The media is swamped with news stories challenging whether a college degree is worth the cost, using attention-grabbing headlines and rhetoric to draw a dismal picture. Concerned about the debt burden for students pursuing a degree, The University of Texas System Board of Regents created the Student Debt Reduction Task Force. One simple recommendation—that more information be made available to students about the affordability and benefits of a college degree—became the impetus for my team of research and policy analysts at the Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI) to develop a new tool to help undergraduate and graduate students make informed choices about their education and their financial future.
That tool is seekUT, developed for and with the input of students, using data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the Texas Workforce Commission, the National Student Clearinghouse, and the U.S. Bureau of Statistics. The free web tool provides data on employment outcomes and average student debt, data that begin to answer the question on everyone’s lips nowadays: Is a college education worth it, or not? (The data show that it most certainly is.) seekUT includes information such as: median earnings one, five, and 10 years after graduation; average student loan debt (and estimated monthly payment); industries where students are employed; and a number of other data points for more than 200,000 UT graduates by degree level, institution, and major. Whether preparing to enter college for the first time, getting ready to declare a major, heading towards graduation and their first job, or considering graduate school, students can look to seekUT to provide data to help them make informed decisions about their education.
Building awareness of seekUT, competing with the thousands of other tools and sources of information that deluge students, is no easy task. This was not a case of “if you build it, [they] will come.” UT System has been actively promoting seekUT since its launch, using a variety of methods to expand its use and presence. Given a limited advertising budget and a young audience, we use social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and blogging. Our limited promotional funds available are strategically targeted to include student newspapers, high school guidance counselors, and related outlets in Texas.
We also have to get the word out to our own campuses. We travel to UT institutions, meeting with students over donuts or pizza, and giving demonstrations to advisors from admissions, career services, and financial aid. We ask for feedback. How can we make the tool easier to use or understand? What should be included? What should be omitted? How can we best reach students? Based on that feedback, we make the necessary changes to further hone the tool.
Our attention to feedback means that seekUT continues to evolve. UT System continues to seek partnerships to enhance the data, solicit feedback for ways to improve the tool, and analyze the data for deeper insights. In fact, UT System has begun releasing a new series of briefs—Education Impact (found on the UT System Dashboard)—that examine these data with larger policy and social impact questions in mind.
These data are immensely powerful at the individual and policy levels, but that power only comes from user friendliness and actual use. Students who use these data can develop a realistic picture of the investment needed—and potential returns—for their education. The fact that we provide free access to these data is a demonstration of our commitment to our students, and to transparency and accountability. The data show at an individual and collective level that higher education is an investment worth making. And that is something worth talking about.