International Students, STEM OPT and the U.S. STEM Workforce

Madeline Zavodny
Date of Publication: 
March, 2019
Source Organization: 
National Foundation for American Policy

The Trump administration plans to impose new restrictions on the ability of foreign students to work temporarily in the United States through the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows foreign students to gain work experience in the U.S. for as long as three years, during or after completing their studies at a U.S. college or university. The purpose of these restrictions would be to “improve protections of U.S. workers who may be negatively impacted by” the program.  This study done by the National Foundation for American Policy analyzes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data from 2008 to 2016 on foreign-born science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors in the OPT program and their impact on competing U.S. workers. Findings indicate that even though the number and share of foreign students approved for OPT has risen over time, the program does not reduce job opportunities for U.S. workers. Instead, it acts as a safety valve for a tight labor market, allowing employers to hire foreign student workers when U.S. workers are scarce. Moreover, the data show that unemployment rates are lower in areas with larger numbers of foreign students on OPT as a share of worker in STEM occupations. In fact, the OPT program may contribute to economic growth as STEM workers, many of whom are foreign-born, are vital to the U.S. economy. As the report shows, areas with more foreign-born STEM workers have higher patenting rates, faster productivity growth and higher earnings among U.S. natives. As such, the report concludes that “the OPT program is an important way  [for the U.S.] to attract and retain foreign-born talent.”

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Zavodny, M. (2019). International Students, STEM OPT and the U.S. STEM Workforce. National Foundation for American Policy. Retrieved from