Amid rising costs and skyrocketing debt, students are increasingly questioning the value of the college degree and whether the cost of higher education is disproportionate to the return on their investment. No longer can institutions simply rely on riding the coattails of national averages about the economic benefits of going to college. Students and policymakers want up-front information on the return on investment of specific degrees from individual institutions.
In response, the University of Texas System built seekUT, which allows students to calculate their potential earnings at one of the system’s 13 institutions based on their undergraduate majors, graduate programs, or professional degree program.
Users can view the median earnings of graduates who live in Texas, then compare that to all UT-member graduates throughout the U.S. In addition, seekUT pulls in longitudinal data on the median student debt of those degrees that graduates still carry after one year, five years and 10 years out. It also shows the percentage of monthly income that graduates spend on debt repayment at each of those three points.
Beyond prospective students using the tool, currently enrolled students consult seekUT to add minors that boost their marketability or negotiate salaries at graduation. The initiative also has led to some difficult but necessary conversations in Texas about salary disparities based on race, ethnicity, and gender, which grew out of the UT System’s participation in the national Postsecondary Value Commission’s work on equitable educational value.
The success of seekUT, which was launched in 2014, provides a blueprint for postsecondary institutions, systems, and states looking to replicate the model:
- Generate support among college and university leaders and policymakers for building a tool that illustrates the economic value of degrees in specific fields and from individual institutions.
- Use the tool as one piece of a larger strategy to provide more context to students’ career pathways and job searches through improved coaching and counseling.
- Employ the data as a lever for equity by also depicting average salaries by race and gender.
Because higher education rarely discusses the market value of their degrees, students often discover it only when they get ready to graduate and it’s too late to rethink their majors and choice of institution. Such tools as seekUT give students, higher education officials, and policymakers the information they need, at the right time, to make better decisions.
Over the last decade, postsecondary institutions have increasingly shifted their academic programs and curriculum to better align with the needs of a rapidly changing economy. They’ve had little choice as employers in all sectors and industries complain they can’t find enough skilled workers among the crop of annual college graduates.
There’s another reason higher education is putting the outcomes of their degrees front and center: students are questioning the value of the degree amid rising costs and skyrocketing debt. The average annual cost of attendance (including books and expenses) at a public four-year institution is more than $25,000; at a private four-year, it’s $53,000. Many students graduate with debts requiring monthly payments they struggle to pay on entry-level salaries. Generation Z—those born since 1995 who in college and the pipeline to higher education now—often regard the investment in a degree as disproportionate to the return.
Historically, most institutions have rarely discussed the market value of their degrees. Instead, graduates learn on the job, when it’s too late to rethink their majors and minors that cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
“It’s just much harder if you don’t know what you’re going to be earning when you come out of school to make decisions about how much is reasonable to borrow, which school you should attend, or whether to adjust your financial aid contributions,” said Kim Dancy, associate director of research and policy at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP).
To combat that scarcity of information, the University of Texas System built seekUT, which allows students to calculate their potential earnings at one of the system’s 13 institutions based on their undergraduate majors, graduate programs, or professional degree program. Users can view the median earnings of graduates who live in Texas, then compare that to all UT-member graduates throughout the U.S.
Additionally, seekUT pulls in longitudinal data on the median student debt of those degrees that graduates still carry after one year, five years and 10 years out. It also shows the percentage of monthly income that graduates spend on debt repayment at each of those three points.
The result is an unfiltered look at the real-world value of degrees at one of the largest public university systems in the U.S., which awards one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees and half of its degrees in the health professions.
The data available through seekUT answers critical questions for prospective and current students: how much return-on-investment would I receive from an electrical engineering degree versus entering the workforce right out of high school? Do education majors who graduate from, say, UT Austin earn substantially more as teachers than those from other campuses? Will my earnings rise significantly if I earn a master’s degree in social work as opposed to entering the workforce with just a bachelor’s degree?
The free data portal was one of the first of its kind in higher education when it launched in 2014. It has since become a template for institutions elsewhere eager to help learners make informed decisions about career pathways. And it has guided thousands of students as they make important and expensive decisions that will impact them for decades.
But as useful as the tool has been for learners and their families, seekUT also has transformed how the UT System prepares students for life after college, including how to negotiate salaries or add minors that boost their marketability. seekUT functions as an evolving tool with new data flowing into the portal as the UT System builds partnerships with agencies like the U.S. Census Bureau.
