To Extend International Student Visas, Pomona Designates Economics as STEM Major


Middle aged man smiles
The designation of economics as a STEM major was pioneered by chair of the Pomona College Economics department Michael K. Kuehlwein. (Photo courtesy of Pomona College)

This semester, Pomona College decided to reclassify economics as a STEM major to allow international students with economics degrees to apply to stay in the United States for three years after graduation.

Currently, all international students can apply for Optional Practical Training, which allows them to work in the United States without sponsorship for one year after graduation. However, STEM graduates are allowed to extend their OPT an additional two years.

The change reclassifies Pomona’s economics program under the federal subdivision of econometrics and quantitative economics, a branch that qualifies for STEM.

“It’s a big difference for our majors, and we have a fair number of international students who do major in economics, so this is a real advantage for them,” economics department chair Michael Kuehlwein said.

Kuehlwein says approximately one quarter of Pomona’s economics majors are international students. He added that the one-year limit has been a major obstacle in international students finding jobs in the United States.

“I spoke with a senior economics major earlier in the semester, and he told me that he was in the middle of an interview with a consulting company and they asked him, ‘How long can you work in the United States?’ He said, ‘One year,’ and that was the end of the interview – they weren’t interested,” Kuehlwein said.

For international students, having an extra two years to seek employment is a huge advantage.

Economics major Jody Baik PO ’19 said this was good news for her, especially as a junior international student starting to think about life after college.

 “Employers might be more willing to hire international students majoring in economics because they do not have to worry about sponsorship for three years of OPT instead of one,” Baik said. “Moreover, once I get a job offer, I know now that it’ll be less difficult for me to stay in the U.S. for two more years.”

International student Sachit Taneja PO ’18, an economics and international relations double major, had been pushing for the STEM change since this past spring. In 2016, he met with friends attending Williams College and Princeton University, who succeeded in convincing their colleges to classify their economics departments as STEM.  

“It costs Pomona zero dollars to let me stay for two years more and they’re not doing it?” Taneja said. “So I came back and was like, I’ve met other people who have made this change, I have their documents, I’m going to make this happen here.’”

Initially, there was some confusion about the process to change, according to Taneja.

“They had no clue what to do – they didn’t know who I was supposed to talk to,” he said. At the start of this school year, Taneja spoke with the registrar and Kuehlwein who, after reaching out to other colleges to see how the process was done, submitted a proposal for the department’s change.

“It was a pretty easy argument to make that we are already STEM,” Kuehlwein said, noting that everything listed under the branch of econometrics and quantitative economics was already fulfilled by the economics department’s curriculum.

After three weeks of waiting to hear back from the curriculum committee, Taneja started to become worried.

“They have my future in their hands and I’m not allowed to address this committee in person,” he said. But when the issue was finally addressed, it was approved unanimously.

Tanvi Rajgaria PO ’18, an economics major and student representative on the curriculum committee, emphasized the importance of this change for international students.

“In the past few years, there have been some decisions made actively against international students,” Rajgaria said, citing Pomona’s curricular practical training controversy in 2016 and an outside study of Pomona’s international student resources that concluded there was not enough support for the number of international students. Student organizations such as International Student Mentorship Program were forced to fill a lot of those gaps.

After the vote, the committee discussed the current national educational climate, which it said is biased towards science and math. There was also concern regarding “the ethics and […] the politics of playing into the hand of these weird sort of meritocratic skill-based visas,” Rajgaria said.

The committee also discussed changing Pomona’s statistics to reflect economics as a STEM major, and the availability of STEM scholarships and fellowships for economic majors. The committee left these decisions up for broader discussion, but according to Rajgaria, the working assumption is that economics is not currently included in Pomona’s STEM statistics and will maintain the same fellowships and scholarships currently available.

“I one-hundred percent support this decision by the college and the econ department,” Rajgaria said. “But it does have [an] implication, especially at a liberal arts college where we’ve been trying so hard to keep humanities and social sciences all at the same level of enrollment and importance.”

Economics, math, computer science, neuroscience, and biology have consistently been the most popular majors at Pomona in the past five years. However, the economics curriculum will be unaffected by this change, Kuehlwein said, emphasizing that it is still a social science major – just classified under STEM.

Currently, this change is only at Pomona. However, Kuehlwein has had discussions with economic department chairs at the other 5Cs and beyond about making the same change.

“I think you are going to see a wave of departments across the country [make the change],” Kuehlwein said.       

A previous version of this article incorrectly described what the OPT acronym stands for. TSL regrets this error.
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