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Some economics departments are changing the formal classification of their programs so that international students have more opportunities to work in the U.S. after they graduate.

It may seem like the most bureaucratic of changes, but changing the formal classification -- what’s known as the federal CIP code -- for an economics program from the one for “economics, general” to the one for “econometrics and quantitative economics” means that international graduates of those programs can work in the U.S. for two extra years after they graduate while staying on their student visas.

That’s because the Department of Homeland Security considers econometrics and quantitative economics -- but not general economics -- to be a STEM field. International graduates of designated STEM programs are eligible for what’s known as the STEM OPT extension, which enables them to work in their field for a total of three years in the U.S. while staying on their universities’ sponsorship. By contrast, students with degrees in non-STEM fields are only eligible for one year of OPT, which stands for optional practical training.

Those involved in recruiting top international students who are considering options in the United States and other countries have long complained that the limited options for postgraduation work in the U.S. place American colleges and universities at a disadvantage. The extra two years that students in eligible STEM programs can spend on spend on OPT arguably make them more hirable, and give them additional chances to try their luck in the annual lottery for the limited number of H-1B skilled worker visas.

Michael Kuehlwein, chair of the economics department and the George E. and Nancy O. Moss Professor of Economics at Pomona College, said he was approached by an international student who asked if the department’s economics major could be reclassified as a STEM field. That student had a friend at Williams College, which had already made such a change.

“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,” Kuehlwein said. “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.”

The definition for “economics, general” on the U.S. Department of Education website is for “a general program that focuses on the systematic study of the production, conservation and allocation of resources in conditions of scarcity, together with the organizational frameworks related to these processes. Includes instruction in economic theory, micro- and macroeconomics, comparative economic systems, money and banking systems, international economics, quantitative analytical methods, and applications to specific industries and public policy issues.”

By contrast, the definition for “econometrics and quantitative econometrics” is more specialized and mathematically focused: “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.”

“Pomona’s program includes instruction in all of those things,” Kuehlwein said, ticking through the items on the list. “It just seemed clear that we satisfied the criteria.”

Other departments that have made the change include the economics department at Yale University, which announced in January that its undergraduate and graduate economics programs now carry the CIP code for econometrics and quantitative economics. “The new classification more closely corresponds to the quantitative and analytic nature of our programs,” says a statement on the Yale economics department website.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also made this change in 2016. “At economics at MIT we are the most technical economics program in the United States, probably in the world,” said David Autor, the associate head of the department and Ford Professor of Economics. Autor said in the past there was never much of a reason to care about the economics program’s CIP code, which was used primarily for the purpose of submitting data to the federal government. But after the Homeland Security Department designated econometrics as a STEM field -- a move it made in 2012 -- there were new stakes for students.

“The question we had to ask is, does this qualify under the econometrics designation? It’s not that we would say our program is more econometrics than anything else, but does it meet that criteria, because the stakes were high,” Autor said. He said the answer is yes.

“We think our students are fully qualified under that heading.”

Universities such as Yale and MIT have no shortage of international applicants, but a STEM designation for an economics program unquestionably offers a recruiting edge. In a proposal to change the CIP code for its graduate economics program from the one for economics to the one for econometrics in 2016, the economics department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison cited competition from other programs that had the STEM designation. “This year, we have already had 6 instances of applicants to our terminal MS program declining our offer and accepting the offers [of] other terminal MS programs and the reason given is that the other programs offer a STEM designation,” says the proposal considered by the University Academic Planning Council in 2016.

More recently, Madison’s agricultural and applied economics department announced in January that it had received approval to change the CIP code for all of its graduate degrees from the one for “agricultural economics.”

“When we looked at the description, we pretty much did everything in the description of this new CIP designation, and the old one didn’t seem to fit us all that well,” said Jeremy Foltz, the department chair. “Since we’re brand-new at this, we’re not sure all of the things this will mean. We know that there are advantages in terms of the optional practical training program that our students will get an extra two years, so we think this will help make our program more attractive to foreign students.”

It’s not just economics. Heidi Pickett, the director of MIT’s master of finance program, said the program changed the CIP code from the one for “business/commerce, general” (non-STEM) to the one for “financial mathematics” (STEM) in 2016 -- a change that she said reflects the evolution of the curriculum to include more financial mathematics and financial engineering course work over the years. Pickett said she’s fielded inquiries from other master of finance programs interested in making the same change.

“We’re MIT, so we have such a strong brand that we’re going to get way more applicants than we could possibly seek,” said Pickett. Still, she continued, “the finance space, particularly the master of finance space, is becoming very crowded here in the U.S., as well as outside the U.S. Not all programs are going to be able to survive in the long run. Having the brand that we have but also the STEM designation, I think that will help us in the end to maintain our position -- and I think that will be a challenge for some of the second- and lower-tier programs.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program did not comment directly on the choice of some universities to reclassify their programs. “If the Department of Education recognizes a degree program as a STEM degree and that degree falls within the two-digit codes designated by DHS as a qualifying degree, then that degree would qualify for the STEM OPT extension,” a spokeswoman said.

Peter Rousseau, the secretary-treasurer of the American Economic Association, said the association has no position on universities reclassifying their programs. “The reclassification question is something determined by universities, and they may have several reasons for doing so, including the nature of their programs falling increasingly into the STEM domain, making the reclassification the intellectually appropriate one,” he said.

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