Better Together: Higher Education and the Federal Government Explore Evidence for the Value of College Degrees

June 19, 2018

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By Stephanie Huie

Policymakers, media, and a strong consumer advocacy movement continue to ask, “Is higher education really worth the cost?”

A February 2018 Gallup poll, “Words Used to Describe ‘Higher Ed’ Make a Difference,” found that only 36 percent of Americans have a “great deal of confidence in higher education.” A 2017 report by the Pew Research CenterSharp Partisan Divisions in Views of National Institutions—found that only 55 percent of the American public believe higher education has a “positive impact on the way things are going in the country.”

In an effort to respond to the skepticism, we in the academic community—educators and administrators alike—have spent an enormous amount of time collecting data to prove the value of higher education and its return on investment, including sifting through piles of alumni surveys and questionnaires that are only suggestive at best. But no matter how much we researched, we were unable to find a publicly available resource for critical data needed to help prove the value of a college degree—postsecondary employment outcomes.

Affirming the value of a degree is especially important for those of us who have actually witnessed the positive impacts of higher education experiences on the lives of students—both pre- and post-graduation. Unfortunately, we are not at a loss for words, but rather a loss for tangible evidence that is consistent and accurate and can stand up to the scrutiny of even our harshest critics.

Facing an Impasse, The University of Texas System Found a Way

Like all the higher education institutions in the United States, The University of Texas System, with its 14 health and academic institutions, has not been exempt from critics’ scrutiny. We face the same challenges as other higher education institutions; however, the UT System has, through its Office of Strategic Initiatives, discovered a work-around to deliver answers to the public.

In 2017, the UT System entered into a 10-year partnership contract with the U.S. Census Bureau, subsequently creating a pathway for all institutions of higher education and state education authorities to access critical data needed to show the value of a college degree. The Post-Secondary Employment Outcomes (PSEO) dataset, available through the U.S. Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics (LEHD), provides post-graduation salaries by program of study at one, five, and 10 years after graduation alongside student debt for all graduates working in the United States. Using the PSEO dataset, the UT System created a free, user-friendly web tool called seekUT, which provides students and families an easy way to see salaries of graduates by program of study compared to student debt.

This type of information from the PSEO dataset helps students and their families better understand the market value of their degree, and provides a sense of what portion of a UT graduate’s monthly income must go to student loan payments. By getting a glimpse into their future, students can make informed decisions about how to finance their higher education journey. The UT System’s first-of-its-kind partnership with the federal government, particularly the U.S. Census Bureau, has opened the door for other institutions of higher education to gather valuable data that has been previously inaccessible.

How Will This Data Demonstrate the Value of a Degree?

Data can help institutions of higher education begin to develop evidence-based approaches to defining the value of a degree in quantifiable terms. But in addition to this, the data also provide valuable insights into the market value of STEM and non-STEM degrees. For example, the following graph shows the median salary of UT graduates one and 10 years after graduation by all students—STEM students and non-STEM students—compared to the median salary of a high school graduate. While STEM students fare the best, non-STEM students also do quite well, clearly outpacing the average salary of a high school graduate.



In fact, median first-year earnings for two-thirds of graduates of UT System non-STEM programs are higher than the national individual median income of $34,963. This is impressive, given these UT graduates are only in their first year of employment and already out-earning the average high school graduate with more years on the job. Findings from the PSEO dataset also set the record straight about the earnings potential of programs that are often undervalued in the national rhetoric. For example, the median salary one year after graduation for music is $50,856; rhetoric and composition, $46,790; Romance languages and literature, $42,841; and philosophy, $39,729. These are only a few examples of how information from the PSEO dataset can evaluate evidence for the value of a degree.

The Results Are In

As a result of the UT System’s partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, the higher education community has gained more than a dataset and the student-focused educational tool seekUT. We have achieved a way, through partnership, that benefits both the mission of the Census Bureau and the mission of higher education institutions. Both academic and federal entities serve the American public, and they will continue to do so as we move forward together.

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