Written by Joanna Hughes

Just-released Pew Research Center analysis sheds new light on the state of foreign graduates of colleges in the US. According to the findings, while record numbers of foreign grads remained in the US to work in 2017 through the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, the rate of growth slowed significantly. Here is a closer look at the numbers. 

By the Numbers

The OPT program allows F-1 students temporary employment in their major areas of study for up to 12 months. In 2017, the number of foreign graduates who received work permits under the program spiked to 276,500 from the previous year’s 257,100.

Under the Obama administration, the booming  OPT program surpassed the H-1B visa program as the country’s largest course of high-skilled temporary foreign workers. However, the latest figures paint a different picture -- particularly when you look at growth. Compared to 2016’s 34 percent, 2017’s 8 percent is sluggish. The slowdown is further highlighted by the fact that the number of enrollees in the program had grown by a staggering 93 percent between 2014 and 2016.

Understanding the Phenomenon

To what can the stagnation be attributed? For starters, fewer STEM grads participated in OPT in 2017. Experts cite two possible causes for this: changes to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services rules now requiring OPT participants to work at their employer’s place of business (as opposed to at a third-party site). Additionally, the Trump administration has announced its intent to halt the 2016 employment extension which allowed international STEM grads to work in the US for up to three years.

A decline in foreign students from India and China -- OPT’s two largest countries of origin -- is also a major factor in the numbers. (Meanwhile, only France, Nepal and Nigeria saw increased growth.)

Lastly, while the slowdown was consistent across all degree levels, the trend was most visible at the master’s degree level: 2017 saw a mere nine percent increase in OPT participation compared to a 45 percent increase in 2016.


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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