EconSTEM
Credit: Pranay Vemulamada

Penn is currently exploring whether it will seek reclassification for its economics major to be designated as a STEM program, which would ultimately help international students in the work visa application process.

Just recently, Yale University reclassified its economics major as a STEM program, and Princeton University and Brown University each have reclassified the economics major as a STEM program. This trend has become increasingly popular among universities since the Department of Homeland Security included “Econometric and Quantitative Economics” in the list of STEM-designated degree programs in 2012, the Yale Daily News reported. 

“The School of Arts and Sciences, like Yale, considers economics to be a social science,” College Dean Steven Fluharty wrote in an emailed statement. 

“The Department of Homeland Security classifies ‘Econometric and Quantitative Economics’ as a STEM field for the purpose of a STEM OPT Extension, and the SAS Ph.D. program in Economics is now classified in this category," Fluharty continued. "The Economics department has begun exploring whether it is appropriate to seek this classification for its undergraduate program.”

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services allows international students without a work visa to work for one year on their student visa, a period known as Optional Practice Training. Students majoring in STEM-designated programs are eligible for a two-year extension to their OPT.

Because this benefit is specifically given to those majoring in STEM, and humanities students tend to have a more difficult time finding employers to sponsor them in their H-1B work visa application, international students often opt to pursue a path in STEM. 

College sophomore Aula Ali who is majoring in economics said that although she did take future visa status into account when choosing majors, it wasn’t a deciding factor for her because she is also open to working back home post-graduation.

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She said that a similar change at Penn would be beneficial for international students overall. 

“I know for a fact that visa status is a huge problem especially when we’re looking into internships because our prospects as international students in humanities are very limited,” Ali said. “If the econ status was to change, that would be very helpful.”

Currently, the economics department at Penn offers two undergraduate majors — economics and mathematical economics. Unlike the economics major, the mathematical economics major “emphasizes a more formal mathematical analysis, preparing students for academic-style research in economics,” according to the department website

While mathematical economics fits under the “Econometric and Quantitative Economics” label and is thus considered a STEM major, economics — one of the most popular majors at Penn — is not. 

College sophomore Gehna Nandwani, who is majoring in mathematical economics, said that the program’s STEM designation was one of the factors she took into consideration when declaring her major. 

“Reclassifying economics seems like a really good opportunity and incentive for international students to pursue the field in the United States,” Nandwani said. 

The process that Yale underwent involved a petition by its Economics department to reclassify both its undergraduate and graduate programs as STEM, which was ultimately approved by the Connecticut Office of Higher Education. As a result, their programs, once classified as “General" by DHS, are now classified as “Econometric and Quantitative Economics."

If the same change were to happen at Penn, the process would likely have to be approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Economics Undergraduate Chair Holger Sieg said in an emailed statement. 

“At Penn, I suspect that any reclassification request would need to be ultimately approved by the PA Dept of Education," Sieg wrote. "Penn cannot unilaterally reclassify a major as STEM as far as I know since it affects immigration policy. It’s not trivial to get this done and there is a multi-layered review process.”

“Math Econ at Penn is STEM and open to all the international and U.S. students,” Sieg said. “Any student at Penn who needs the STEM certification should pursue [a] Math Econ degree.” 

Amidst the tightening of immigration laws under the Trump administration, employment visa authorization has become a particularly sensitive issue for international students. For one, there has been notable increased scrutiny of the H1-B visas. During the first eight months of 2017, 85,000 “requests for evidence” were issued to H-1B visa applicants, a 45 percent increase over the comparable period in 2016. 

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