University of Texas System Overhauls Salary and Debt Tool

With interest in transparency and data-driven accountability on the rise in higher education, officials say the relaunch could draw attention outside of Texas.

by Reeve Hamilton, The Texas Tribune / October 8, 2014

The University of Texas System on Wednesday launched a major overhaul of seekUT, its interactive website that provides salary and debt information for graduates of its institutions.

Previously, the site which the system touted as a first-of-its-kind tool in higher education when it was introduced earlier this year only had information on salary and debt levels for bachelor's degree recipients at its institutions after their first and fifth year in the workforce.

But starting this week, the site now features data on students who earned graduate and professional degrees, as well as 10-year data and information on specific professions. Users can see how much they money they could expect to make monthly at different points in their career, as well as how much they might repay each month in loans. And they can get that information for each UT System institution. Previously, institution-specific data was only available for UT-Austin.

Stephanie Bond Huie, the system's vice chancellor for strategic initiatives, said the relaunch could have statewide and national implications. Interest in transparency and data-driven accountability initiatives is on the rise in the higher education community, and Huie noted that even the federal government has been working on a new public ratings system for colleges. 

On Wednesday, Huie, who has overseen the development of seekUT, will be in Washington, D.C., to meet with representatives from the White House, Congress, national higher education groups and media outlets as part of an effort to get the word out about the website. She hopes the increased outreach and the major changes will help attract more attention to the effort this time around.

For the relaunch, campus leaders asked that their schools' individual information be displayed, Huie said. She said she had previously been hesitant to break out findings for individual institutions in part because she didn't want prospective students to misread the data and think that earning a degree at one school as opposed to another would necessarily lead to more earnings.

"We don't know what the relationship is between attending UT-Austin and the salary you get when you come out," she said. "That's going to be driven by where you're living, where you're working, what market you're in, what field you're in, what the economy is like at the time. It's not necessarily a reflection of the quality of education or what that degree buys you. There are a lot of subtleties."

Huie said the tool — which now matches individual student records with workforce data demonstrated that the system could handle private information responsibly and still build useful data-rich tools.

In some cases, certain pieces of data, such as student loan debt information for doctoral students, are still not displayed because of lingering privacy concerns. "I'm not going to release anything I don't feel comfortable with," Huie said.

System officials acknowledged that traffic to seekUT in its initial months hasn't been particularly high. The site has received about 100 views per day. But students at different UT institutions who have used the application gave it generally favorable reviews. 

Yaneli Rubio, a marketing major at UT-Austin and a first-generation college student, said she would have used such a tool if it had been available when she was making decisions both before and after arriving at college. "I think it would have been a very valuable resource for me in helping me to see what opportunities are out there," she said. "I think it would have just allowed me to make more educated decisions."

But Zack Dunn, the student government association president at the University of Texas at San Antonio, expressed some concerns. While he said it was interesting to peruse such data, he worried that students might take the wrong message from it.

"It's cool to see all the data and what not, but I don't really think it's all about the debt you take away or the cost," he said. "I think if you're passionate about going to that school and getting that degree, it's important. I would hope no one makes their decisions based on simple numbers. If something they are passionate about leads them to money, great, but that's not what college is about."

Huie noted that she hoped people using seekUT realize that "liberal arts students do better than you probably thought they did." She added that while she believes students and families can benefit from the tool, she is also excited about how the data could be mined for institutional research, like investigating the relationship between salaries and the specific institutions that students attend.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.