Why anyone with an MBA should worry about the immigration bill

If you’re a foreigner seeking a U.S. green card, here’s a little advice: forget about getting an MBA. Study air conditioner repair instead.

If the Senate immigration bill becomes law, immigrants who study dairy science, urban forestry, pulp and paper technology, and air conditioner repair, among other fields, will qualify for special treatment when seeking visas. Those with MBAs will not. That’s because the first four fields I mentioned all fall under the category of STEM education – science, technology, engineering and math.

But MBAs don’t.

That means fewer foreigners will apply to MBA programs, which will reduce the quality of the MBA experience, decrease the selectivity and prestige of top business schools, and have a negative impact on the U.S. economy. I surveyed 40 recent MIT Sloan grads from outside the U.S., and 30% said that getting a visa was one of the primary factors they considered when choosing graduate schools. Only 25% said it wasn’t a factor at all.

To be clear: I support the bill overall – I think it’s incredibly important to raise the number of H-1B visas and to increase immigration from STEM graduates. But I think MBAs should be included as well. I’ll describe what’s in the bill and share a few ideas for how b-schools should respond. The bottom line: b-school deans should make the case to Congress for including MBA grads in the immigration bill. Otherwise, the legislation could seriously threaten the value of the MBA degree. 

What’s in the bill?

The bill passed by the Senate last month raises the number of H-1B visas for highly educated workers to at least 110,000, from 85,000. That’s great news in itself. But people who earn advanced degrees in STEM fields will now get an additional benefit: a “direct and immediate route to a green card,” according to USA Today.

It also appears that STEM graduates will be awarded visas without regard to the same limits to which other immigrants are subjected. (This is my interpretation of the passage on p. 304-5 of the bill – I’ve reached out to a couple Senators’ offices to confirm but haven’t heard back yet.)

Does an MBA count as a STEM degree?

For the most part, no. The list of STEM degrees includes management science, business statistics, and “quantitative methods in management science.” But these are hardcore math fields. Management science, for example, refers to degrees that focus on “statistical modeling, data warehousing, data mining, programming, forecasting and operations research techniques.”

Most MBAs won’t qualify. And fields like business administration, marketing, accounting, sales, HR, finance, investing, and entrepreneurship are not included on the STEM list. (You can learn more about how the government classifies different degrees here.)

What should b-schools do?

B-school deans have a few options. They could reshape their programs to include more quantitative content. They could also launch alternative programs – like MIT Sloan’s MS in Management Studies – which may count as STEM degrees.

But I think they need to make the case to Congress for adjusting the visa rules so MBA programs aren’t disadvantaged. Here are a few of the arguments they can make:

Congress should focus on the forest, not the trees. It’s trendy to talk about STEM education these days but let’s focus on the ultimate goal: creating a thriving U.S. economy. We won’t create jobs simply by minting more engineers. We need to turn technical talent into real businesses that sell real products and services. To do that, you need precisely the skills business schools teach: building a strategy, changing a strategy, managing a team, communicating across borders, designing an organization, selling a product, and understanding your customers, to name just a few.

B-schools encourage entrepreneurship. More than 10% of MIT Sloan grads start their own companies (see: Ministry of Supply, Bounce Imaging, Hubspot, and Lallitara.) Schools like Babson and Stanford are also known for producing successful entrepreneurial ventures. By contrast, in MIT’s System Design and Management Program only 1 of 57 grads pursued a startup in 2011.

B-schools foster global leaders. To compete in a global economy, the U.S. needs leaders who can manage across borders and across cultures. MBA programs give students the opportunity to practice this work. During my MBA, I had the opportunity to consult for companies in China and Puerto Rico. My friends worked in Ghana, Brazil, Columbia, Vietnam, and dozens of other countries. These experiences allow MBA students to find practical applications for their coursework in macroeconomics, finance, organizational design, and operations.

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2 thoughts on “Why anyone with an MBA should worry about the immigration bill

  1. I must respectfully disagree: B-schools and STEM degrees are not in direct competition, i.e. a prospective MBA grad student would never consider switching to a STEM field, simply because—if it passes the hostile House— would be easier to get a green card. For example, take a look at Sloan. With its large international student body, not all of them are poised to stay in the US. Those who decide to stay can get on OPT for one year, which would bridge the gap between F1 and H1B. This is not the case for the majority of STEM graduates: more often then not, STEM graduates are on the job market way longer then MBA graduates. Simply put, job opportunities for PhDs in physics and math are scarce, if existent at all. Most of PhDs in STEM fields are sponsored by grants domiciled in the US—NSF, NIH , private industries. Once they graduate, most of them will enter a very hostile job market, where it will take years to reach stable employment. Presently, most of them are leaving, thus giving the US government a very low ROI. MBAs do not face this problem: job opportunities are aplenty and international mobility extremely high.

    However, I must agree that MBAs are missed out from the bill. It is true that a lot of MBA-a actually do generate jobs through innovative startups, even more so then MIT PhDs. So yes, the bill is unfair toward MBA graduates, but it doesn’t mean that it should be killed.

    Finally, even if a new version of the bill include MBAs, it won’t matter. The bill allocates only 55K immigration visas, with the highest priority given to PhDs, MDs, dentists and medical residents who completed the waiver requirement. I looked up the number of foreign PhDs awarded in the US annually and it stands at around 20-30K. Add another 20K for MDs and residents. Now, what’s left for MS students, which would include MBAs? Probably very little. So in order the bill to be significant for MBAs as well, this 55K ceiling would have to be drastically increased.

  2. Hi Pedrag, thanks so much for your comment! I agree with you on many points. I don’t think a prospective MBA would choose a STEM field only because of the green card fast-track. But visas were a consideration for 75% of the Sloanies I surveyed. For a few of them, the visa could be enough to encourage them to choose another field. Sloanies might be a little unusual compared with other business schools – a lot of Sloanies have engineering backgrounds and could legitimately choose STEM fields.

    The affect might be subtle, but it would be meaningful. Other degrees would become more prestigious and attractive if they potentially lead to immigration advantages. This would ultimately hurt MBAs.

    That said, these students probably wouldn’t pursue Ph.Ds – they would likely choose MAs in other fields. (The bill’s benefits apply to people with both MAs and Ph.Ds.) I don’t know what the job market is like in those fields, but I assume it’s better in some than in others. Also, the whole inclusion of STEM grads in the bill is predicated on the idea that these are fields where there are many openings and qualified American employees cannot be found. That might be an incorrect assumption – but let’s not tell that to Congress!

    In terms of your comment about 55,000 visas – which section of the bill are you referring to, or are you referring to existing law? The only reference I found in the bill to a 55K cap is in the section on nonimmigrant visas, but those are specifically NOT for college grads or “computer occupations” (see p. 804).

    Also – I definitely agree that this is not a reason to kill the bill. I think the bill has a lot of great elements in it.

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