International students won an unexpected reprieve as the Trump administration backed off plans to curtail optional practical training, the popular work program for international graduates, in the wake of a lobbying effort by colleges, employers, and even some Republican members of Congress.
Colleges strongly opposed limits on the program, fearing they could further imperil already weakened international enrollments.
Still, an executive order signed by the president on Monday contains bad news for higher education, suspending the issuance of H1-B and other temporary work visas through the end of the year. Universities use the skilled-employment visas to hire top academics and researchers, regardless of nationality, and the possibility of working in the United States long term is a powerful recruitment tool for international students.
The administration said the visa suspensions are needed to ensure that jobs go to American workers first during the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The order takes effect just after midnight on Wednesday and can be extended past its December 31 expiration “as necessary.”
The presidential proclamation, which was in the works for weeks, had been expected to include restrictions on optional practical training, or OPT, which allows students to work in a job related to their field for at least one year after graduation. Graduates in certain science and technology majors can stay for as many as three years.
Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told Fox News in late April that his department was “teeing up” restrictions to OPT.
Colleges had strongly opposed limits on the program, fearing they could dangerously weaken international enrollments, which have been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, global competition, and the travel ban enacted by President Trump in his first days in office. One university leader said curbing OPT would have been “an existential threat to higher ed.”
More than 70 student-government associations across the country had signed onto a letter asking the president not to repeal OPT. A group of House Republicans had also called for retaining the program.
Surveys of international students have found that the opportunity to gain work experience is very important in their decision to study in the United States. More than 223,000 students participated in OPT in the 2018 academic year, or one out of five student-visa holders. (Graduates remain on student visas while working.)
Yet OPT may not be safe. While many had feared that Trump would start an expedited rulemaking process to roll back parts of OPT, that process does not actually require a presidential order. It can be set in motion at any time.
More immediately, however, colleges decried the decision to halt the issuance of new H1-B visas, and to restrict some J visas, which are used for academic and cultural exchange. The order specifically exempts scholars and researchers on J visas.
The new restrictions won’t apply to visa-holders already in the United States, or those outside the country who have already been issued valid visas.
Sarah Spreitzer, director of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said that while she welcomed the decision not to act on OPT, the order sends conflicting messages to international students about whether they are welcome in the United States. “We continuously message to the administration, we need — students need — more certainty,” she said.
In a statement, Jill Allen Murray, deputy executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association for International Educators, called the administration’s action “unacceptable and misguided.” Students, as well as other immigrants, may simply decide to “take their talent” elsewhere, she said.
In addition to curtailing hiring, the suspension of visas, albeit temporary, could affect international-student recruitment by making the pathway to work in the United States more uncertain. A 2017 survey by World Education Services, a nonprofit international-education research company, found that three-quarters of international students said gaining work experience was critical to their choice to study in the United States.
For a cautionary tale, colleges have only to look to Britain, where international enrollments flatlined after the government did away with a post-graduation work permit. Officials there backtracked last year and reinstated a two-year work authorization because of concerns that British universities were at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting and to retain top global scientific talent.
A study by the Niskanen Center, a think tank that favors immigration reform, found that OPT has economic benefits for the United States, with participation in the program leading to higher levels of innovation in a region, as measured by the number of patents, and higher average earnings by college-educated Americans. The study also found no adverse effects on earnings, unemployment, or labor-force participation from OPT. “What the research shows is the argument that there’s direct competition doesn’t seem to hold up,” said Jeremy L. Neufeld, a policy analyst who was the author of the report.
Peter Kilpatrick, provost of the Illinois Institute of Technology, where about half of all graduate students are from overseas, dismissed the idea that students on OPT are taking jobs that would have otherwise gone to American workers. Students on OPT are disproportionately in science and technology fields. Even during the coronavirus-related downturn, there are 2.5 million unfilled STEM jobs, Kilpatrick said, and fewer international students would exacerbate the gulf between supply and demand.
Many of those positions require advanced education and technical skills, so they can’t be filled by just any employee. “You can’t wave a magic wand and turn all these unemployed workers into STEM-trained workers with graduate degrees,” Kilpatrick said. “You can’t turn them into data analysts or computational scientists.”
Opponents of OPT decried the administration’s decision to back away from limits on the program. David North, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, said OPT unfairly subsidizes the hiring of foreign workers over Americans; because OPT participants are on student visas, employers do not generally have to pay Social Security or other payroll taxes. “It’s a sleight of hand,” he said.
For students on OPT or awaiting approval to the program, Monday’s news came as a relief.
KV, who graduated in May from a Boston-area college, is set to begin a position on OPT at a leading biomedical research institute, where her work would include Covid-related research. (Like many international students contacted by The Chronicle, KV, who is from the Indian city of Bangalore, asked not to be identified by her full name because she feared that speaking publicly could put her visa status at risk.)
Instead of looking forward to her new job, which begins in July, KV had spent recent weeks refreshing news sites and social-media feeds for the latest information on OPT. “To get to help in some way fighting this pandemic, that would be great,” she said. “That’s why I’m super-stressed — this pretty much is my dream job.”
During her four years of college, she spent summers interning in the United States, including at a hospital and at a biotechnology company developing a drug to fight leukemia. She considers the hands-on experience she gained to be worth the shortened visits with her family. For international students, she said, getting practical experience is a critical part of earning a degree. “I don’t think any of us would have come to the U.S. without OPT,” she said.
Update (6/23/2020, 12:52 p.m.): An earlier version of this article quoted an opponent of OPT who used an alias. The remarks were replaced with material from an interview with David North.