The Department of Homeland Security recently published a final rule governing optional practical training (OPT), a period of authorized employment for foreign national graduates of U.S. universities. The standard OPT period is 12 months. Since 2008, graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) have been eligible for an additional 17 months of OPT if they work for a company enrolled in E-Verify, a program that allows employers to verify the work authorization and identity of employees.

The new rule, effective on May 10, 2016, significantly changes the parameters of OPT for STEM graduates. Under the new rule, the STEM OPT period will be lengthened to 24 months, allowing STEM graduates a total of 36 months of OPT. This will benefit employers by allowing longer periods of employment before an H-1B visa or other employer-sponsored visa needs to be secured. Additional obligations will be placed on employers, though; employers will now have to work with the STEM graduate to complete and submit Form I-983 “Training Plan for STEM OPT Students.” The training plan must identify the tasks and assignments the STEM graduate will carry out and how they relate to the graduate’s STEM degree. The training plan also requires employer attestations, including: (1) the STEM graduate is not replacing a full or part-time, temporary or permanent U.S. worker and (2) the terms and conditions of the STEM OPT are commensurate with the terms and conditions applicable to similarly situated U.S. workers.

Other changes in the final rule include:

  • a second STEM extension can be obtained by earning another qualifying STEM degree at a higher degree level
  • a previously-obtained STEM degree can support a STEM extension even if it was not the degree for which the 12-month OPT was granted
  • an updated STEM Designated Degree Program list

Any STEM OPT extension applications filed and approved before May 10, 2016 will receive a 17-month period. STEM OPT applications that are currently pending and adjudicated after May 10, 2016 will have to show eligibility for the 24-month period under the new final rule, and STEM OPT applications filed after May 10, 2016 will have to be filed with evidence of eligibility under the new rule. Some students within their 17-month STEM extension will be able to apply for an additional 7-month extension; these students must have at least 150 days left on their current STEM OPT periods and requests for the 7-month extension must be filed between May 10, 2016 and August 8, 2016.