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To combat inequity faced by international students, Princeton must expand its departmental classifications

Students walking in front of a concrete building with large windows.
Ammaar Alam / The Daily Princetonian

As the Class of 2026 prepares to declare their majors this spring, sophomores anxiously dissect the options available to them. Which major would meet their academic interest? Which one would align with their career goals? But for international students, one more significant consideration weighs on their mind: which major would allow them to extend their time in the United States?

Normally, international students are accorded a 12-month Optional Practical Training (OPT) status by an American employer after graduation, giving them one year to apply for and receive a visa. The OPT, particularly the post-completion OPT, allows F-1 visa students to continue working in the U.S. after completing their studies in a field related to their area of study. However, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guidelines, international students pursuing a STEM degree at an American university are eligible for an additional two-year extension. Among other benefits, the total three-year period greatly improves job security and gives a college graduate more chances to apply for the H1-B visa lottery, which grants a more permanent work visa. 


Many international students whose primary academic interests lie in a non-STEM field end up in a Catch-22. They can prioritize majoring in a field that addresses their academic passion and potentially lose residency in the country in which they want to use their degree, or they can prioritize extending their stay in the U.S. post-graduation, only to be faced with job prospects that don’t interest them. Far too often, international students end up choosing the latter and sacrifice their primary academic interests for the sake of staying in this country, a place where they have oftentimes struggled significantly to access in the first place. To better support its international students, Princeton must expand its definition of STEM to include more A.B. fields and consider joint majors. 

Many students must make difficult choices between their academic passion and a degree with higher job security. Yet domestic students can still maintain their primary areas of interest as their academic major and combine it with minors that help expand their skill set for employment purposes. For example, a School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) major who wants to explore consulting or finance could explore minors in Statistics and Machine Learning or Finance. However, if an international student took the same path, they would be held back by the fact their primary “area of study” is not a STEM field. From the very beginning, certain paths are mostly inaccessible to international students who want to live and work in America. Many international students who want to study SPIA, for instance, may end up majoring in Economics because it is vaguely related to their passions and is considered a STEM field.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and Princeton can improve some of its practices to better support the nearly 12.5 percent of its undergraduate student body that is international. There are currently two major additional obstacles unique to international students at Princeton which make these choices even more difficult.

Firstly, Princeton does not allow students to pursue a double major. At other colleges, an international student can combine a degree in Public Policy or Business with one in Data Science or Environmental Science. Since the latter two are STEM fields according to the DHS list, that student gets the best of both worlds: a degree in a field they are passionate about, and the ability to extend their time in the U.S. If Princeton cannot allow students to pursue two distinct majors concurrently due to their rigorous independent work requirement, they should explore the possibility of “joint majors” similar to those offered by Harvard. With this, joint major options such as Public Policy and Econometrics or Political Science and Data Analytics could provide a path out of the current either/or decision that international students face between their academic passions and visa status.

Secondly, there is a lack of clarity as to how Princeton categorizes STEM fields. Although the DHS maintains a centralized list of fields that can count as “STEM or associated fields,” it is up to the institution providing the degree to make an application to DHS to have a specific degree classified as STEM. There is a lack of accessibility in terms of where the decision-making process takes place, what committees are involved and — most importantly — where the international students who are most affected by these decisions can voice their concerns. It is important to define more clearly to students how a Princeton degree is categorized as STEM and whom students can approach as the DHS continues to update its list of fields eligible for the OPT extension. 

Recently, in their July 2023 update, the DHS added “Social Sciences, Research and Quantitative Methods” as a STEM field eligible for the OPT extension. However, the SPIA and Politics departments remain categorized as non-STEM fields by Princeton, despite having required research and encouraging the use of quantitative methods when studying social science. If Princeton explicitly added a STEM qualifier to these fields, students taking more quantitative courses in these fields could receive STEM degrees from these departments. While this would still require students to shape their studies based on their passport status, this trade-off would arguably be more digestible than having to change one’s major altogether and could be very useful in giving international students who are not pursuing natural sciences or engineering more flexibility in choosing their major. In addition, while the Davis International Center does a great job in advising students on maintaining their immigration status while still a student, Princeton should invest in an immigration advisor(s) that specifically provides post-graduation advice for students who wish to remain in the United States.


With the current state of residency options available to non-Americans, the very important choice of one’s major can come down to fundamentally different reasons based on the country on one’s passport. While part of this inequity is beyond the control of Princeton or any other university, Princeton can and should do what it can to make pathways to U.S. residency more accessible. Princeton is known for its unique academic opportunities, rigor across all its degrees, and creative pursuit of research at the undergraduate level. If the University worked together with its international students, I am sure it could find a creative pathway that allows both domestic and international students to follow their passions. Change may only come in the long run, but the conversation has to start now.

Aly Rashid is a sophomore prospectively majoring in the School of Public and International Affairs. He serves as Associate Editor of the Newsletter, Deputy Captain of the Princeton Model UN Team and International Student Leader with the Davis IC. He can be reached at

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