Texas's Cost-Benefit Guide to Choosing a College

A new website offers data on tuition, fees, and potential earnings from the state's public universities.
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If you're a high school student in Texas and dream of a career in the arts, you might want to know that fine-arts and studio-arts graduates at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls make, on average, about $10,000 more per year than alumni who majored in the same subjects at Sul Ross State University in Alpine—and that the disparity lasts for 10 years after graduation. Yet the total cost of a bachelor's degree is the same at both schools, around $42,000. The average time to complete the degree is also about the same, a little more than five years.

A prospective college student can now learn all this and more from a neatly packaged Web report—which can be customized to reflect one's location, household income, and SAT scores—generated from a rich trove of data on tuition and fees at Texas's public universities, and on the earnings of those school's graduates. The searchable website MyFutureTx.com launched in early February, but it is only the most recent step in the state's long commitment to openness about the economic trade-offs inherent in choosing a college.

Texas has the most sophisticated and publicly available higher-education data set in the country, and its officials are aggressive about making sure that state residents can use that information to make better decisions about where to go to college and what to study. MyFutureTx.com is the newest of several state-sanctioned websites that offer detailed descriptions of graduates' earnings, job opportunities across majors, and comparisons of colleges' costs.

The picture can be unsettling. For example, anthropology majors who graduated in 2002 make an average of only $46,000 after 10 years on the job. Economics majors from 2002, by contrast, earn about $100,000, according to Texas CREWS, a state-run Web tool that uses the data set to provide information to the public.

Officials in Texas, from Gov. Rick Perry on down, say they think it's better to go into a college major knowing what you can expect at the end, rather than finding out after you've racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt. "The legislative body has pushed us into this culture of sharing," said Ginger Gossman, director of planning at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. "Our public institutions, they are just as committed to providing the data as we are."

This granular tracking of college graduates and the costs of their degrees requires a high level of coordination with the state schools and the Texas Workforce Commission, which monitors state employment. "It takes a gentle hand. We have to only tell the story the data tells us," Gossman said. "When we share the data with the public, we share it with caveats."

The earnings data track only those graduates who remain in Texas, for example. And if an accounting major winds up working in agriculture, that person's salary won't show up in the earnings related to agricultural degrees. Such constraints complicate the picture, but Texas officials believe the information they're providing has real value.

Texas welcomes outside scrutiny as well. It was one of the first states to partner with the independent research organization College Measures, which mines state-level data on colleges and graduates to reveal which university majors provide the best bang for the buck. The group also designed MyFutureTx.com.

"They have a total commitment to transparency, and they have a great data system," said College Measures President Mark Schneider. "They have long-term outcomes [for graduates at] one, three, five, eight, 10 years, and it's all built at the program level."

Texas is the only state that provides easy access to graduates' student-debt levels by institution and major, Schneider said. That's an invaluable tool for analyzing the debt- to-earnings ratio of graduates, which is an essential part of measuring the value of a college degree.

"It's a little scary, quite frankly," Schneider said of some of Texas's student-debt data. For example, archaeology graduates from the University of Texas (Austin) are devoting almost the same portion of their monthly earnings to student loans in their 10th year out of college as in their first.

Yet, he said, Texas higher-education officials aren't trying to hide that kind of information. "I was talking to one of their commissioners," Schneider said. "I said, 'I'm going to write a report about that. Do you have a problem with that?' He said, 'Not at all.'"

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Fawn Johnson is a correspondent for National Journal.

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