Despite the tightening of immigration policies under President Donald Trump, international students majoring in economics at Yale will have an easier time seeking work authorization in the United States thanks to a department-led petition.

The Connecticut Office of Higher Education recently approved the Yale economics department’s request to reclassify its undergraduate and graduate programs as STEM programs under the U.S. Department of Education’s Classification of Instructional Programs code. The new designation makes international students in the economics department eligible for a two-year extension in their Optional Practical Training, in addition to the one-year window they have to pursue work related to their fields of study.

According to a departmentwide email sent by Economics Department Chair Dirk Bergemann on Jan. 3, the new classification of the major as “Econometric and Quantitative Economics” more closely corresponds to the “quantitative and analytical nature” of the program than the previous “Economics, General” classification.

“I’m very happy about this change, for what it spells for both current and future economics internationals at Yale,” said Phyu Hnin Lwin ’18, an economics major and peer liaison for the Office of International Students and Scholars. “It’s heartening to see prospective economics first years hear about the news and celebrate the new avenues open to them.”

In 2012, under the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security expanded the list of STEM-designated degree programs to include Econometric and Quantitative Economics, among other programs. Since then, several universities, including New York University, Princeton University and Brown University, have reclassified their undergraduate economics program as “Econometric and Quantitative Economics,” according to Isabel Hummel ’17, a former economics major and international student who is currently working in the United States.

Undergraduate students pursuing a degree in economics at Yale are required to take 12 term courses in total, including micro- and macroeconomics to the intermediate level, one class in calculus and another in econometrics.

Before the change in designation, Hummel said, international economics students would have to rely on the skilled visa program known as the H-1B to pursue career opportunities after the one-year Optional Practical Training extension granted to all international post-graduates. In addition to facing increased scrutiny by the Department of Homeland Security, H-1B visas are awarded on a lottery basis, leading to a “pretty grim” outlook for those hoping to stay in the U.S. after the Optional Practical Training expires, Hummel said. She added that she contacted the Yale College Dean’s Office, Office of International Students and Scholars, and the economics department to urge them to change the economics major’s Classification of Instructional Programs designation. Although several of her international friends who majored in economics work in America and are extremely excited about the change, she said others decided to work abroad partly because they expected to only receive a one-year Optional Practical Training extension.

According to Office of International Students and Scholars Director Ann Kulan, academic departments, the University Registrar’s Office and the Office of Institutional Research review the Classification of Instructional Programs codes of academic programs periodically to ensure that the designation matches the nature of the programs.

The code change arrived at a time of great uncertainty surrounding the prospect of work authorization for foreigners in the U.S. Although the Trump administration has not announced any formal changes to the employment-visa programs, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has stepped up its scrutiny of applications for H-1B. During 2017, the immigration agency issued the highest number of “requests for further evidence” to H-1B applicants since 2009, with 85,000 requests made in the first eight months of 2017.

On April 18, Trump signed the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order urging the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Citizenship and Immigration Services, to reform policies to ensure that the H-1B visas are awarded only to the “most-skilled and highest-paid beneficiaries.”

“It’s been a very discouraging year to know that the current administration’s views on international students and labor is incredibly negative, especially when I’ve been seeing internationals I know leaving the U.S. because of a lack of sponsorship even before this administration,” Lwin said.

Asked what Office of International Students and Scholars has been doing in response to the current administration’s handling of work authorization for international students, Kuhlman said the office is working closely with its colleagues in international education and exchange to preserve opportunities for foreign students looking to gain work experience in the U.S. after completing their studies.

Hummel said she was glad Yale made the “straightforward” change because the situation tends to be “heartbreaking” for international students who would like to stay in the U.S.

“Anybody who is motivated to do work, especially in the higher skilled jobs should be able to have a fair chance of getting a job and also contributing to the American society,” Hummel said.

Eleven percent of Yale College students were international as of fall 2016.

Jingyi Cui | jingyi.cui@yale.edu

Adelaide Feibel | adelaide.feibel@yale.edu

  • Perturbed Pundit

    Both the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program and the H-1B visa are vehicles that put US citizens at a great disadvantage and need to be reformed. Here’s why:

    OPT
    ——
    OPT amounts to the government offering a $30,000 incentive to employers for hiring a foreign student instead of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. This bonus takes the form of the employer being excempt from paying payroll tax for their foreign student workers (due to their student status, which they technically still have under OPT in spite of having graduated). Why hire Americans, eh?

    Since this tax exemption from payroll tax was pointed out in a lawsuit against DHS, and has been one of the major points raised by critics, DHS was well aware of it. Yet they’re refusing to address it or even acknowledge it.

    In contrast to DHS previous statements, in which they openly admitted that they intend OPT as an end-run around the H-1B cap, they now describe OPT in warm and fuzzy terms of “mentoring” (putting the “T” back into OPT). That raises several questions:

    If the U.S. indeed “needs” the foreign students (DHS’s phrasing on this point verges on desperation) to remedy a STEM labor shortage, why do these students need training? The DHS/industry narrative is that the U.S. lacks sufficient workers with STEM training, while the foreign workers are supposedly already trained. And, if workers with such training are indeed needed, why won’t these special mentoring programs be open to Americans? Why just offer them to foreign students? Since DHS admitted that its motivation in OPT is to circumvent the H-1B cap, does that mean that if the cap were high enough to accommodate everyone, these same foreign students wouldn’t need training after all?

    H-1B
    ——-
    While lobbying Congress for more H-1B visas, industry claims H-1B workers are the “best and brightest”. Come payday, however, they’re entry-level workers.

    The GAO put out a report on the H-1B visa that discusses at some length the fact that the vast majority of H-1B workers are hired into entry-level positions. In fact, most are at “Level I”, which is officially defined by the Dept. of Labor as those who have a “basic understanding of duties and perform routine tasks requiring limited judgment”. Moreover, the GAO found that a mere 6% of H-1B workers are at “Level IV”, which is officially defined by the US Dept. of Labor as those who are “fully competent” [1]. This belies the industry lobbyists’ claims that H-1B workers are hired because they’re experts that can’t be found among the U.S. workforce.

    So this means one of two things: either employers are looking for entry-level workers (in which case, their rhetoric about needing “the best and brightest” is meaningless), or they’re looking for more experienced workers but only paying them at the Level I, entry-level pay scale. In my opinion, employers are using the H-1B visa to engage in legalized age discrimination, as the vast majority of H-1B workers are under the age of 35 [2], especially those at the Level I and Level II categories.

    Any way you slice it, it amounts to H-1B visa abuse, all facilitated and with the blessings of the US government.

    The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has never shown a sharp upward trend of Computer Science graduate starting salaries, which would indicate a labor shortage (remember – the vast majority of H-1B visas are granted for computer-related positions). In fact, according to their survey for Fall 2015, starting salaries for CS grads went down by 4% from the prior year. This is particularly interesting in that salaries overall rose 5.2% [3][4].

    References:
    [1] GAO-11-26: H-1B VISA PROGRAM – Reforms Are Needed to Minimize the Risks and Costs of Current Program
    [2] Characteristics of H-1B Specialty Occupation Workers Fiscal Year 2016 Annual Report to Congress October 1, 2015 – September 30, 2016
    [3] NACE Fall 2015 Salary Survey
    [4] NACE Salary Survey – September 2014 Executive Summary