Pew Research Center on the Surge of Foreign College Students Working in the U.S.

Today, the Pew Research Center released a study titled Number of Foreign College Students Staying and Working in U.S. After Graduation Surges. A PDF version of the study can be found at this link. The subtitle of the study is "Federal training program sees 400% increase in foreign students graduating and working in STEM fields from 2008 to 2016". The study expands on this in the second paragraph, stating:

Many foreign STEM graduates enrolled with OPT after executive actions in 2008 and 2016 initially doubled (29 months), then later tripled (36 months), the maximum length of employment for foreign students with STEM degrees. The number of foreign STEM graduates participating in OPT grew by 400% since the first employment extension was introduced in 2008.

This 400% increase can be seen in the first of the following charts which shows the number of STEM OPT approvals increasing from 34 in 2008 to 172 in 2016. The study continues:

OPT is one mechanism by which the U.S. can compete with other countries for top talent. It is less well-known than the H-1B visa program – which enables U.S. companies to hire highly skilled foreign workers and is the nation’s largest temporary employment visa program – yet OPT approvals actually outnumbered initial H-1B visa approvals in recent years.2 In addition, OPT’s eligible population has been on the rise: Between 2008 and 2016, new college enrollments among foreign students on F-1 visas grew 104%.

The fact that OPT approvals now outnumber initial H-1B visa approvals can be seen in the second chart below, growing to over double the number of H-1B visa approvals in 2016.

Pew Study Figure 1 Pew Study Figure 2

As can be seen in the Notes after the charts, the source for the OPT numbers is a Freedom of Information Act request received from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In fact, it seems to be very difficult to find data on the OPT program. Other than data obtained by Pew through Freedom of Information requests, the only data I've been able to find is listed on the Optional Practical Training wikipedia page. This includes data through 2013 from a February 2014 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report and data through 2016 from the Institute of International Educators (IIE) website. Regarding the latter source, the wikipedia page states "The data is collected through surveys of over 3,000 accredited U.S. higher education institutions, and does not rely on any privileged access to government data; in particular institutions not included in the survey (such as high schools that issue student visas, and non-accredited institutions that are SEVP-certified) may be omitted from the statistics."

Several news sources have released articles which summarize the study. Those include the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Times. The New York Times article is from the Associated Press and concludes as follows:

But David North, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, argues the program puts Americans at a disadvantage. Workers in the jobs program and their employers don't have to pay Medicare and Social Security taxes, so the companies would have a financial incentive to hire an OPT student as opposed to a U.S. citizen, he says.

"Foreign worker programs in general, including OPT, should not be encouraged because it takes jobs from US workers that they could easily perform," North says. "They should rethink the program completely, and they should certainly remove the subsidy."

This seems like a very important point. It would seem to give foreign students a decided advantage over American students. In any event, both the San Jose and San Francisco papers include information specific to Silicon Valley. The San Francisco Chronicle states:

Silicon Valley University in San Jose, which recently lost its accreditation and shut down, had 4,500 graduates on OPT over the period studied, according to the report; Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, mentioned it on a list of “highly suspect schools” in a memo in March.

Other local universities highlighted in the Pew report have also had run-ins with regulators.

Herguan University in Sunnyvale, whose former CEO was sentenced to prison in 2015 over student visa fraud, had 1,000 graduates who received OPT.

Northwestern Polytechnic University in Fremont had 11,700 OPT graduates in the time period studied, the report said. Last month the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools sent the university, which is seeking to renew its accreditation, a notice of a “compliance warning.”

Regarding the purpose of the study, the Chronicle quotes one of its authors:

Neil Ruiz, an associate director of global migration and demography at the Pew Research Center and an author of the report, said the data were intended to show the significance of the program to the U.S.

“If there are going to be any policy changes, we just wanted to get the facts out,” Ruiz said. “It is interesting for us to understand, especially with graduation season, where they are going and moving within the U.S.”

I have to commend Pew Research Center for submitting a Freedom of Information request and making the effort to get this information out, especially considering my disagreement with one of their prior studies in a prior blog post. Without their work, the rapid growth of the OPT program would remain largely unknown to most people. This does raise the question as to why the data is not publicly available as is much of the data for the H-1B program, especially now that it seems to gave grown larger than that program. It was recently reported that the USCIS was Sued Over H1B Visa Data by Federation for American Immigration Reform. Hopefully, they or another group will take some action to have OPT data released as well.


  1. It's an outrage they would double the number of foreign workers in 2008 when a housing crisis led a large economic contraction and so much employment disruption for so many people. Even well-performing native tech workers could be out of a job from their employer's line of credit collapsing at the beginning of that recession. But maybe it happened just before the housing crisis. Why increase it even more in 2016?


Post a Comment