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Benefits of STEM-Designated Programs for International Students

Students in classroom for STEM degree course

What is STEM?

“STEM” is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

Beyond teaching the fundamentals of these four disciplines, a STEM degree program will develop skills like critical thinking, innovation, scientific literacy, and collaboration – all of which can elevate your candidacy for well-paying, high-tech jobs.

What is a "STEM-designated program?"

In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken steps to bolster STEM education by establishing criteria that marks some degree programs as “STEM-designated” – or “STEM degrees.” These programs help develop the skills listed above in addition to mathematical, technical, and business savvy skills, which can help students navigate future careers in business.

Why is the STEM program important?

STEM-related studies do more than widen career prospects. The disciplines of STEM and their relationship to innovation contribute to the advancement of many different job sectors. This, in turn, can strengthen an entire economy. STEM insights can lead to life-changing – even life-saving – ideas.

STEM-Designation and International Students

The STEM designation has distinct implications for international students pursuing degrees in the United States. Most international students on a student F-1 visa have the option to obtain work experience following the completion of their degree through a program called Optional Practical Training (OPT).

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a form of training – often paid – that relates to your field of study. You can apply for OPT while still in school (“pre-completion OPT”), or after you earn your degree (“post-completion OPT”). 

The standard duration for OPT is 12 months, but if you have completed a STEM-designated program, OPT can be extended by as much as 24 months, resulting in a total of 36 months.

STEM Designated Degree Programs

What are STEM fields?

Depending upon your university, you might find STEM majors in areas as diverse as genetics, computer engineering, animal sciences, biophysics, forestry, or forensic chemistry. These are just a few examples of STEM fields of study that fall under broader categories^ like: 

  • Astronomy
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer science
  • Engineering
  • Earth sciences
  • Health sciences
  • Information technology
  • Mathematics
  • Physics

^ U.S. News & World Report

How do I know if a program is STEM?

To determine if your field of study is a STEM field for the purposes of the 24-month STEM OPT extension, the U.S. government provides a series of codes. These are known as “CIP” (Classification of Instructional Programs) codes.

Access the STEM CIP code list

What is a STEM designated degree program list?

Some schools will provide a list of their specific STEM designated degree programs on their websites, but typically, the U.S. government’s CIP code list qualifies as what is frequently referred to as the “STEM designated degree program list.”

Is an MBA considered a STEM degree?

Though it’s still somewhat rare, some Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs are now STEM designated programs. Business classes are not typically STEM classes by design, but a graduate business curriculum that develops critical thinking and provides intensive specialization in a STEM-related field can achieve STEM designation.

Accounting, analytics, decision theory, finance, economics, information technology, marketing, statistics, and strategy are all business studies that overlap with STEM teachings and benefit from a STEM focus.

The Pepperdine Graziadio Business School offers two STEM-designated master of science degrees that dive deep into STEM subjects:

Benefits of a STEM-Designated Degree

Those studying science, technology, engineering, and math benefit from building in-demand, tech-friendly aptitudes. Companies benefit from hiring critical thinkers who excel in these core competencies, while entire industries benefit from the type of entrepreneurial mindset STEM degrees help foster.

One of the many advantages of a STEM degree is that it empowers you to help solve complex problems that impact people all over the world. Additionally, as demand for jobs in STEM-designated fields increases, you can potentially draw a higher salary with a STEM degree than you would without a STEM degree.

For example, fields like agriculture and natural resources are showing distinct gains, while engineering continues to top many starting salary lists. For instance, Glassdoor.com estimates a software engineer’s salary starts at over $100,000/year.

Examples of STEM-Designated Jobs and Salaries

There are many ways to find your passion and make a good living through STEM-degree preparation. Medicine, education, computer sciences, and civil service are all examples of industries that offer STEM-related jobs.

A few examples of STEM positions and possible salaries:

Database Administrator




Job Median Salary
Nurse Anesthetist


Software Developer


IT Manager


How do I qualify for STEM?

In order to receive the STEM OPT extension, you must pursue your practical training with an employer who is enrolled in USCIS' E-Verify employment eligibility verification program.

Your employer must also guarantee you will complete a minimum of 20 hours of work per week with formal training and learning objectives built in.

When should I apply for a STEM extension?

Over the course of your entire academic career, you may participate twice in the STEM OPT extension – once per degree level (i.e., bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate-level).  

You may not apply for a STEM OPT if you are within the 60-day grace period that follows your initial (usually 12-month) period of post-completion OPT.

What else should I know about the STEM OPT extension?

In order to maintain your legal F-1 status, you are required to regularly check in with your DSO (designated school official) throughout your extension. A six-month check-in and an annual self-evaluation describing your progress and training experience are key benchmarks of this reporting system.

This check-in system is also established to validate your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) information and to report changes to your training plan.

If you do change employers, make sure your new employer is enrolled in E-Verify before you begin work for pay.

Get Your Master of Science STEM Degree at the Graziadio Business School

Experiential, values-first learning is at the heart of the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School. STEM-designated programs at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, are AACSB-accredited and feature collaborative classrooms and that prepare you to tackle tomorrow’s most compelling business issues.

Learn more about Graziadio Business Programs