Optional Practical Training Extension for STEM Students

April 30, 2016

On March 11, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security published a final rule allowing certain F-1 students who receive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees, and who meet other specified requirements, to apply for a 24-month extension of their post-completion OPT. The 24-month extension will replace the 17-month STEM OPT extension previously available to STEM students.  Eligible students may begin applying for a 24-month STEM OPT extension on May 10, 2016.

This new rule also imposes significant new obligations on employers. Harvard administrators may click here to learn the details.

Do I qualify for a STEM extension?

To determine if this new rule applies to you, please click here to see the list of qualifying fields of study.  You can locate your field of study as listed on your Form I-20.  If your field of study does not appear on this list, you are not eligible for a STEM extension.

 

What is changing under the new STEM rule?

This is a lengthy rule, with some elements that still require clarification before the rule goes into effect on May 10, 2016.  The good news is that STEM OPT will still be an option.  Here are some of the known elements:

• STEM OPT will increase from 17 to 24 months.
• Volunteering and self-employment will not be permitted under the new rule.  In addition, temporary agency and contract work will not qualify for STEM employment.  Start-ups may qualify as long as the employer has a Federal Employer ID Number (FEIN), and the student is considered an employee of the start-up and has a supervisor who can complete the Form I-983.
• Students must work for an E-Verify employer.
• The list of STEM OPT fields will be expanded.  You can find your CIP code on your I-20.
•  Students must be paid while working under STEM OPT and must work at least 20 hours per week.
•  Unemployment days permitted under the new STEM OPT rule will increase from 120 to 150 days for those who obtain the 24 month STEM OPT extension or the special 7 month STEM OPT extension under the new rule.
• The student and the employer will have to prepare and sign and abide by a training plan and report any changes to the HIO (see  Form I- 983).
• Students will qualify for up to two STEM OPT extensions if they earn multiple STEM degrees in the U.S. and may be eligible for a STEM extension based on a previously earned U.S.  STEM degree.

 

I am currently in my OPT period and want to apply for STEM. What do I do?

All STEM applications must be received by USCIS before your current post-completion OPT expires. Some of you may need to file for it now while you are still eligible. All others should wait to apply for your STEM extension once the new rule goes into effect on May 10, 2016.  We recommend that you speak to your HIO advisor about the best time to file if you are unclear about the timing.

Effective May 10, 2016, all STEM extension applications will require a completed Form I-983 (see  Form I-983) . We recommend that you begin conversations now with your employer about the Form I-983 so that you have one prepared when you need to file the application.

 

I am currently in an approved 17 month STEM OPT extension.  Can I apply for the additional 7 months of STEM OPT?

If you have been approved for a 17-month STEM OPT extension, you may apply to add 7 months to your STEM OPT period on or after May 10, 2016 as long as you have at least 150 days of valid employment authorization remaining on the date you properly file your new Form I-765.  Please note that you must properly file your Form I-765, with fee, on or before August 8, 2016.  Applications with less than 150 days of validity remaining and/or applications filed after August 8, 2016 will be denied.

In light of these changes, it is advisable at this time to discuss your future immigration options with your employer.  Please note that if you decide to apply for the 7 month extension you must abide by all the new elements included in this rule.  You will need to prepare a training plan with your employer (see Form I-983).  It is NOT possible to apply for this extension prior to May 10, 2016 when the rule goes into effect.  The HIO will not accept applications for the 7 month extension prior to May 16, 2016.  We will continue to update our web site as more information becomes available.

 

I have applied for a 17 month STEM OPT extension but have not received an approval.  What should I do to get the full 24 month extension?

If you have submitted a request to USCIS for a 17 month extension and you do not receive an approval by the time the rule goes into effect on May 10, 2016, then your application will be subject to the new rules.  You will likely receive a Request for Evidence (RFE) from USCIS, which may have an effect on the processing time of your application. You should contact your HIO advisor as soon as you receive the RFE from USCIS.  Be sure the address you used for your application continues to be a valid mailing address for you.  The RFE will ask for a new I-20 and the new training plan (see Form I-983).  You may wish to discuss the training plan with your employer in anticipation of the RFE.  Both students and employers must abide by all the new reporting requirements.

 

How do I apply for a STEM extension based on a previous degree?

In light of these changes, we are waiting for further guidance from USCIS.  It is unclear at this time how to submit applications to USCIS based on previously earned degrees.

Students currently in a non-STEM degree may be eligible for a STEM OPT extension based on a previous STEM degree obtained in the U.S. from an accredited institution.
• The previously obtained degree must have been conferred within 10 years preceding the date a school recommends the 24 month extension.
• The prior degree is in a degree program category included on the current STEM Designated Degree Program List at the time of the DSO recommendation.
• A student must have received both degrees from currently accredited and SEVP-certified U.S. institutions, and cannot have already received a STEM OPT extension based on this prior degree.
• The practical training opportunity that is the basis for the 24 month STEM OPT extension must directly relate to the previously obtained STEM degree.
• The prior degree was actually conferred (i.e., a student who uses a prior degree cannot take advantage of the "all but thesis or dissertation" exception).

For example, the final rule will make the STEM OPT extension available to students who have a prior background in STEM but who are currently engaging in OPT that has been authorized based on their study towards a different or non-STEM degree. Such an OPT extension, however, would be available only to those students who seek to develop and utilize STEM skills from their prior STEM degree during the extended OPT period. This change will allow individuals who, after receiving a STEM degree, pursue higher-level degrees in public health fields, MBAs, and other advanced degrees that complement their STEM background.

 

Additional Resources

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website

Study in the States website

NAFSA website

Harvard International Office  Form I-983