The Main Building Tower at the University of Texas at Austin.
The Main Building Tower at the University of Texas at Austin. Credit: FlickrCC / ATXMX

When choosing a college, prospective students often want to know what advantage they will have over fellow graduates from other institutions. Degrees from prestigious universities like Harvard University are expected to open doors, while other universities like Texas A&M have a reputation for strong alumni networks for job seekers. Some schools are known for strength in certain fields of study. 

For students and their families, the cost of a particular school or major has to be weighed against earning potential. Should they take on debt? How much? Should they choose a major based on industry-specific skillsets or universal critical thinking skills?

In 2014, the UT System developed a tool for prospective students, seekUT, to help them make the best decisions possible for their future, said Stephanie Bond Huie,  the system’s vice chancellor for strategic initiatives.

Using seekUT, students can compare earning potential across majors and, using a debt calculator, see a preview of a likely monthly budget including earnings, college debt, and living expenses. It uses wage data from the decade following college graduation provided the Texas Workforce Commission.

That Texas Workforce Commission data has now been analyzed by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and Workforce. The study, Major Matters Most: The Economic Value of Bachelor’s Degrees from The University of Texas System, shows that UT System graduates earn not only nearly twice as much as high school-educated workers in their age group, but also that they earn more than the average bachelor’s degree holder nationwide. The study found that three years after graduation from a UT System institution, alumni had median earnings of $39,600. This is more than the general population of state and national college-educated workers, whose median earnings are $36,800 and $34,000, respectively.

This is good news for the one-third of Texas college graduates who have a degree from one of the system’s 14 institutions. The 228,000 students currently enrolled likely will be pleased as well. Of course, after reading the study, some may want to switch majors.

The largest wage variances were between majors. UT System graduates with architecture and engineering degrees typically make about $65,000 per year, while biology and life sciences majors make around $25,000 per year. The spread is consistent with state and national numbers as well. 

Taken from Major Matters Most: The Economic Value of Bachelor’s Degrees from the University of Texas System.

The study notes that the difference between majors is actually more significant over a lifetime than the difference between having a bachelor’s degree and not having one.

“The differences in earnings between majors ($3.4 million over a lifetime) is far greater than the difference between earnings of college and high school graduates ($1 million over a lifetime),” the study states.

“In the UT System, like everywhere else, what you take determines what you make,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center and lead author of the report.

The outcome of the study was mostly good news for the UT System and its students, Huie said. However, it showed that education did not erase many wage inequalities. Although gaps are likely not as large as they were in the past, Huie said, “We still see that there are gaps in male-female salaries, and also gaps by race and ethnicity.”

For instance, women initially earn more than men in fields in which the majority of the workforce is female. However, after three years, male salaries surpass females in those fields.

While education closes the earning gap for low-income students in some fields, in other fields access to actual jobs may require more than education. In architecture and engineering, 17% of Latinos who majored in architecture and engineering end up working in blue-collar occupations compared to 8% of their white peers.

“A lot of students don’t come with the connections that they need to get their foot in the door,” Huie said. 

This highlights where the system can improve on the value it adds to education, Huie said. Clubs, internships, honor societies, and other networking opportunities can help students access opportunities their peers might have gained through a professional family member. 

One thing potential students and their families should consider is the subtlety of the data compared to the splashy dramatic claims one might see from a university marketing department.

“What we want to have to present to our students is an accurate picture,” Huie said, “And an accurate picture is not always, ‘You’re going to be rich when you graduate.’”

The problem with most claims about the advantage that a particular university affords its students is that data comes from self-reported alumni surveys. Self-reported data tends to be less accurate. University marketing departments hear of anecdotal success stories and use those to paint a picture that might not prove accurate for every graduate. 

The UT System has made an effort to bring together its marketing and public relations departments with the offices that conduct in-depth research. “A lot of times those departments don’t talk to each other,” Huie said. While getting students in the door is a goal she appreciates, Huie feels that the system has a social responsibility to its students to accurately reflect the value of not just a college degree, but a UT System degree.

The UTSA main campus on the city's Northside.
UTSA, with its main campus on the city’s Northside, is one of 14 institutions in the UT System. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Another way that colleges tout their value is through ranking systems like the popular U.S. News and World Report “Best Colleges” rankings. Critics such as Malcom Gladwell have pointed out that such rankings are self-perpetuating and based on criteria that can be easily improved from year to year, making the rankings seem competitive.

Huie cautions against anything that seems too simplistic, and hopes that this tool can help parents cut through the hype.

“There’s a lot of college data, and it’s not easy to sort through,” Huie said.

One thing good information is not, usually, is quick and simple. It took the UT System almost four years to get from a data-sharing agreement with the Texas Workforce Commission to the Georgetown study, Huie said. The agreement resulted in a dump of raw workforce data that then had to be properly analyzed for the seekUT tool and then by the researchers at Georgetown.

In the end, she said, real information is the best for decision-making and worth the analysis.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.