Nearly 1.5 million foreign graduates of U.S. universities received work permits through the Optional Training Program (OPT) between 2004 and 2016, according to USCIS data obtained by Pew Research. OPT allows foreign students who graduate, particularly those with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics (STEM), to stay and work in the United States for up to 36 months after graduation and compete with American workers.

The number of foreign graduates enrolled in the OPT program with a master’s degree skyrocketed from 39,500 to 170,900 -- a 337% increase. Most of that increase occurred after Pres. Bush revised the program in 2008, adding a 17-month extended the time foreign graduates in STEM-related fields were permitted to work.

Prior to 2008, work permits issued through the H-1B high-skilled guest worker program outpaced those issued through OPT. However, after OPT was expanded by Pres. Obama in 2014, work permits given to foreign graduates began to outpace H-1B visas. Employers clearly found it easier to hire foreign workers through OPT than through the H-1B visa process. Unlike H-1B workers, foreign students do not need to have a job offer in order to apply for a work permit under OPT.

For more on this story, see Pew Research. Also see a 5/10/18 video of H-1B expert John Miano discussing how guest worker programs effect the US labor force and in particular college graduates.

H-1B visas

Updated: Fri, May 25th 2018 @ 2:45pm EDT