Biden Administration Changes Visa to Retain International STEM Students

DHS added 22 majors to the list of fields of study that qualify international students to stay in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation.
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  • The changes expand the number of majors that international students can study to qualify to work in the U.S. on student visas.
  • The announcement comes after years of declining international enrollment.
  • Experts said the changes put the U.S. on par with other countries.

The Biden administration’s latest policy moves aim to make the U.S. more appealing for international students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Most notably, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last week added 22 majors to the list of qualifying fields of study for the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. This program allows graduates to remain in the U.S. and work for up to 36 months after graduation.

Students on J-1 exchange visas studying in STEM fields will also be allowed to stay for up to three years thanks to a separate rule change. Previously, students on J-1 visas, which are popular among graduate students, could only work in the U.S. for 18 months.

Additionally, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) instituted new clarifying rules that will make it easier for those with STEM Ph.D.s to qualify for "Einstein visas." USCIS also stated it will streamline the process for potential immigrants with STEM degrees to qualify for "national interest waivers'' and gain green cards.

The administration's recent moves to make the U.S. a more inviting destination for international students were applauded by Sarah Spreitzer, assistant vice president at the American Council on Education. She said these changes put the U.S. more on par with other countries competing to attract this student group, including the United Kingdom and Canada, which have similar or more robust OPT-like programs.

“I think we'll be able to point to some of these changes and say that students are deciding now to come to the U.S.”
Sarah Spreitzer,, director of government relations at the American Council on Education

Quotation mark

"Taken as a whole, when we look at enrollment figures next year, I think we'll be able to point to some of these changes and say that students are deciding now to come to the U.S. because of some of these proactive changes that have been made," Spreitzer told BestColleges. "That's the hope."

The most substantial change, she said, was the addition of 22 new majors to the STEM OPT program.

According to a notice filed in the Federal Register, those majors are:

  • Bioenergy
  • Forestry, general
  • Forest resources production and management
  • Human-centered technology design
  • Cloud computing
  • Anthrozoology
  • Climate science
  • Earth systems sciences
  • Economics and computer science
  • Environmental geosciences
  • Geobiology
  • Geography and environmental studies
  • Mathematical economics
  • Mathematics and atmospheric/oceanic science
  • Data science, general
  • Data analytics, general
  • Business analytics
  • Data visualization
  • Financial analytics
  • Data analytics, other
  • Industrial and organizational psychology
  • Social sciences, research methodology and quantitative methods

There are now nearly 525 majors included on DHS's STEM Designated Degree Program List.

Spreitzer said it's rare for DHS to update the OPT list, which makes this change substantial. She added that the department promised to update this list on an annual basis to keep up with changing trends in higher education.

For potential international students, these additions are important because many want to know whether they'll be able to work in the U.S. after graduating prior to enrolling, she said.

"It just makes it easier for students to recognize their majors and clarifies [expectations]," Spreitzer said.

A White House statement stressed the changes could lead to more innovation and jobs in STEM fields in the U.S.

"In the fields of [STEM] — fields that are critical to the prosperity, security, and health of our nation — our history is filled with examples of how America's ability to attract global talent has spurred pathbreaking innovation," read a White House statement. "This innovation has led to the creation of new jobs, new industries, and new opportunities for Americans across the United States."

These changes come soon after the Biden administration eased parts of the student visa application process, another move that could spur more international student enrollment. Immigration officers no longer need to analyze a student's likelihood of immigrating to the U.S. after graduation before deciding whether to grant a student visa. Previously, applicants needed to prove nonimmigrant intent when applying.

International student enrollment took a hit due to the pandemic, but enrollment numbers had been steadily decreasing even before the onset of COVID-19. The number of international students enrolled at U.S. schools dropped 15% during the 2020-2021 academic year, according to the Open Doors 2021 report from the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Enrollment has been decreasing over the past five years.

A November 2021 report by the Institute of International Education suggests international enrollment could be trending upward. The report found the total number of international students enrolled at U.S. institutions increased 8% between fall 2020 and fall 2021.