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Over the last twenty years, U.S. colleges and universities have dramatically expanded their STEM academic programs to prepare graduates for careers in increasingly technical and scientific-based areas of employment. As many students and their parents decide on what career paths to pursue well before entering a university, STEM fields offer a bright future with excellent return on investment. But what exactly is STEM?

Defining STEM

The acronym STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. International students considering study in the United States find these kinds of academic programs increasingly attractive. As of this July, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported that nearly half of the 1.1 million international students in university-level study in the United States are in STEM fields.

According to DHS, to be considered an official STEM field, institutions’ academic programs must be included in the U.S. Department of Education’s “Classification of Instructional Programs (such as) … engineering, biological sciences, mathematics, and physical sciences, or a related field. In general, related fields will include fields involving research, innovation, or development of new technologies using engineering, mathematics, computer science, or natural sciences (including physical, biological, and agricultural sciences).” This list of 200+ academic programs represents all the possible fields of study for colleges and universities in the United States to offer that can be considered STEM fields.

Many U.S. institutions even go so far as to reclassify some of their business-related academic programs like economics as a STEM field in order to attract international students. Well-known institutions including a handful of Ivy League colleges (e.g. Yale), large state universities (e.g. University of Wisconsin), and prominent technical institutes (e.g. MIT) have recently made these changes. Expect more institutions to do the same in the years to come.


One might wonder what motivates colleges to make such changes. What has become clear in the United States over the past twenty years, is that as a country we need to emphasize teaching science and math subjects more heavily throughout our education system and especially in post-secondary institutions. Jobs in STEM fields are growing more rapidly than other fields according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

In general, students who receive degrees in STEM fields in the United States, have higher salaries than their non-STEM classmates. According to this Wall Street Journal data, for example, a student graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering earns a starting salary for their first job that is 72% higher than a student with a BA in journalism.

Of course, deciding on what academic subject to study based solely on potential starting salary is not the wisest choice. Ask yourself: will you enjoy studying and working in that subject for many years to come? Is a STEM degree right for you? Last year, our colleagues at U.S. News Education provided a great review of what STEM majors might look like for students.

Post-Study Work Opportunities

But for international students seeking to study STEM programs in the United States, the overwhelming draw since 2008 has been the extra work authorization available through STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT). Traditionally, international students in F-1 student visa status can apply for 12 months of OPT post-completion of studies work permission at each degree level (associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral). This benefit allows international students to gain valuable work experience in their field of study after finishing their degree before they might return home or move on to pursue another degree.

Students who complete STEM degrees in the United States, can now apply for an extra two years of OPT work authorization at each degree level. During their initial year of OPT, STEM-degree students apply for the second and third year they receive as a benefit of their status. So, for international students who come for STEM bachelor’s degree, they have three full years of OPT work available when they finish their studies. If they then pursue a STEM master’s degree, another three years is possible, as well as another three-year OPT work authorization period if they complete a doctoral degree.

Whichever academic field you choose, if you pursue a STEM program in the United States, there are significant advantages in terms of work, potential salaries, and skills that you will have to open many doors for you in life. Good luck!