H-1B Visas: To What Degree Is Education an Issue?

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With all of the recent sky-is-falling coverage of the annual limit for H-1B visas being exceeded the first day applications were accepted, it's easy to overlook the fact that thousands of visas -- some 7,000 at last count -- are still available.


The H-1B visa program offers 20,000 additional slots for applicants with advanced degrees from U.S. universities. According to a notice on a site hosted by an immigration law firm, last week government officials said they had identified 12,989 H-1B applicants with those credentials -- leaving the additional slots open for those with master's degrees or higher from U.S. schools.


In theory, this should send U.S. tech companies -- which are lobbying hard for a more generous H-1B cap -- scrambling to find and sponsor those folks. Unless -- as critics contend -- companies don't really want to hire "the best and brightest," but rather the cheapest labor for certain tasks such as computer programming. They point to the fact that the majority of H-1B applicants have bachelor's degrees as evidence. (In reality, roughly half of applicants have advanced degrees.)


All of the furor over applicant qualifications has led some folks to propose that immigration officials should parcel out H-1Bs based on salary, with companies willing to pay the highest salaries given first priority. Other suggestions include making a distinction in applications based on the career field (Many, but not all, H-1B holders have jobs in IT) and eliminating caps for all of those with advanced degrees as well as those who obtain degrees in the U.S.


Others make the point that education shouldn't be the primary litmus test, noting that Bill Gates (an H-1B supporter who says there should be no limit to the number of visas allowed) lacks a college degree.


While the 65,000 cap number is featured prominently in media coverage -- including on this site -- the actual number of H-1Bs awarded is significantly higher. In addition to the additional 20,000 slots given to those with advanced degrees, certain other exceptions -- including those hired to work at universities, nonprofit research institutions or government laboratories -- are made.


According to recent news coverage, the U.S. awarded 103,584 H-1Bs in fiscal year 2002; 105,314 in 2003; 130,497 in 2004; and 116, 927 in 2005, the last year for which figures are available. Forty-five percent of the visas went to those with bachelor's degrees in fiscal 2005, down from 49 percent the year before.