Essay argues that colleges can measure the career success of graduates

With rising tuition, families are increasingly concerned about what students can expect after graduation in terms of debt, employment, and earnings. They want to know: What is the value of a college degree? Is it worth the cost? Are graduates getting good-paying jobs?

At the same time, state and federal policymakers are sounding the call to institutions for increased accountability and transparency. Are students graduating? Are they accruing unmanageable debt? Are graduates prepared to enter the workforce?

Colleges and universities struggle to answer some of these questions. Responses rely primarily on anecdotal evidence or under-researched and un-researched assumptions because there are little data available. Student data are the sole dominion of colleges and universities. Workforce data is confined to various state and federal agencies. With no systematic or easy way to pull the various data sources together, colleges universities have limited ability to provide the kind of analysis of return on investment that will satisfy the debate.

But access to unit-record data — connecting the student records to the workforce records — would allow institutions to discover those answers. What’s more, it would give colleges and universities the opportunity to conduct powerful research and analysis on post-graduation outcomes that could shape policies and program development.

For example, education provides a foundation of skills and abilities that students bring into the workforce upon graduation. But how long does this foundation continue to have a significant impact on workforce outcomes after graduation? Research based on unit-record data can also show the strongest predictors of student earnings after graduation — educational experience, the local and national economy, supply and demand within the field, or some combination of each.

President Obama and others have proposed that colleges share such information, and many colleges have objected. They have suggested that the information can’t be obtained; that data would be flawed because graduates of some programs at a college might see different career results than others at the same institution; that such a system would jeopardize student privacy; that it would penalize colleges with programs whose graduates might not earn the most one year out, but five or more years out.

At the University of Texas System, we have found a solution – at least within our own state – and, for the first time, are able to provide valuable information to our students and their families. We are doing so without assuming that data one year out is better or worse than a longer time frame – only that students and families should be able to have lots of statistics to examine. We formed a partnership with the Texas Workforce Commission that gives us access to the quarterly earnings records of our students who have graduated since 2001-02 and are found working in Texas. While most of our alumni do work in Texas, a similar partnership with the Social Security Administration might make this approach possible for institutions whose alumni scatter more than ours do.

With that data, we created seekUT, an online, interactive tool — accessible via desktop, tablet, and mobile device — that provides data on salaries and debt of UT System alumni who earned undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees for 1, 5, and 10 years after graduation. The data are broken down by specific degrees and majors since we know that an education major and an engineering major from the same institution – both valuable to society – are unlikely to earn the same amount. Also, seekUT introduces the reality of student loan debt to prospective and graduate students. In addition to average total student loan debt, it shows estimated monthly loan payment alongside monthly income, as well as the debt-to-income ratio. And because this is shown over time, students get a longer view of how that debt load might play out over the course of their career as their earnings increase over time.

When we present data in this way, we provide students information to make important decisions about how much debt they can realistically afford to acquire based on what their potential earnings might be, not just a year after graduation, but 5 and 10 years down the road. Students and families can use seekUT to help inform decisions about their education and to plan for their financial future.

Admittedly, it is an incomplete picture. Many of our graduates, especially those with advanced degrees, leave the state. If they enroll elsewhere to continue their education, we can discover that through the National Student Clearinghouse StudentTracker. But for those who are not enrolled, there is no information. In lieu of a federal database, we are exploring other options and partnerships to help fill in these holes, but, for now, there are gaps.

With unit record data we can inform current and prospective students about past performance for graduates in their same major; this is a highly valuable product of this level of data. Access to this information in a user-friendly format can directly benefit students by offering real insights — not just alumni stories or survey-based information — into outcomes. The intent is not to change anyone’s major or sway them from their passion, but, instead, to help students make the decisions now that will allow them to pursue that passion after graduation.

There are a multitude of areas we need to explore, both to answer questions about how our universities are performing and to provide much-needed information to current and prospective students. The only way to definitively provide this important information is through unit-record data.

We recognize that there are legitimate concerns, especially given the nearly constant headlines regarding data breaches, about protecting student privacy and data. And the more expansive the data pool, the larger and more appealing the target. A federal student database may be an attractive target to hackers. But these risks can be mitigated — and are, in fact, on a daily basis by university institutional research offices, as well as state and federal agencies. We safeguard the IDs, locking down access to the original file, and not using any identified data for analysis. And when we display information, we do not include any data for cell sizes less than five. This has been true for the student data that we have always held. Given these safeguards, I believe that the need for the data and the benefits of having access to it far outweigh the risks.

seekUT is an example of just some of what higher education institutions can do with access to their workforce data. But for all its importance, seekUT is a tool to provide users access to the information, to inform individual decisions. It is from the deeper research and analysis of these data, however, that we may see major changes and shifts in the policies that impact all students. That is the true power of these data.

