Proving the Value of Higher Education at The University of Texas System with SeekUT

Higher education is under fire with naysayers claiming it charges too much and provides too little. Rising student loan numbers, pricy tuition, and majors that may not lead to employment within the field have spurred legislators, parents, and students alike to ask if a bachelor’s degree is worth the investment.

At the University of Texas, the leadership decided to find out.

With eight academic institutions, six healthcare facilities, and more than 225,000 students in all levels of academic preparation, UT had the scope to uncover the data. It just needed a tool that could make that information timely and meaningful for all stakeholders.

Dr. David Troutman, Associate Vice Chancellor for Institutional Research and Decision Support at The University of Texas System, came on the Enrollment Growth University podcast discuss SeekUT, their free online college and career planning tool. He shared how the tool is designed to better assist students in degree program selection by helping them understand the complete financial story behind their decision.

While SeekUT’s biggest users are parents and students, legislators are also taking an interest to see if state funding for schools is paying off in new revenues.

We showed (that) investment of 10 billion resulted in $43 billion worth of Texas earnings,” David said. “So it’s a four to one return, which is fantastic.”

Tracking and Reporting Graduate Salary and Loan Data

To begin the project, David and his team set up an agreement with the U.S. Census Bureau to establish student identifiers such as first and last names, birthdays, and social security numbers.

“But they (also) have a specialized unit that solely focuses on de-identification,” David told us. “And so we submitted those information into a secured portal.”

With that information, the U.S. Census Bureau created a data set that specialized economists could use to calculate earnings while the individual person’s identity remained protected. This allows the university to track annual earnings by major, information the school integrates with SeekUT.

This process allowed the U.S. Census Bureau to match the ID and the wage record and then destroy personal identifiers other than the major to protect student identities.

“We’re very protective of student information and student identities,” David said. “If there were anything to invalidate that, our office would be shut down.

How University of Texas System Students and Others Use SeekUT

“When developing the tool,” David said, “I’m always thinking about a first generation student – someone that has such limited experience or exposure – because I was a first generation student.”

That experience lets him frame the data so that it answers the practical questions students ask about earnings, debt, and the time it takes to pay off loans.

On the staff side, David initially feared that the deans of the liberal arts and fine arts would grow concerned at the lopsided numbers he expected to see emerge in their disciplines. But when the information was released, there actually wasn’t as much disparity between programs as some had anticipated, especially tracking over 5 and 10 years out from graduation.

In fact, the universities within the UT system actually asked to be identified because they saw the value in opening up their data to students. Graduates in a variety of majors from STEM to the liberal arts enjoyed strong opening salaries. At UT Arlington, for instance, rhetoric and composition majors earn $46,000 in their first year after graduation.

“(The data) tells a really nice story, “David says, “about the value of these non-STEM majors that typically people think that they’re not making any money. But they actually are.”

Now, that UT has the numbers on recent graduates’ earnings, it plans to use this information as a foundational piece for future development. This data can drive civic engagement, voter participation, and other social action. It can also serve as evidence of the commercial value of higher education as well as its health and overall life enrichment value.

Students generally want to leave university being able both to follow their passion and to earn a living wage. Universities typically hope to provide both opportunities.

“And so what we’ve done in the website,” David said, “there’s a subsection … (on) following your passion. It gives case studies and photos of different types of students that follow their passion, whether it be music, whether it be nursing, whether it be engineering,and they’re happy with their career and they’re making a livable wage.”

The Future of SeekUT vs. The College Scorecard

We asked David what he planned to do with the SeekUT tool and if he held out hope for a similarly helpful federal database one day.

“I’m always hopeful,” David said. “My hopes would be that we would move beyond just the US News and World Report ranking to actually looking at the value of education and how it helps students develop into better people overall, and then…making sure that they have the earnings that they need to be successful in life.”

Other universities are showing an interest, too. David works with colleagues in New York, Florida, and California who collectively talk about seeing a future US Department of Education Scorecard that mirrors what university staff, students, and parents believe are important.

Ultimately, David says the university is “just making sure (students) have the earnings that they need to be successful in life. And so that’s really the core charter of why we were doing this.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. David Troutman from the University of Texas. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.