Why Colleges Want Economics to Be a STEM Major

Most U.S. college graduates start to worry about finding work even before they put on a gown, take the stage and receive their degrees. But for international students on F-1 student visas, securing the right job after graduation can make the difference between staying in the U.S. or returning to their home country. This has prompted some universities to tweak how they classify their degrees.

International students are allowed to work in the U.S. for 12 months during what is known as an optional practical training period or OPT and those who have earned a degree in certain science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields can apply for a 24-month extension. Recent graduates use the OPT period to explore the job market until they find an employer willing to sponsor them for a H-1B visa.

Universities are now changing the federal classification code of their economics majors from one for general economics (45.0601) to econometrics and quantitative economics (45.0603) in order to give their students this option. Econometrics and quantitative economics happens to be the only field of study taught at economics departments that the Department of Homeland Security considers a STEM field. (A complete list of STEM fields can be found here.)

The National Center for Economics says the econometrics and quantitative economics code is for "a program that focuses on the systematic study of mathematical and statistical analysis of economic phenomena and problems. Includes instruction in economic statistics, optimization theory, cost/benefit analysis, price theory, economic modeling, and economic forecasting and evaluation." 

Some colleges already call econ a STEM

Princeton, MIT, Brown, NYU, Yale and Columbia are among the colleges that have reclassified their programs in economics. Some of these institutions have addressed the way this benefits international students in their announcements. Yale's economics department even lists "Does the Economics Major have a STEM designation" as one of the frequently asked questions on its website. The University of Pennsylvania is reportedly exploring whether it should seek reclassification of its economics major. Northwestern University's economics department voted unanimously on April 17 to classify the economics major as a STEM subject after students submitted a petition, according to The Daily Northwestern.

“We do have a fair number of international students who major in economics, and I have heard that only being able to spend one year in this country after you graduate is a real impediment when you’re on the job market,” said Michael Kuehlwein, chair of the economics department at Pomona College, to InsideHigherEd. “I’ve actually heard that our majors they have gone on, have gotten a job in consulting or whatnot, and they literally have to leave the country after a year. So I looked at the criteria for this econometrics and quantitative economics major, and it just looked like what we do here already; it seemed like a very close fit. It seemed appropriate to say that this is what we do, and if our international students can benefit, that would be fantastic.”

Federal data looked at by the National Science Foundation has revealed there has been a sharp decline in international students enrolling in U.S. universities since the Trump administration unveiled its 'America First' agenda and spoke of curbing H-1B visa abuse. For American universities this is deeply worrying since International students tend to pay a lot more in tuition fees than U.S. citizens. For colleges, being able to market their economics degrees as STEM majors to international students in the current environment is obviously very important.

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