If you’ve ever been curious about the return on investment for a college degree – think employment rates, student debt burden, and the like – you’d be pretty much out of luck. Since 2008, there’s been a ban on a federal database that would track information linking student education data to national employment data.
But the University of Texas has found a workaround. Yesterday the UT system rolled out a database with help from the U.S. Census Bureau that tracks earning and debt data for graduates.
Jeremy Bauer-Wolf, reporter for Inside Higher Ed, says this is the only collaboration of its kind. The Department of Education and the Census Bureau are already collecting this data – what this new tool does is help connect the dots.
“The UT system actually sends a lot of information over to the Census, and this is the first time this partnership – any sort of partnership – has existed with the Census with a higher ed institution,” he says. “Essentially they’re marrying the Census data that already exists with the student data, and they can sort of track all over the country where UT graduates are going.”
The tool can be used to look at numbers for specific programs and campuses, including the average student debt.
The database is designed with more than just students in mind. Bauer-Wolf says it’s also a lobbying tool.
“With higher ed funding sort of declining among state institutions, this is a chance for them to go to the legislature and say ‘Hey, This is what you’re getting for your buck,’” he says. “So this is definitely going to be something that’s going to be replicated around the country.”
One key takeaway from the data, he says, is that a liberal arts education can be a good return on investment. With schools placing an increasing emphasis on STEM programs, the benefit of a liberal arts degree might come as a surprise.
“Liberal arts grads from the UT system are actually earning quite a bit more than the average salary across the nation,” he says. “So I think that’s going to be a big talking point.”
Bauer-Wolf says the database is designed to provide information, not to compare or rank campuses. But the project has its critics.
“The big concern here is privacy,” he says. “Associations representing private institutions also oppose this just because it’s sort of an overreach of the federal government in their view.”
Bauer-Wolf says it’s very unlikely that this UT database is an indicator that the federal ban could be overturned any time soon.
Written by Jen Rice.