By Reeve Hamilton
The Texas Tribune
Originally published Jan. 16, 2014
Touting it as a first-of-its-kind higher ed gadget, the University of Texas System on Thursday launched a new interactive website that includes salary and debt information for graduates of its institutions after one year and five years in the workforce.
The new tool, seekUT, allows the public — including prospective students and their families — to access data on the experiences of graduates who are working full time in Texas after earning bachelor’s degrees from UT institutions between 2007 and 2011.
UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa issued a statement saying that the new site is part of a system-wide effort to address rapidly growing levels of college loan debt. “We believe the accurate and timely information provided at seekUT will help students make informed decisions about their future,” he said.
Because the system’s academic universities are grouped by type in seekUT, institution-specific information is only provided for the flagship, the University of Texas at Austin. The data from the UT campuses in Arlington, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio is grouped together, as is the data from the schools in Brownsville, Edinburg, Tyler and Odessa.
Stephanie Huie, the system’s vice chancellor for strategic initiatives, said these groupings helped protect private student information and account for regional salary differences.
At each type of institution, and for specific majors, users can find the median earnings one year and five years after graduating, average student loan debt and the percentage of students who opted to seek a higher degree. After getting input from students, system officials also decided to include labor market projections nationally and in specific regions in Texas.
The project has been in the works since late 2012, when the system’s Student Debt Reduction Task Force issued a report calling for the creation of better online platforms to help students plan and manage their higher education trajectory.
Around that time, at a Texas Association of Business conference on higher education, Huie met an official from the Texas Workforce Commission and discovered a mutual interest in collaborating on a project of the sort that eventually became seekUT.
Most of the tool was built using data from the system, the Workforce Commission and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Information from the National Student Clearinghouse and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was also included. The use of the detailed earnings data and the inclusion of salary information for those five years out of college is what sets seekUT apart, Huie said.
“We’re all familiar with surveys that make statements about the top-earning majors the first year out of college, but those surveys are often based on small samples and depend on accurate reporting of the person responding to the survey,” she said.
Those who have tested out the new site have reacted mostly positively, Huie said, though some have been skeptical that it is designed to encourage students to seek out more lucrative fields. She said that is not the case.
“I didn’t need to create a tool to tell you that petroleum engineers make more than high school teachers,” she said. “You already know that. What I’m telling you is that these people majoring in liberal arts are actually doing better than you probably thought they were. They are making a decent living wage and are progressing in their careers after five years.”
The system plans to promote the new site on high school and university campuses. In particular, officials plan to encourage high school counselors and financial aid advisers to encourage students to use it.
Huie said seekUT helped demonstrate that taking on a reasonable amount of student debt could be an investment that pays off in terms of higher earning potential. It also helped quantify the value of education, she said, noting that the students represented in seekUT collectively earned about $20.5 billion in a period when the state appropriated about $9.9 billion to the system.
“From our perspective, it’s important for us to move the conversations from graduation rates to what is actually happening to our students,” she said. “How well have we prepared them for the workforce? What are the results of going to one of our institutions?”
Huie and other system officials have spent much of this week in Washington, D.C., previewing the new tool for members of Congress and White House officials.
Among those who got an early look was U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes.
“The UT System is providing valuable information to students and their families, unlike anything currently available,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “College access and affordability is an issue that I am passionate about and I am excited that this information will literally be at the fingertips of high school and college students.”
Hinojosa also indicated that he had encouraged system officials, as they continue to work on seekUT, to collect data on the progress of women and minorities.
“This is just the first phase, and we definitely have plans to improve it and refine it as we get feedback and go along,” Huie said.