What is a STEM Degree | Lerner
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University of Delaware - Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics

By Lerner College January 18, 2023

When listing STEM degrees, people gravitate towards broad subjects like physics, engineering or computer science. But science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees encompass everything from business analytics to volcanology. STEM occupations are high earning, and there is a need for STEM talent in the U.S.

You may want to take advantage of these high incomes, but if you’re going to dedicate time, money and energy to a degree, you have questions you need answered: is a STEM degree worth it? How much do STEM occupations really earn? Are all STEM degrees the same?

You’ll find the answer to all those questions here.

Is a STEM degree worth it?

Is a STEM degree worth it? For many people, the answer is yes. Here are just some of the benefits of STEM career:

  • Increased Salary – People employed in STEM occupations earn over double the median income according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (USBLS).
  • Job Security – Science & technology jobs have also seen a 79% growth in the past 3 decades.
  • Innovation – A career in STEM lets you work with cutting-edge technology and research.
  • Occupational Practical Training (OPT) extension- An additional benefit for foreign students studying in the U.S. is the possibility of extending their stay by an additional 24 months.

STEM Salaries

STEM occupations hold an annual mean wage of $100,900 compared with $55,260 for non-STEM jobs, according to the USBLS. Education boosts income even further.

STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree earn roughly 30% more than those in similar positions without a degree, the national science board reports. STEM graduate degree holders earn even more. Reporting 18-33% wage increases depending on the field, the USBLS measured substantially higher median salaries for workers with a STEM master’s degree.

STEM vs. STEM-designated degree

Some STEM programs boast a STEM-designated degree. What makes a STEM program STEM-designated? The Department of Homeland Security maintains a list of university degree programs that it regards as providing a STEM education. These programs are labeled STEM-designated and their graduates have the opportunity to work in the U.S. longer than other F1-visa holders, because they can apply to extend Optional Practical Training (OPT) for up to an additional 24-months.

What is OPT?

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is temporary employment in the U.S. for F-1 visa holders. Foreign students can apply to work in the U.S. for up to 12 months per degree program. Graduates of a STEM-designated program can apply to extend this for up to an additional 24 months.

OPT is an indispensable resource for people seeking to work in the U.S. The program allows graduates to cut through the red tape of American bureaucracy to form career-defining relationships with top U.S. employers.

Which degrees are OPT STEM-designated?

The Department of Homeland Security maintains a list of the fields of study it considers to be STEM. But, just because a term from that list is in the title of a degree doesn’t mean graduates of that program will be considered for an OPT-extension.

For example, the MBA in business analytics from the Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics is STEM-designated. The U.S. government certified that this MBA adheres to the rigorous STEM training required for students to apply for OPT extension. Many MBA programs advertise a business analytics specialization, but not every program has the course load needed to be STEM-designated. Their graduates are not guaranteed the ability to extend their OPT.

How do you know if a specific degree is STEM-designated? Currently, there is no central database cataloging every individual STEM OPT program in the U.S. You must consider each degree independently. Many programs, like UD’s M.S. in Economics & Applied Econometrics, advertise their status on their webpages. When in doubt, contact the program directly.

What is a STEM-designated MBA?

STEM-designated MBAs are graduate degrees that combine the study of business and management with the technical knowledge of a specific STEM field, such as finance or business analytics.

If you’re interested in advancing into a leadership position at a STEM company, this degree might be right for you. STEM MBAs show employers you have the technical knowledge to excel at a STEM job and the soft skills to manage a team.

Monetarily, there are advantages to combining business and STEM. STEM-related management careers occupied the top three highest paying occupations in 2021 according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

What are the benefits of an STEM-designated OPT?

For foreign students, the STEM OPT-extension is an indispensable tool for starting a career at a top American company. Some of the benefits include:

  • Flexibility- With a potential 36 months of OPT, STEM students can use their time whenever works best for them. They can dedicate the full three years to a post-graduation position or use some time during their studies in a paid internship.
  • Ability to defer education costs – An American STEM degree can have a great return on investment, and the ability to work during their studies allows STEM students to earn money to invest in this education without jeopardizing their ability to work in the U.S. after graduating.
  • Professional connections – Whether applying OPT time to post or pre-graduation work, STEM students are building a professional network that can define a career.
  • Time to prove worth to company – Extending time in the U.S. by a potential 2 years gives graduates the time to demonstrate their technical as well as their leadership skills to their company.

STEM OPT benefits the American economy as well, according to NAFSA:

  • $28.4 billion – The amount of money international students brought to the U.S. in the 2020-2021 academic year.
  • 306,308 – The number of jobs contributed to the national economy in the 2020-2021 academic year, according to the NAFSA.
  • 29% – Percentage of college-educated STEM workforce born outside the U.S.

How do I get an OPT extension?

Specific details for the OPT extension application are available on the Department of Homeland Security website. The requirements for application can be difficult to meet and the process is exacting. You will need to complete forms, pay an application fee, evidence degree completion and work for or have a job offer from an employer who meets certain requirements determined by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

How to increase my chances of receiving an OPT extension?

Reasons for the denial of an OPT extension include everything from not signing form 1-795 between the lines of the signature box to not finding proper employment. You can give yourself the greatest chance of receiving your extension by enrolling in a program with a strong support system for its foreign students. Look for programs that have:

  • Strong internships – Applicants for OPT extension need to be employed or have a job offer in hand. Opportunities like Lerner’s Graduate Internship Program enable students to demonstrate their value to elite companies experienced in assisting employees obtain OPT.
  • Engagement with the international student body – Study at a school that understands the unique obstacles of international students and provides them with the resources to succeed. For example, University of Delaware’s International Student & Scholar Services provides students with access to tools to aid with the OPT application process.
  • Versatile mentorship opportunities – Initiatives like the Lerner Executive Mentoring Program connect you with professionals in the field you’re interested in. Real world connections give you a lifeline to resources outside a university setting.
  • Active career services – A knowledgeable career services center can help you navigate the many decisions you’ll have to make about your OPT.