Which students got the most Optional Practical Training (OPT) approvals?
what are the characteristics the students that make up the 1.5 million international graduates that enrolled in this program? Source: AFP/Chris Hondros/Getty Images North America

The Optional Practical Training (OPT) program lets international students on F-1 study visas to work during or after graduation in the US for 12 months under the OPT program. Since 2008, the federal training program has quadrupled in size, with a 400 percent increase in international students graduating and working in STEM fields.

But what are the characteristics of the students that make up the 1.5 million international graduates enrolled in this program?

A new report by the Pew Research Centre, based on US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data received through a Freedom of Information Act requests, sheds some light into this:

1. Master’s students outnumber other degree holders under OPT

There were 840,800 international Master’s graduates in the program between 2004 and 2016. This means they make up 57 percent of all graduates in the program. It more than tripled (337 percent increase) from just 39,500 in 2004 to 172,900 in 2016.

Compare that with the OPT approvals given to doctorate degree holders, which grew at 187 percent, bachelor’s by 115 percent and associate degree holders by just 21 percent.

This boom in approvals for master’s students came about after the OPT was revised during the Bush administration in 2008 to allow STEM graduates an extension of 17 months work authorisation. Before this revision, Master’s OPT enrollees decreased by 7 percent between 2004 and 2007. After the revision, it increased 322 percent between 2008 and 2016.

2. They are enrolled in public colleges

Three universities make up the top three in terms of OPT enrollee numbers between 2004 and 2016: the University of Southern California (27,100), New York University (26,800) and Columbia University (22,600). All three are private, nonprofit colleges.

Despite this, more than half (56 percent) of international graduates in OPT between this same period got their degrees from public colleges or universities. City University of New York’s Bernard M Baruch College had the highest number of OPT enrollees among public colleges with 18,500 students.

Private universities only make up 41 percent of OPT enrollees, of which 38 percent were not-for-profit schools and 3 percent were for-profit institutions.

3. Most come from Asia

Asian international students represent nearly three-quarter (74 percent) of all OPT approvals from 2004 to 2016. This was followed by graduates of European citizenship (8 percent), along with students from Latin America and the Caribbean (8 percent), followed by African students (5 percent).

More than half (57 percent) of OPT enrollees during this period are from India, China and South Korea.

Indian students take the largest share among this pool of Asian OPT enrollees, with 441,400 (30 percent of the total). The majority of them are STEM graduates. The number of Indian students graduating with STEM degrees exploded during this period, recording a 658 percent increase. In contrast, there was only a 93 percent increase for Indian students with non-STEM degrees.

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