Visa rule change to prompt more math, science majors

By Zac Farber

Feifei Zuo ’11 planned to double major in economics and art. But a new Department of Homeland Security rule, which offers international students extended post-graduation visas if they major in math or hard sciences, has caused Zuo to rethink her career plans. “Now,” said Zuo, a Chinese student, “I am thinking of an econ-math double major and an art minor.”

Before the change, all students-regardless of major-were permitted to stay in the United States for 12 months after graduation as part of the Optional Practical Training program. The new rule, announced on April 4, allows students in the qualified majors who are sponsored by companies in their field to extend their OPT time by an additional 17 months.

The Macalester majors that will qualify for the OPT extension will be biochemistry, biology, chemistry, neuroscience, physics, mathematics and computer science, said Aaron Colhapp, the international student program coordinator.

Colhapp said that since April 4, three international students have told him they intend to switch to or add a Math major.

“If students come over here from developing countries,” he said, “and they find out they can stay here for 12 months in one major or they can stay here for two and a half years in another, you’ll probably go for the one with two and a half years.”

Colhapp and Zuo said they were frustrated by the unequal way the program benefits certain students.

“I see it as a very discriminatory law,” Colhapp said.

“The U.S. government,” Zuo said, “has always been giving priority to international tip-top talents in science and math so I’m not surprised to see this preferential treatment come out.”

Colhapp thinks there is a possibility that Economics majors could be eligible for the OPT extension in the future. He points to a document on the Department of Homeland Security’s Web site that states: “DHS will continue to work with interested parties to evaluate the degrees that may be added to this list in the future, and will be reaching out to other agencies in the development of the final rule.”

Zuo said that while the OPT extension for science and math majors will increase majors in math and science, the extension is not the only factor that students will use to choose their major.

“It’ll definitely have an impact on the students who originally did not intend to major in science and math,” she said, “but that does not mean they would devote themselves to these fields. In this sense, this policy is not so effective.”

After international students’ OPT visas run out, they can enter the lottery for H-1B work visas to stay in the United States. The lottery is selective and random; there are 165,000 applicants each year for 65,000 spots.

“We have a lot of alumni who are going to see if they can get their H-1B visas who are econ majors,” Cohapp said. “They were thinking they were going to be able to stay here for a few years and now it looks like they may have to go home.