The National Science Board reported in late January 2022 that international students on temporary visas account for more than half of U.S. doctoral degrees in the STEM fields of economics, computer sciences, engineering, mathematics and statistics. During their first year in office the Biden Administration has made nearly 300 changes to the immigration system, some of which were made to support the expansion of the STEM temporary visa program for these international students.
Why Expand the STEM Temporary Visa Program?
International students are increasingly the lifeblood of academic research. International students are more likely than U. S. citizens and permanent residents to focus on the STEM field: 49% of students on temporary visas pursue STEM degrees while only 35% of U.S. citizens or permanent residents do. In 2019 temporary visa holders earned 57% of total master’s degrees in STEM fields and one-third of STEM doctorates. Given that foreign-born workers make up 45% of doctoral workers in STEM occupations, U.S. trained STEM doctorate recipients on temporary visas at the time of graduation are a vital source of STEM workers.
Business groups have argued that more immigration could help cool inflation and address the severe worker shortage particularly in the STEM fields. “These targeted actions will help American companies meet their critical workforce needs moving forward and is one of a series of key actions needed to address the workforce shortage crisis,” said Jon Baselice, U.S. Chamber of Commerce VP of Immigration Policy.
What are the Biden Administration Changes to the STEM Temporary Visa Program?
The biggest change made in late January was the addition of 22 new fields under the STEM umbrella, including cloud computing, data visualization and data science. Fields designated as STEM mean students receiving degrees in these fields can get temporary work visas for three years when they graduate versus the one year granted for non-STEM degrees. Included is an initiative to connect these students with U.S. businesses. This program generated just under 58,000 applications in fiscal 2020.
Over the last five years, international student enrollment at U.S. colleges has declined. Students are choosing to study in other English-speaking countries like the UK and Canada because the degree is less expensive and the path to becoming a citizen is clearer and often easier than in the U.S. For decades the U.S. led the world in the number of Science and Engineering doctorates awarded at 41,000 in 2018. China is closing the gap and in 2018 China awarded 38,000 doctorates in natural sciences and engineering.
The U.S. STEM workforce of 36 million people in diverse occupations that require STEM knowledge and expertise is 23% of the total U.S. workforce. Foreign born graduate students consistently indicate their desire to live and work in the U.S. after they graduate. Almost 80% of computer, mathematical sciences and engineering doctorates want to work here. Many believe it is critical to fulfill these students desires to remain competitive and a leader in the STEM world.