Optional Practical Training (OPT), a program designed to enable foreign graduates of U.S. colleges and universities to work in the United States, hit a record high in 2017. Nonetheless, overall growth in the program slowed dramatically.
Similar to the H-1B visa program, the OPT program provides a means for foreign graduates to remain in the United States temporarily by working for a U.S.-based employer.
According to a July Pew Research report, U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement reports a record 276, 500 foreign student graduates received work permits under the OPT program in 2017, This compares to 257,100 foreign graduates who received OPT work permits in 2016. While the overall number of OPT participants climbed, the growth rate dropped considerably– 8 percent in 2017 compared to 34 percent in 2016.
“That’s the largest decline in the annual growth rate since 2004, the first year for which data on all foreign students are available,” according to the Pew report.
Part of the reason for the decline in the OPT program centers on fewer foreign graduates in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. In 2017 STEM graduate enrollment increased by 13 percent over 2016. In 2016, the increase of 48 percent accounted for graduates in the OPT program.
Interestingly, the slowdown of the program “happened despite the maximum length of employment increasing from 12 to 36 months in 2016 for foreign graduates with STEM degrees,” The Pew report notes a 2008 extension for STEM graduates did spur and increase in OPT approvals.
From 2014 to 2016, the number of OPT program enrollees nearly doubled in size with a growth rate of 93 percent.
Low unemployment rates in 2017 for U.S. workers holding at least a bachelor’s degree also contributed to the OPT program decline.
Under President Donald Trump, tighter rules now govern the OPT program. Whereas foreign workers previously had the option of working at a third-party site– at a client’s office, for instance– rules now require OPT program workers to work onsite of employers.