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Foreign Tech And Engineering Students Can Now Stay In The U.S. Longer

New visa rules will allow certain students to work in the United States for as long as three years after graduating.

Posted on March 10, 2016, at 2:44 p.m. ET

Frank Franklin Ii / AP

Some foreign students will be allowed to work in the United States on their student visas for as long as three years after graduating thanks to a new federal rule, which will go into effect Friday.

The rule, which only applies to students studying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), requires them to attend accredited universities in order get the visa extension. Those who attend unaccredited schools can only stay in the U.S. for one year.

The regulation is meant to attract high-demand tech and engineering talent to the U.S., but it's also an attempt to close a loophole that for years allowed so-called visa mills to flourish, bringing in thousands of students to unregulated — and in some cases essentially nonexistent — American colleges.

The passage of the Obama administration rule, which grants a 24-month work extension to international STEM students, is a boost both for foreign students and for the American universities that have been increasingly trying to recruit them.

Foreign students are increasingly important sources of revenue for many American colleges.

The vast majority of foreign students pay full tuition, without relying on institutional scholarships or even federal student loans. They came to the United States in droves in 2015, growing at the fastest rate in 35 years. Most, especially those studying science and technology, came from China and India.

"This extension is absolutely going to help colleges in the competition for the limited pool of international students [that want] a top-flight education in an advanced industrial economy," said Bill Stock, the incoming president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

"As a kid, you have this craze of going to the U.S. to study," said Sapan Patel, an Indian student who graduated in 2012 with a master's degree from NYU's Tandon School of Engineering. "But the worry and stress of getting a job in the U.S., to have that hanging over your head, that scares you." The difficulty of the process is enough, Patel said, that "some of my friends might decide to go to Canada, where getting a work permit and becoming a citizen is much easier, or to Australia."

Typically with student visas, foreign students are given a year to work in the U.S. after graduation.

The work period is called "optional practical training," or OPT, and it also gives students time to apply for a competitive H1-B visa. But a strict cap on the number of skilled worker visas meant that many foreign students lost out on the lottery and were forced to return home immediately.

A 2008 Bush administration rule allowed students with degrees in science and engineering to stay in the country an additional 17 months. The new regulation by the Department of Homeland Security extends that time period to two years. That extra time can be crucial because it allows students to enter the lottery for an H-1B visa for a third or even fourth time, increasing their chances of being allowed to work in the U.S. long-term.

It's "important have that extra year to file for a work visa," said Patel. "And you have more time to prepare, to not have the stress that you'll be kicked out of the country after 29 months."

The Obama's new two-year extension requires student to study at accredited schools.

Previously, even students at schools that had not received a stamp of approval from the Education Department's accrediting agencies could take advantage of the rule — a loophole that to the proliferation of unaccredited, mostly for-profit schools offering science degrees, said Neil Ruiz, a professor at George Washington University who has studied the makeup of foreign students in the U.S.

A handful of those unaccredited schools, which swelled to more than 1,000 students on the boon of the OPT extension, were eventually shut down by the government, which said they functioned essentially as visa mills, allowing students to work out of state without attending classes. School leaders, like the president of Tri-Valley and Herguan University in California, were eventually indicted and jailed for visa fraud.

"It was an unintended consequence," Ruiz said. "It basically created a gray market for students who wanted to work in the U.S., which created Tri-Valleys."

With the new regulation, the Ruiz said, "The Obama administration is trying to make up for that. They're trying to fix mistakes made back in 2008" by requiring accreditation — and thus, increased oversight.

Jupiterimages / Getty Images

A earlier BuzzFeed News examination found indications that some accredited schools are enrolling vast numbers of foreign students with almost no oversight by their accreditor.

At one Education Department-approved agency, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, oversight of foreign students is significantly more lax than for U.S. students. ACICS does not require schools to submit employment information, which it calls a "top barometer of institutional quality" for foreign students. As a result, one school, Northwestern Polytechnic University, received accreditation from ACICS without submitting employment data for 99% of its graduates.

"There is a question of how stringent" accreditation is, Ruiz said. By requiring students to attend an accredited school, "This regulation improves things. But they have to make sure that the schools are not all just going to the same weak accreditor."

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