By Calla Li (PO ’22)
American universities across the country have long regarded international students as a means of not just increasing campus diversity, but increasing revenue too, as international students receive (on average) far less financial aid than their American peers. In the 2017-2018 school year alone, 1.1 million international students representing over 100 countries were enrolled at American universities. The majority of these students are able to study in the U.S on student visas, which allow them to reside in the states so long as they are enrolled in an accredited academic institution. However, when international students graduate, those who wish to continue living and working in the U.S. face the daunting task of applying for work visas and/or permanent residency cards (a.k.a green cards). Many are forced to return to their home countries post-grad, as increasing competition for fewer slots has inevitably resulted in the rejection of many qualified candidates.
Currently, the United States allows international students to apply for F- or M-category visas that grant them the ability to stay in the US for their duration of study at an American university or high school. Most international students arrive in the US on an F-1 visa, which may be renewed if the student decides to pursue a graduate education. While studying under an F-1 visa, students are not allowed to work off-campus or take less than the minimum course load. This means that international students are not afforded the same flexibility that their American counterparts may have, such as the ability to take a semester off or work an off-campus job. Since on-campus jobs are often reserved for students on financial aid, and international students rarely receive financial aid, those who wish to help alleviate the cost of a four-year college tuition are left without any source of income. While some international students choose to work illegally off-campus and receive pay in cash, they run the risk of deportation if they are discovered. Similarly, international students are unable to take any breaks in their education, as any gaps in their course load could result in the termination of their visas. This puts international students under greater pressure; a mistake as small as a bad grade or a minor disciplinary infraction can jeopardize their student visa.
The aforementioned challenges are only the tip of the iceberg, as international students face a whole new set of problems once they graduate. The F-1 visa gives students 60 days upon the completion of their study to return to their home countries. For students who wish to stay in the U.S., there are a few choices. The most popular option is obtaining an H1-B work visa which allows individuals with “specialized knowledge” to work temporarily in the U.S. In order to qualify for an H1-B visa, individuals must find an employer willing to sponsor the visa process, thus limiting their employment options to companies that have the necessary infrastructure in place to sponsor international employees. The number of H1-B visas is technically capped at 65,000 per year under a 1990 law, but in practice, double that amount are actually issued to foreign nationals annually. However, many qualified individuals for the visa are still rejected due to limited slots. As President Trump has implemented policies that tighten immigration quotas, denials of H1-B visas are also on the rise, reaching 22.4% ( or 13, 860 denials) in the fourth quarter of the 2017 fiscal year, a 7% increase from the third quarter of the same fiscal year.
Another option graduating students have is an F-1 training extension, which grants a one-year-extension on visas in order for student to receive some sort of practical training. One popular F-1 extension route known as “STEM OPT (Optional Practical Training)” allows students who have degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math fields to take part in training programs after graduation for up to three years. An indirect consequence of both the STEM opt program and the high barriers for H1-B qualification is the disproportionate number of international students entering STEM fields, even if it is not their personally desired area of study. This in turns makes H1-B visas and STEM Opt extensions even more competitive, resulting in a vicious cycle whereby increased demands feeds increased competition and selectivity.
While American universities hope to integrate international students into their student body and make them feel at home during their four years on campus, the reality is far from that. International students are presented with a unique set of challenges that arise from their immigration status, forcing them to make difficult decisions that their American peers do not have to grapple with. These added burdens along with cultural and social difficulties affect international students’ ability to adjust to American college life, and it is essential that their peers and the administration acknowledge that challenge.