The University of Texas (UT) System released a new database on graduates' earnings Monday through a partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, circumventing a ban that prohibits the Department of Education (ED) from collecting student-level data, to provide better information to students on their potential outcomes and shed on a light on the value of higher education.
A group of higher education experts came together Tuesday to discuss the implications of this initiative—the first time an institution has partnered with a federal agency to collect information on students' earnings—and how it contributes to the conversation around transparency and the return on investment for degrees.
A provision slipped into the most recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) in 2008 prohibits ED from creating a system to track students in the workforce, which stemmed from privacy concerns and questions as to what role the federal government should play in higher education. Therefore, information such as graduates' earnings and debt after completing programs is not accessible to students and parents.
While the ban received very little pushback a decade ago when it was introduced, according to panelist Amy Laitinen, the director of higher education within the Education Policy Program at New America, a new focus on transparency in higher education has spurred stakeholders and policymakers to reconsider the implication of withholding data from students that could shape their financial futures.
Last year, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives introduced a pair of bills to lift the ban, known as the College Transparency Act of 2017, which was supported by several higher education groups, including NASFAA. Additionally, another bill that proposed to allow for data collection, the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, received bipartisan and bicameral support, and more than 1 million students signed on to a Student Agenda for Postsecondary Data Reform released by the youth advocacy group Young Invincibles to remove the provision while securing student privacy.
Despite these efforts, however, the House Republicans' most recent bill to reauthorize the HEA does not call to remove the ban, which is why efforts to collect data in alternative ways are so important, Laitinen said.
"Transparency is all the rage," she said. "I think efforts like this make it clear that it is technically possible."
While the UT System was previously able to track graduate outcomes for those who live in Texas through the state workforce commision, this new partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau allows it to analyze and share information on students who move outside the state as well.
"The national data gives students and families a more accurate expectation of the return on investment in a UT degree while at the same time providing a comprehensive picture of post-collegiate outcomes for employment earnings and industry," said Stephanie Huie, vice chancellor of strategic initiatives at the UT System Administration and a member of the Higher Education Committee of 50, or Forward50.
Additionally, this data is more precise than what is currently collected and available on the College Scorecard, because it collects information on programs and is not limited to institutional-level data. This new data also accounts for all students — not just those receiving financial aid. In fact, less than half of graduates in UT System institutions received aid, so a majority are left out of the College Scorecard, according to Huie.
The database can be accessed through the UT System's website, seekUT, which Huie said she hopes will be a resource for admissions counselors, financial aid asiors, students, and others. The data includes estimated earnings for graduates at the system's universities one, five, and 10 years after graduation, as well as the earnings for students in each program. There is also data on students' earnings in the 25th, median, and 75th percentile, all while securing students' data with "cutting-edge privacy methods," according to Huie.
With this new data, Huie, along with David Troutman, the associate vice chancellor of institutional research and decision support at the UT System Administration, found that after 10 years, a graduate from a UT System institution earns up to $30,000 more than a high school graduate, and 99 percent of students have debt-to-income ratios of 10 percent or less five years after graduating.
Huie said these findings can allow the universities to show policymakers that their "degree does pay."
Panelist Elise Miller, vice president for research and policy analysis at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), said that it is a "breakthrough" that the UT System has data to inform the discussion around the return on investment of higher education, especially following the last negotiated rulemaking session on gainful employment stunted by a lack of data to support how to determine a program's success.
Laitinen said that this data gives her "a lot of hope" because information on graduates' earnings is essential to affording people the opportunity to make meaningful choices, especially as the cost of college is rising and students are taking on more debt to fund their education.
The panelists also agreed that this data can allow institutions to reevaluate programs with poor outcomes and intervene when necessary, such as by allocating more resources to support students.
Aside from serving as evidence for policymakers as to the value of a degree, Huie said her next step is to make sure that the data is being used effectively by institutions and programs, and said she plans to host webinars with financial aid advisors, students, and others about how they access the database and incorporate it into their work.
"A real challenge ahead is making sure the tool is adopted into the institutional culture," she said.
Huie said that she hopes that the UT System's partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau will inspire other institutions to form similar connections.
Publication Date: 3/28/2018