• September 1, 2014

U. of Texas Unveils a New Tool for Judging a Degree's Worth

The University of Texas system is posting a new online database on Thursday where current and prospective students can compare the salaries, student-loan debts, and job prospects for people in hundreds of majors and occupations.

The seekUT website has data on 68,000 alumni who graduated from 2007 to 2011 and remained in Texas. It includes how much they were earning one and five years after receiving their bachelor's degrees and how much they owed. It also gives students a glimpse of which fields are growing, and where.

The website, which the university hopes will become a national model, evolved from recommendations of a student task force looking at ways to reduce loan debt.

It responds to a crescendo of calls for proof that higher education delivers a strong return on investment. Groups such as College Measures have also studied how different majors affect earnings in several states.

Aiding Students' Decisions

Would-be liberal-arts majors who have been warned that they're destined for a life of ramen noodles and shared apartments might be heartened by the numbers, Texas administrators said.

"We didn't need this tool to tell us that petroleum engineers make more than history teachers, but you may be surprised to learn that those history teachers and college professors and others in the liberal arts and fine arts are making a solid living five years out," said David R. Troutman, the system's director of strategic initiatives.

A student considering majoring in English on the university's Dallas campus would find that a typical graduate earned $36,519 the first year out, and $48,059 five years after graduation, as she worked to whittle down an average debt of $20,187.

Meanwhile, the average petroleum-engineering graduate was making $105,713 in the first year. By the fifth year, the salary had shot up to $150,537.

Students who make informed decisions about a major might be less likely to switch concentrations and more likely to graduate on time, said Stephanie B. Huie, the system's vice chancellor for strategic initiatives.

The database, which includes information on graduates working full time for the entire year, also shows how long they typically took to complete their undergraduate studies and how likely they were to go on to graduate school. Students can also compare job prospects and earnings for a variety of occupations to which the majors might lead, not only in different regions of Texas but also in other states.

Answers for Lawmakers

Students aren't the only users the system envisions. Officials are hoping that state lawmakers who are increasingly looking to tie state appropriations to system performance will be impressed with the finding that the system's graduates from 2007 to 2011 earned $20.5-billion in their first year out of college. During that time, the state appropriated $9.9-billion to the system.

"Now we can come back with very real numbers and say, 'This is what we do with your investment,'" Ms. Huie said on a telephone call from Washington, D.C., where she and Mr. Troutman were demonstrating the site to representatives of the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee, the U.S. Department of Education, and the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Most of the data come from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the National Student Clearinghouse, the Texas Workforce Commission, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. One of the database's limitations is that it cannot follow graduates who move outside of Texas, but the website's developers hope that, if more states create similar databases, tracking students across state lines will become easier. They also hope to extend it as more data become available, to see how earnings change over 10 years.

Getting loads of data quickly from busy administrators was one of the biggest challenges. One approach that helped was creating a staff position shared by the university system and the state's higher-education coordinating board.

The software and staff members were already in place because of the productivity "dashboard" the university system created in 2011 to provide more transparency about the performance and efficiency of its campuses.

Student Test Runs

The site's developers fine-tuned the application by setting a group of students from academic and health institutions loose with laptops and iPads to play around with the numbers.

Among the testers was Varun Mallipaddi, a senior finance major on the university's Arlington campus. "I would have liked to have had this when I was a freshman relying on hearsay and what my one relative in finance was telling me," he said.

But, he added, it's not too late to benefit from it. "When I get to the point in a job application where salaries come up, I'll have a baseline to go on and know whether I should be asking for more."

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