The initiative also has led to some difficult but necessary conversations with students and administrators about salary disparities based on race, ethnicity, and gender, which grew out of the UT System’s participation in the national Postsecondary Value Commission’s work on equitable educational value.
“If we don’t expose and uncover the inequities that exist around earnings outcomes and this value conversation, then we can’t do anything to address them,” said Rebecca Karoff, the system’s associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.
The result is a postsecondary institution that holds frank discussions about a topic once taboo: the value of a degree. The success of seekUT, both within the UT System and as a blueprint across higher education, suggests three strategies for postsecondary institutions looking to replicate the model.
Build support internally for a tool that reveals the economic value of credentials.
seekUT was developed in part by David Troutman, associate vice chancellor and chief data officer of institutional research and advanced analytics for the system’s Office of Institutional Research and Analysis. Colleagues, higher education experts—and even Troutman himself—say it was only through sheer force of will that the system succeeded in its goal of creating the comprehensive and ever-evolving tool.
“I made it a priority for my office to get this done,” he said. “This didn’t happen overnight.”
Far from it. Troutman’s first step was building a network of leaders across the state who believed in the power of creating a cost-to-value transparency tool. The process took years of what he called “pushing the boundaries” of administrators and educators alike—essentially asking them to reimagine the fundamental role of higher education in modern society. For decades, institutions have focused on the intrinsic value of a college education, considering conversations about the economic value of a degree and its earnings potential to be in poor taste.
In Texas, however, Troutman had support at the university system’s highest level. The idea for seekUT evolved from the recommendations of the Student Debt Reduction Task Force, created years earlier by then-system Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to explore solutions to the problem of growing student debt. “I had to have leadership support to spend time working on this,” Troutman said. “If I didn’t have that support, this research would be hidden. And that would be a disgrace. If we know it, we have to show it.”
Despite that support, securing data from a variety of state and federal agencies—the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Student Clearinghouse, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and many others—was no easy task for Troutman. Over the years, he gave dozens of PowerPoint presentations, made hundreds of calls, and spent thousands of hours wondering if creating such a tool was even possible. “It took us many years to gain access to state-level data that should have been just a flip of the switch,” he said. “I was determined.”
seekUT finally launched in January 2014, detailing median incomes and student debt for all of the system’s undergraduate programs within Texas. Within the first year, seekUT was updated twice to make it accessible by mobile devices and add new data on the earnings outcomes of graduate and professional school alumni.
In 2016, the system signed a first-of-its-kind agreement with the U.S. Census Bureau to expand seekUT’s scope. Two years later, through the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics program, the website started offering data on post-collegiate outcomes for system graduates living across the country—not just in Texas.
The initiative was—and remains—a large part of how Troutman spends his days.
“I tried to give [Troutman] the freedom and the ability to spend time on this because knowledge is powerful, not only for our students, but in terms of the system making the best decisions for them,” said Archie Holmes, the system’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. “Then we can work with leaders of institutions to say, ‘What are we going to do about this? How do we put interventions in places and make sure that we are doing what’s right?’”
It was that sense of obligation, the “what are we going to do about this” attitude, that set the UT System apart from other postsecondary institutions with similar tools. Once the system rolled out seekUT, leaders from the system and its institutions realized their work was only partially complete. With data in hand, Troutman and Karoff began working as a unit, with Troutman framing the data to tell the most meaningful stories and Karoff assembling groups from the member institutions to hear them.
Their next step was helping students understand the data—and use it to their advantage.
Leverage data to empower students’ career pathways and job searches.
At its most basic level, seekUT is intended to empower learners to make better decisions about their majors, their career pathways, and their initial job searches.
A typical use-case scenario goes something like this: A senior majoring in economics at UT Arlington receives a job offer from a Texas firm a few months before graduation. Her starting salary would be $37,000 a year, which is more than her family’s household income. In a world without the seekUT tool, the student can’t believe her good fortune and immediately accepts.
But with the tool, she learns that the average salary for a UT Arlington economics major fresh out of school is $50,000 a year—jumping to $68,000 after five years and $81,000 after 10. Additionally, she also discovers that those same graduates spend an average of 6.8 percent of their monthly income on loan repayments during their first year of employment, a percentage that would be substantially higher on her lower salary. She quickly realizes that $37,000 a year will barely cover her expenses, declines the offer, and searches for a higher-paying position.
