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Stanford GSB and STEM: Just do it, already

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I find myself encouraged by the sage advice from The New York Times which declares that “Op-ed pages are for one-handed writers.” This is in contrast to newsy beats where one must provide a well-balanced argument for one side and an informed, mature, data-welded counter argument for the other. This is to allow the reader to appreciate the nuanced spectrum that lies between the positions. My academic self is usually able to pull this off with little effort. With this Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) issue, I struggle to find the other side.

STEM degrees include study and research into physical, natural, biological and agricultural sciences; engineering; mathematics; or computer science. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for maintaining a complete list of subjects that are covered by the regulatory definition of a “STEM field.” This, alongside a labyrinthine taxonomy system serves as the basis for an Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension. An OPT is the temporary work authorization that allows international students to work in the country to complement their studies. The general post-degree OPT is 12 months, but simply by the virtue of their degree being recognised as STEM, students are able to extend this period to three years. As a result, in the last few years, several leading U.S. business schools have either certified their existing master’s programs as STEM or introduced new STEM components in response to student demand. Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) is not one of them.

A management degree is usually considered a fast track into the elite tiers of business. This remained undisputed until the rise of ‘Big Tech,’ when suddenly a traditional science and engineering education were seen as more valuable than a general management degree. Top management schools such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford continue to lure the best and the brightest by pointing to their Nobel-winning teaching faculty, billions in endowment funds and enviably all-pervasive alumni networks. They also boast of an unparalleled supremacy in not only the technical offerings of their programs e.g. analytics, operations, finance and statistics, but also the cult-like popularity gained by soft-skill focused courses such as “Touchy Feely,” which teaches interpersonal dynamics at Stanford and “Negotiation” at Harvard. And yet, there has been a continued drop in applications to U.S. business schools over the past few years. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s (GMAC) 2019 Report, international applications are down 13.7% for graduate business degrees at U.S. management schools for the 2019-2020 academic year. In contrast, applications are increasing to the graduate programs at business schools in Europe. Despite the chaos of Brexit, 64% of British MBA programs reported growth in their international application volumes. Not surprisingly, of the international students who had previously considered the U.S. as an educational destination in the past but did not actually apply, over half of them cited the limited ability to work in the United States following their studies as a key reason. Consider this unfortunate trend against the composition of a typical U.S. business school class, where almost half of the student population, if not more, used to be international. This is set to change.

The most popular route for highly skilled workers to remain and work in the U.S. has been the H-1B visa and yet, in 2019, approximately 200,000 applications were received for 85,000 visas. This drastically truncated cap does not mesh well with claims that U.S. is committed to prioritising merit-based immigration. Add to this the declining rate of international applications and rising rates of H-1B rejections and you have the recipe for a catastrophic shortfall of talent in the country. This tragic outcome is avoidable, as has been demonstrated by business schools across the U.S. who have changed their curriculum designation to be STEM (MIT, Haas, Rochester, Wisconsin, UGA) or have creatively offered ‘tracks’ or specializations in the form of optional courses (Duke, Wharton, Dartmouth, Michigan, USC, UConn) that would earn the students a STEM certification and therefore an OPT extension. While this doesn’t completely solve the problem of a lottery-based authorization, it does give you more “attempts” at a win. Stanford is not blind to this, of course ― this time last year, undergraduate students with an economics major were allowed to apply for the STEM OPT extension due to their degree being designated as STEM (despite remaining a Bachelor of Arts award). 

This is not to say that the GSB has played no part in furthering dialogue with the administration. In October 2019, the GSB’s Dean, Jonathan Levin, was among 50 deans who urged the administration to “remove ‘per-country’ visa caps and reform the H-1B visa program” and expressed concern over the fact that most of the three million open STEM jobs in the country remained unfilled because “the U.S. is not producing enough people with the skills to fill them.”

A personal precipitating factor arrived for me when MIT declared all its graduate business programs as STEM earlier this year. Since that announcement by our East coast rival, I have been leading an emotionally-charged conversation with the GSB, trying to educate and mobilize our MBA and MS cohort, while emphasising the risk of Stanford losing its competitive position in a tough international education market.

The GSB’s motto implores us to “change lives, change organisations and change the world,” yet the time it has taken the school to even appreciate the difference in opportunity provided by a STEM vs a regular degree is staggering. It has been four years since Wisconsin became the first business school to convert their business degree to STEM. Surely, we, the world changers at Stanford should have led the charge?

STEM or no STEM, a Stanford education will serve me and my peers well. We do not need to be reminded of this. Silicon Valley engine runs on the talent we produce and the deep connections the school has cultivated with the local VC and tech community. I have been personally supported by the Dean, Associate Deans and the administration team when I have proposed to orchestrate a discussion between them and the class (including domestic and international students). So, yes, we feel heard. The students also feel the desperate helplessness when the leadership speaks of the long timelines related to any change here at sunny Stanford. But my empathy reaches its limits when I look at the long list of business schools – none, in my opinion, of the stature of Stanford – who have argued for and ultimately delivered a STEM designated degree for their international students. Some really wild ones, yes, those annoying folk at Berkley glimmering in their blue and gold, made this happen retroactively! Their students who graduated in 2018 have also had their degrees smugly STEM-ified.

I strongly urge the administration to closely collaborate with comparable peer institutions and work toward obtaining a STEM classification for its MBA and MS degrees. Failing urgent action, the management programs at Stanford GSB will become unattractive for future applicants – especially international students for whom the three-year OPT is a vital element in their choice of school/program. This is a pivotal moment for the business school where they can either decide to maintain the status quo and lose the brightest of international applicants who most certainly will lean toward schools that deliver more value by making their post-study employment prospects easier or they can implement a change and argue for STEM classification. 

The current management degrees have enough STEM appropriate material to merit the 24-month extension to the OPT. GSB’s continued inaction very directly pushes its international cohort away, since prospective employers understandably hesitate to hire someone for 12 months who may or may not cross the H-1B hurdle. With a three-year OPT, business school graduates are not only given three real chances at the H-1B career roulette but are also saved from the perilous exploration of the jumble of 185 U.S. visa types. Pushing for STEM classification would make it explicit that the GSB is behind us and not silently abrogating its responsibility to its international students.

Contact Anupriya Dwivedi at adwivedi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Anupriya is a Masters student at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. Similar to her portfolio life, career and interests, her contributions to the Daily are also a motley combination of Arts & Life (Music, Culture and Theatre), Sports Photography and some News. Anupriya has moved to Stanford from Switzerland, where she was working as a strategy consultant. She has also been a feature writer for The Times of India, has published thought pieces on banking, culture and strategy and even won a National science fiction writing competition. Her writing wildly oscillates between the formality derived from her academic life (Neuroscience at the University of Oxford as a Commonwealth Scholar) and an irreverence from her culture soaked lifestyle in London and Zurich. When she's not attending theatre premieres in Palo Alto, or buried in GSB work, she also contributes to popular science journals or writes geeky policy memos.