cloud computing and geobiology, fall within conventional understanding of STEM fields. Others, such as human-centered technology design and data visualization, live in the intersection of science and the arts.
Since colleges vary in the language they use to identify degree programs, they are welcome to align their course outcomes to DHS curriculum requirements and make the case that their degrees warrant inclusion on the STEM Designated Degree Program List.
When faculty members at Lynn University, in Florida, did that alignment for all concentrations for their master of science in communication and media and master of fine arts in visual effects animation programs, for example, the government recognized these as STEM degrees for student visa purposes. Now, international graduates of these programs on F-1 visas are eligible to extend their stays in the United States by 24 months (or up to 36 months) to gain relevant work experience with a STEM optional practical training visa—a privilege earlier reserved for those who earned the likes of engineering or computer science degrees.
Many celebrate the government’s more inclusive definition of STEM, especially given that many arts and communication jobs today require web design, programming, data management and other tech skills. Colleges that have succeeded in reclassifying their arts and communications degrees as STEM for student visa purposes have found that doing so boosts their international recruitment efforts and offers their graduates enhanced work opportunities.
Some, including supporters, argue that the expanded definition points to a broken educational visa system. Others question whether designating arts and communications degrees as STEM dilutes an important national effort focused on science and technology.
“I do not consider this to be gaming the system,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law at Cornell University, noting that the White House “very vigorously” consulted with numerous government agencies to ensure that the additions to the list of STEM-designated degrees were appropriate. “Ultimately Congress should decide how long international students should be able to work after they graduate and whether they should limit it to certain fields or have the same limit applied to all fields. But absent Congress’s ability to reform our broken immigration system, it is up to the agencies to decide how to interpret the existing law.”
New international student enrollment grew by 80 percent last year from the previous year, which nearly brought the numbers back to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Institute for International Education and the U.S. State Department. The number of students on optional practical training visas fell by more than 9 percent, declining for a second year. In raw numbers, more than 900,000 international students were on optional practical training visas in 2021. A wider definition of what constitutes a STEM degree for OPT visa purposes could boost the number of workers in the United States helping with what is commonly called the “innovation economy.”
Years ago, several college economics departments sought to make their degree programs more attractive to international students by seeking to have them reclassified as STEM for student visa purposes. In 2016, for example, faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sought to reclassify their economics program from “economics, general” to “econometrics and quantitative econometrics” under the government guidelines. The former is not designated STEM, but the latter is.
“The question we had to ask is, does this qualify under the econometrics designation? It’s not that we would say our program is more econometrics than anything else, but it does meet that criteria,” David Autor, professor of economics at MIT, told Inside Higher Ed in 2018.
In a follow-up this month, Autor told Inside Higher Ed that it was too early to determine whether the reclassification resulted in more students enrolling or more graduates staying in the United States, given that the institution only has a few economics graduates with optional practical training visas.
But whether graduates of STEM-designated degree programs take advantage of the extended visa option may not matter. That’s because colleges find that reclassifying degrees as STEM benefits them in other ways. For example, in 2016, when John Karl Scholz was dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he sought to reclassify his institution’s economics program. Speaking with Inside Higher Ed this month, Scholz, who is now provost, shared the impact.
“The new designation is helpful in recruiting and supporting students who are considering multiple institutions for their graduate work,” Scholz said, adding that Madison’s economics programs had always been more quantitatively focused, and the reclassification reflected that.
Indeed, when Valeria Fabj, graduate programs chair for Lynn University’s College of Communication and Design, and Morayma James, assistant director for international programs and services at Lynn, sought to map course outcomes to the government’s curriculum requirements this year and last, they did not make substantive changes to their programs, which already included content such as webpage design, animation, graphic design software training and an understanding of how technological advances have changed the way media functions.
“When you hear ‘STEM,’ it doesn’t sound like ‘communications,’” Fabj said. “But it’s impossible to think about media nowadays without understanding how technology fits within it.” Fabj noted that prospective international students often inquire about a program’s STEM status. Some want the option of an extended student visa, while others expect more funding from their governments for STEM-designated U.S. degrees. Fabj, who recently taught a class of 12 students in which only one was American, is eager for the institution to be seen as a destination for international students, an aspiration that has been affirmed by U.S. News and World Report’s “Most International Students, Regional Universities South” designation.
When asked whether one could argue that every degree could earn a STEM designation in the digital age, Fabj, whose doctorate is in communication, left room for some not to be included. Perhaps that would assuage the fears of those who fret that including arts and communications fields under the STEM umbrella could dilute efforts to build a skilled workforce for an innovation economy.
Gary S. May, when he was dean of Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Engineering, wrote an Inside Higher Ed opinion piece in 2015 titled, “STEM, Not STEAM,” where the “A” stands for “art.” In the article, he argued that “‘STEM’ should stay just as it is,” though he acknowledged that the arts are “crucial to the creativity and critical thinking that is required for effective engineering design and innovation.” The arts, he wrote, are a “source of enlightenment and inspiration, and exposure to the arts broadens one’s perspective,” but the country “cannot afford to be distracted” from a national strategy of “rekindl[ing] America’s commitment to an innovation economy.”
In a follow-up communication this month, May, who is now chancellor at the University of California, Davis, reiterated his support for the arts, highlighted an ongoing need for entry-level job applicants with basic STEM skills and reaffirmed that “STEM education continues to need focused and ongoing funding and resources.” May is also concerned about underrepresented students’ participation and engagement rates in STEM fields.
But some argue that the words that academics and the government use to demarcate what constitutes science, technology, engineering and mathematics not only should be inclusive but are inclusive in real life.
“Where would these [scientific] fields be without communicators?” said Melissa Hendricks Joyce, associate program director of the Johns Hopkins graduate program in science writing. (Editor’s note: This article’s author is a graduate of the program, in addition to having earned a math degree.) Joyce, like other writing and communications program directors contacted for this article, had not been aware that some arts and communications graduate programs earned the STEM designation for their students and was intrigued by the possibilities such a designation could offer eligible programs and students.
Discussions about what does and does not constitute a STEM degree, and which international graduates should be eligible for extended work visas, often take place against contentious political backdrops. The Trump administration, for example, sought to curb the optional practical training program out of concern, in part, that employers do not need to meet a standard documenting that they first attempted to hire an American—as is the case with the H-1B visa program.
Others argue that there is no evidence that these students fill jobs that would otherwise go to U.S. graduates. For example, the Biden administration, which was responsible for the expansion earlier this year, characterizes the program as one designed to “ensure the U.S. economy benefits from students earning degrees in the United States in competitive STEM fields.”
Efforts to extend or curb work authorization for international students on F-1 visas in STEM fields have a “long and tortured history,” Yale-Loehr said. As colleges request reclassification of their programs—including economics, arts and communications programs—to see if they qualify, verdicts are arbitrated in real time.
“More and more these days, [the United States] needs STEM workers to help innovate, and offering those degree holders who have serious STEM credentials an opportunity to work in the United States for three years is appropriate,” Yale-Loehr said. “But Congress ultimately should reform our broken immigration system, and as part of that effort they should take up this issue.”
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