A study by the Association of International Educators found that international students contributed some $37 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2016-2017 academic year in tuition and living expenses alone. That’s a lot, but we should always keep in mind that the United States competes globally for top international talent. One program that has been drawing that talent and helping to keep it here is the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program.

OPT is available for students with either F-1 or M-1 nonimmigrant visas who are involved in either STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees or non-STEM degree or vocational programs.

OPT offers up to 12 months (with some allowed extensions) of practical training directly related to the student’s area of study (in the case of F-1 students, their major). The 12 months can take place during or after the person’s studies are completed, although it’s important to note that any pre-completion OPT will be deducted from the 12 allowed months, leaving only the remainder available for post-completion OPT.

F-1 visa holding graduates of certain STEM degree programs, however, can apply for a 24-month extension of post-completion OPT. Your degree would have to be included in the USCIS’s approved STEM degree program list, and you have to have been approved for post-completion STEM in your degree field. Then, you need an employer who is enrolled in E-Verify and file the appropriate paperwork.

OPT, especially STEM OPT, has taken off since it was passed in 2004

A Pew Research Center study found that OPT participation has surged since 2004, even though many U.S. colleges and universities have been struggling with international enrollment. In 2004, 45,000 students participated in the program. In 2016, that number jumped to 172,000. The Center reports that high tech companies have increased their hiring of OPT participants, especially science and engineering majors.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric and hardline policies in the U.S. have noticeably affected international enrollment numbers at U.S. institutions. Attractive post-study opportunities like OPT are crucial in drawing talent to the U.S. over other countries, according to the American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 college and university presidents.

Whether you are just starting your educational journey to the U.S. or would like help applying for or extending OPT, contact Yew Immigration Law Group. We can help you at each step or the process.