Effective May 10, a new rule published by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will make a big difference for foreign students majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. In an effort to attract and retain more foreign students, DHS is permitting a 24-month extension for foreign students who have U.S. STEM degrees and are doing their Optional Practical Training (OPT) in a STEM field.  The current rules allow for a 17-month extension for STEM students after their one year of OPT if their employers participate in E-Verify. While the new rule creates opportunities for foreign students, employers will have additional paperwork requirements in order for their foreign student employees to take advantage of the extension.

In addition to the two additional years of employment authorization post-graduation, STEM students will have additional opportunities to play the H-1B lottery during their 36 months of OPT. With the quota stagnant and the number of petitions rising, this is a huge benefit for foreign students. Summer STEM graduates often take advantage of OPT and are frequently sponsored by their employers for an H-1B visa in April. If they are selected, they transition into H-1B status in October. If not, they can apply for the STEM OPT extension and have two full years to work — and two additional chances to apply for the H-1B visa.

For foreign students to receive a STEM OPT extension, they will need to obtain an updated I-20 form from their Designated School Official (DSO). Students and employers will have to work together to create a formal training plan that identifies learning objectives and a plan to achieve those goals. While mandatory employer enrollment in E-Verify is a holdover from the current OPT STEM extension rule, employers now also must attest to the fact that they possess the resources to implement the training plan, that the work will be an educational benefit to the student, that no U.S. worker will be displaced, and that the student will be paid the wages and benefits comparable to other similarly situated U.S. workers employed at the work site.

The new rule also requires more oversight of the STEM OPT program. DHS will impose a basic validation requirement six months into the STEM OPT extension that will collect biographic and employment information from the foreign national. At the one-year mark, DHS expects a self-evaluation report to be drafted by the student and provided to their DSO.  Any material changes must be reported immediately.

The additional rules and paperwork are a price worth paying for extended employment opportunities that benefit both students and employers. And, the extra chance to play the H-1B visa lottery is a huge collateral benefit for STEM students. It seems that DHS and the Administration are serious in their commitment to attracting and retaining foreign graduates.