Today the Department of Homeland Security published the long-awaited final rule on F-1 STEM OPT extensions. Notably, the new rule provides for seven additional months of authorized STEM OPT time for a total of up to 24 months. The new rule, which is effective May 10, 2016, includes several other noteworthy changes, including:
- Lengthened STEM OPT Extension Period. The rule increases the OPT extension period for STEM OPT students from the 2008 IFR’s 17 months to 24 months. The final rule also makes F-1 students who subsequently enroll in a new academic program and earn another qualifying STEM degree at a higher educational level eligible for one additional 24-month STEM OPT extension.
- STEM Definition and CIP Categories for STEM OPT Extension. The rule defines which fields of study (more specifically, which Department of Education Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) categories) may serve as the basis for a STEM OPT extension. The rule also sets forth a process for public notification in the Federal Register when DHS updates the list of eligible STEM fields on the Student and Exchange Visitor Program’s (SEVP’s) Web site.
- Training Plan for STEM OPT Students. To improve the educational benefit of the STEM OPT extension, the rule requires employers to implement formal training programs to augment students’ academic learning through practical experience. This requirement is intended to equip students with a more comprehensive understanding of their selected area of study and broader functionality within that field.
- Previously Obtained STEM Degrees. The rule permits an F-1 student participating in a 12-month period of post-completion OPT based on a non-STEM degree to use a prior eligible STEM degree from a U.S. institution of higher education as a basis to apply for a STEM OPT extension, as long as both degrees were received from currently accredited educational institutions. The practical training opportunity must be directly related to the previously obtained STEM degree.
- Safeguards for U.S. Workers in Related Fields. To guard against adverse impacts on U.S. workers, the rule requires terms and conditions of a STEM practical training opportunity (including duties, hours, and compensation) to be commensurate with those applicable to similarly situated U.S. workers. As part of completing the Form I-983, Training Plan for STEM OPT Students, an employer must attest that: (1) It has sufficient resources and trained personnel available to provide appropriate training in connection with the specified opportunity; (2) the student will not replace a full- or part-time, temporary or permanent U.S. worker; and (3) the opportunity will help the student attain his or her training objectives.
- School Accreditation, Employer Site Visits, and Employer Reporting. To improve the integrity of the STEM OPT extension, the rule: (1) Generally limits eligibility for such extensions to students with degrees from schools accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the Department of Education; (2) clarifies DHS discretion to conduct employer site visits at worksites to verify whether employers are meeting program requirements, including that they possess and maintain the ability and resources to provide structured and guided work-based learning experiences; and (3) institutes new employer reporting requirements.
- Compliance Requirements and Unemployment Limitation. In addition to reinstating the 2008 IFR’s reporting and compliance requirements, the rule revises the number of days an F-1 student may remain unemployed during the practical training period. The program in effect before this final rule allowed a student to be unemployed up to 90 days during his or her initial period of post-completion OPT, and up to an additional 30 days (for a total of 120 days) for a student who received a 17-month STEM OPT extension. This rule retains the 90-day maximum period of unemployment during the initial period of post-completion OPT but allows an additional 60 days (for a total of 150 days) for a student who obtains a 24-month STEM OPT extension.
The 17-month STEM OPT regulations remain in effect through May 9, 2016. DHS will continue to adjudicate 17-month STEM OPT extension applications until that date. Any 17-month STEM OPT EAD that is issued before May 10, 2016, will remain valid until the EAD expires, is terminated or revoked. Students with existing 17-month STEM OPT EADs on May 10, 2016, are not required to transition their extension by requesting an additional seven-month period.
Students whose 17-month STEM OPT extension expires prior to May 10, 2016, or who have less than 150 days remaining on their 17-month STEM OPT extension EADs on the date that they are able to properly file their STEM OPT extension are not covered under the transition plan. These students are ineligible to benefit from the 24-month STEM extension for purposes of practical training associated with their most current degree and are therefore not covered under the transition plan.
More information can be found at https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/stem-opt-hub.