The initial challenge for the UT-member institutions—beyond making students aware of seekUT’s existence—was providing students with the context to make difficult decisions. So the 13 institutions have started providing more career counseling to students, showing them how the tool can guide decisions about majors and job offers.
“UT is a vanguard for data use among institutions and systems,” said Amanda Roberson, director of research and policy at the IHEP. “They’re not only leveraging the data that they have available both at the institution and the system to make information available to students, they’re also using it to inform institutional improvement.”
Sometimes, seekUT disproves students’ suspicions that the cost of a degree isn’t worth the investment. The true economic value of a degree, compared to a high school diploma, may not reveal itself until five or even 10 years after graduation, something that’s obvious after reviewing the data.
In other situations, students change their minds about their ability to repay student loans once they see the monthly costs in black and white on seekUT. “That’s an important conversation to have,” said Holmes of the UT system, “because you see these discouraging numbers.”
It’s also important that educators help students understand that “return on investment” isn’t the only reason to choose a career pathway. A history major, for instance, might become discouraged if they compare their potential entry-level salaries to a computer science major’s market value. Today, educators and career advisors are the ones helping students put that information into context, which points to a need for seekUT to have more nuance in how it presents the data, Holmes said.
This student-focused approach fits with the system’s larger plans for workforce education in the coming decades. Demographics suggest that the population of Texas will double in the next 30 years. Using a phrase often repeated by current system Chancellor James B. Milliken, Holmes said the number of system-affiliated institutions won’t suddenly double to 26 to accommodate that growth. In lieu of that, institutions must improve their focus on student success.
For Troutman, the shift to student-centered universities starts with focus groups he conducts at each institution to talk with students about how they’re using seekUT in their job searches. “We have economic and administrative data, but that only tells a small sliver of what’s happening to our students,” he said. “We really need to capture their voices and figure out their challenges.”
Use data transparency about the value of higher education as a lever for equity.
Nearly a decade after launching seekUT, the UT System is still looking for new sources of data that will even better inform the decisions students make about their futures.
In 2019, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation created the Postsecondary Value Commission, a group of 30 education and business leaders tasked with determining the value of higher education. Equity and social mobility, the commission believes, will come through greater transparency and more detailed data about both the cost of credentialing programs and their earnings potentials.
Troutman helped lead the commission’s work to make new datasets available showing students’ actual contribution to their education—stripping out things like scholarships, grants and loans to reveal the true cost. Such a tool would not only give students even more precise information about the value of a degree, it could potentially change the way institutions dole out financial aid by revealing cracks in their systems.
Then there’s the UT System’s work piloting an equitable value dashboard for the Postsecondary Value Commission. Much like seekUT, the new tool compiles information from a variety of state and federal agencies sources to pinpoint the economic costs and returns of degree programs throughout the system.
But because the Gates Foundation stresses the need for higher education institutions to create equity-minded graduates who are the hiring managers of the future, this iteration adds a new layer of data: a breakdown of average salaries by race and gender. As a result, some students are now able to quantify what they’ve heard from family members, friends and classmates about racial and gender inequities in the workplace.
For example, white graduates of UT Permian Basin with majors in computers, statistics and math earn a median salary of $35,603. The figure drops to $27,378 for graduates who identify as Black. And that’s only for the first year after receiving the degree; the earnings gap actually grows as both groups gain more on-the-job experience.
Likewise, the median salary for graduates with degrees in biology and life sciences from UT Tyler is $19,806 for men, but only $15,330 for women.
As troubling as those outcomes are to learn—both for learners and the degree-granting institutions themselves—leaders in higher education have a moral imperative to shine a spotlight on inequities. And though women and students of color may find the information discouraging, Holmes said that can’t be a reason to shield them from the realities of the job market.
“If a Black woman in a STEM field sees this disparity, my hope is that she doesn’t say, ‘Well, that's terrible. I'm not going to do that [major],’” he said. “Unless we put that information out there to the fore and get people to look at it and respond to it, we’re going to stay in the same lanes that we’ve been in for a while.”
Once again, the data gives institutions an opportunity to better prepare students to enter a workforce that we know is inequitable and work to change some of those inequitable outcomes.
“We work with colleagues across our system and at our individual institutions are committed to student success in very deep ways that they live and breathe,” said Karoff, the system’s associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. “They wake up every morning saying, ‘How am I going to help transform a student's life and help that student complete their educational goals?’ You start with that coalition of the willing, then you just get people excited.”