In the United States, immigration remains a contentious issue. While the recent 35-day shutdown was related to security on the southern border, the Trump administration has also taken aim at the H-1B visa, which is required of any international MBA student who wishes to work Stateside.
How hard is it to get an H-1B visa?
As expected under the current administration, the issues that face international MBA students attempting to obtain H-1B visas are numerous and complex.
The first is that many companies are unwilling to sponsor MBA students’ visa applications. According to the 2018 GMAC Corporate Recruiters Survey, 53% of companies in the United States have no intention of hiring international students.
If a student can find a company willing to sponsor them, they have to deal with the hardest part of the process: getting in the lottery.
Each year, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has a lottery for the H-1B visa. In April, USCIS opens 85,000 spaces for applicants. These spots disappear in less than five days, meaning there are many who can’t even get into the lottery.
According to the USCIS, they received more than 190,000 applications for the open spaces in the most recent fiscal year (2019). Since all the spaces were filled, only 45% of applicants who make it into the lottery are accepted.
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As one might assume, this process has had a major impact on American business schools.
“It’s fair to say we’ve seen some employers being more cautious about sponsoring H-1B visas than they had been in the past,” says Russ Morgan, senior associate dean of full-time programs at Duke Fuqua.
Although there have been a few success stories, Russ notes that those at Duke Fuqua “have had to recognize that the H-1B visa lottery has become increasingly competitive.” This increased competition has led to some of the school’s graduates returning to their home countries as they simply could not obtain the visa.
Because the H-1B visa process has become so difficult to navigate, fewer international students are applying to business schools in the United States.
According to the 2018 GMAC Application Trends Survey, international student applications to MBA programs have declined 13% over the two years of the Trump administration. From 2017 to 2018, there has been an 8% decrease in international student applications.
Ruthie Pyles, assistant dean and director of graduate admissions and financial aid at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, says more students looking at Olin are also looking at programs in Europe, Canada, and other regions where they can more easily find work after graduation. “Certainly, we have noticed heightened concerns from our international students around this issue,” she says.
Fuqua and Olin are not the only schools that have struggled with declining international enrolment. One way many schools hope to turn the tide is through STEM-designated programs, which provide students with three years of Optional Practical Training (OPT) versus the one year of training provided to those who graduated with non-STEM-designated degrees.
In addition to its STEM offerings, Jennifer Whitten, associate dean and director of the Weston Career Center at Olin, notes that the school has developed a number of initiatives to help graduates make successful career transitions.
One initiative involves a workshop where immigration attorneys visit campus to talk to students. “These workshops are designed to familiarize students with the current state of the law, provide insight into the process, and offer ideas about how to position themselves as they apply for jobs in the United States,” she says.
Jennifer mentions that international MBA students can also graduate earlier so that they can enter the H-1B lottery in April. Another strategy that Olin has taken to help its international MBA students is provide corporate relations resources in Weston Center, which allow students to develop relationships with companies that are willing to help students with their H-1B applications or provide them with opportunities outside of the United States.
Given the constantly fluctuating nature of the immigration debate in the United States, it is difficult to predict what will happen going forward. However, there are some promising developments for MBA students.
For one, there is potential for the USCIS to accommodate 5,430 more applicants with master’s degrees or higher. This change could provide more opportunities for MBA students, as they are the high-quality applicants the US government believes are in short supply.
Russ remains optimistic. “Our hope for 2019 is that policymakers across the world begin to understand that a thriving economy relies on access to talent across borders,” he says.