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H-1B Workers Attending School in the United States

A master’s degree in today’s workforce is more valuable than it has ever been. This level of higher education demonstrates both increased knowledge in as well as increased personal commitment to the field of study on the part of the master’s student. For H-1B workers especially, a master’s degree to their name is an important distinction that makes them more attractive to employers—and, given the so-called “master’s cap” in the annual H-1B lottery, gives them a better chance of receiving or renewing a U.S. work visa.

There are many H-1B workers in the United States looking to continue their education during their time in the U.S. They might have questions such as, are they eligible to go to school in the U.S. on a work visa? Do they have to change their visa status in order to do so? If the employer agrees to pay for graduate school classes, does that affect visa status? If they successfully change from an H-1 to a B-2 (tourist) visa, can they apply to schools?

The short answer is that yes, H-1B visa holders are allowed to pursue a higher education degree (either a master’s or a Ph.D.) during their stay in the U.S. As long as they uphold their commitment to their employer and maintain their H-1B status, they do not need to change their status, seek approval, or jump through any additional hoops. Most full-time H-1B workers in this position choose to study part-time, outside of work hours, on evenings and weekends.

There are no special regulations or circumstances surrounding H-1B employers who choose to pay for their employees’ education. As long as the employee maintains his or her agreed-upon employment status and receives a paycheck on schedule, the worker can attend school on his or her employer’s dime with no additional legal commitments or expectations.

H-1B students might also be eligible for in-state tuition, which can be significantly cheaper than out-of-state tuition. The laws vary from state to state. However, most states allow any resident (H-1B workers included) who has been living in the state for at least a year and who pays state taxes to qualify for in-state tuition. In-state tuition benefits are only available at state schools (say, the University of South Dakota), not private schools like Yale or the University of Notre Dame.

It’s also important to note that while H-1B workers are allowed to attend school outside of work, they are not allowed to work at another job. Jobs like part-time work on campus are not specialty occupations as defined by the parameters of the H-1B visa. Taking a second job would be illegal and could result in losing H-1B status entirely.

Let’s say that an H-1B worker is working full-time and attending school part-time, and that he or she wants to become a full-time student. They have a couple of different options. For reference, full-time students are classified as those enrolled in 9 or more credit hours per semester (usually 3 classes); part-time students are those enrolled in 6 credits (2 classes) or fewer. While it is theoretically possible to both work full-time and be enrolled in school full-time, the combined workload would probably prove overwhelming.

The employer can file an H-1B amendment converting the worker’s status from full-time to part-time. Again, there are no additional obligations or restrictions by USCIS other than informing them of the change in the work agreement. This frees up the worker’s schedule to pursue his studies and complete a degree more quickly.

Similarly, if he chooses, the worker could change his status from H-1B to F-1 in order to become a full-time student. However, be aware that as F-1 visas are reserved exclusively for full-time students, an F-1 visa holder would not be eligible to be employed in any full-time job.

Many H-1B visa holders whose employment has ended (or is soon ending) change their status to B-2 in order to legally remain in the United States. B-2 visa holders are not eligible to enroll in a course of study in the U.S. B-2s would have to again change their status to either F-1 or M-1 to be allowed to enroll in a university and pursue a degree.

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