For example, while we are gleaning a great deal of helpful information studying our alumni, this same data gives us insights into our current students who are working while enrolled. UT System is currently examining the impact of income, type of work, and place of work (on or off campus) on student persistence and graduation. The results of this study could have an impact on work-study policies across our institutions.

Higher education institutions can leverage data from outside sources to better-understand student outcomes. However, without a federal unit record database, individual institutions will continue to be forced to forge their own partnerships, yielding piecemeal efforts and incomplete stories. We cannot wait; we must forge ahead. Institutions of higher education have a responsibility to students and parents and to the public.


Stephanie Bond Huie is vice chancellor of the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the University of Texas System.

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Board Will Review President Under Fire at Lincoln U.

The Board of Trustees of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania met Saturday and said that it would review the actions of President Robert R. Jennings (at right), but the board said so only after initially expressing strong support for Jennings.

Jennings has drawn widespread criticism in the last week after video surfaced of him making remarks that many thought blamed women for sexual assaults and suggested a problem of false reports. He also faces criticism over falling enrollment and the way he treats faculty members. The board's president, Kimberly Lloyd first said Saturday that the board "is satisfied that Dr. Jennings is working diligently to bring about the change Lincoln needs," The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

But the board then followed that with a statement saying that it would review the performance of Jennings. Lloyd issued this statement "regarding recent comments" by Jennings: "The Board of Trustees of the Lincoln University has reviewed the actions of the president and has referred the matter to the Executive Committee to develop a definitive plan of action to advance the mission of the University for the benefit of all of its students, faculty, alumni, staff, and other stakeholders. The board considers this an issue of the utmost importance and therefore intends to begin its review as soon as possible. The review must be thorough and comprehensive and we will take the necessary time to ensure that happens."

It is unclear that the second statement will stop criticism of the university. The board met in a room with limited public seating, and the university would not let anyone in the room stand, angering many who came to demand that Jennings resign. Students and alumni continue to use social media and online petitions to demand that Jennings be fired.



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Mohammad Qayoumi, president of San Jose State University, announced two resignations on Friday --  Wanda Ginner, a member of the board of the university's foundation, and Rebecca Dukes, vice president for university advancement. While Qayoumi did not explicitly identify them as the subjects of recent campus debate, social media and local news reports said that they were. Protests last week were held amid reports that a member of the foundation board had said at a meeting that "I contribute to the university because these little Latinas do not have the DNA to be successful," and that a senior university official at the meeting said nothing. The Associated Press reported that Ginner has denied the quote attributed to her.

NCAA Releases Emails on Penn State Consent Decree

The National Collegiate Athletic Association released several documents Friday in an attempt to provide "important context" to emails recently made public during an ongoing court case that seemingly revealed that the NCAA doubted its authority to punish Pennsylvania State University over the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. The emails, which critics have pounced on in last week, also appeared to show that the association threatened Penn State with the "death penalty" if they did not accept the consent decree, thus agreeing to several sanctions that included vacating years of Penn State wins, suspending the university from participating in postseason games, and fining the institution $60 million. The NCAA has since walked back some of those historic sanctions, including ending Penn State's postseason ban in September, two years earlier than what the sanction had called for.

"When taken out of context, some of this material creates a misleading impression of the important issues related to the consent decree between the NCAA and Penn State,” Erik Christianson, an NCAA spokesperson, said in a statement. “The NCAA believes the full story will emerge at the trial scheduled for January 2015.”

The NCAA also filed a motion Thursday in Pennsylvania state court urging the judge to decide that the consent decree was "not entered into under duress." The documents released Friday by the NCAA were mostly emails the association felt demonstrated that the decree between the NCAA and Penn State was a fair agreement reached by both sides in order to avoid a lengthy and unpredictable infraction process. "I had to weigh accepting this outcome versus what might come with a traditional infractions process in an opinion," Gene Marsh, Penn State's lawyer, wrote in an emial to the NCAA's David Berst. "I laid it all out and gave my opinion, but the call was not mine. I think they made the right choice." Penn State officials said last week that they found it "deeply disturbing that NCAA officials in leadership positions would consider bluffing one of their member institutions" into accepting sanctions outside of the normal infractions process.


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