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New Higher Ed Almanac Armed With More Data to Aid Students, Advisers

For the first time since it launched in 2011, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board's annual almanac includes earnings data from the Texas Unemployment Insurance Wage Record File.

Texas Southern University students Chassity Piece (center) and Briana Falls (right) walk to class on Feb. 22, 2012.

On average, students who received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from a public Texas college or university in 2011 earned $25,643 in their first year on the job. That number was $28,112 for English majors and $39,901 for business majors. Those with engineering degrees earned an average of $61,908.

Those figures and more can be found in the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s fourth annual almanac, which was released Monday and includes performance metrics for the state’s higher education institutions. For the first time since it launched in 2011, the almanac includes earnings data from the Texas Unemployment Insurance Wage Record File.

As “part of the agency’s core mission to promote transparency and accountability among Texas public institutions,” the coordinating board says, the almanac is designed in part to help higher ed students, their families and their advisers make better-informed decisions about their college careers.

And one key discussion that could benefit from the latest edition of the almanac is how to push students to graduate on time, said David Gardner, the coordinating board’s deputy commissioner of academic planning and policy. 

“If I were majoring in psychology,” Gardner said, “it would make sense to graduate sooner rather than later because I need to go out and start earning that money more quickly.”

State policymakers and the leaders of colleges and universities have been grappling with how to encourage students to graduate in a more timely fashion. The latest data on how long it takes the typical Texan to earn a degree, which is also included in the latest almanac, indicated that there is room for improvement.

It takes the average full-time student at a Texas public university about five years and more than 140 semester credit hours to earn a degree that is, in most cases, designed to take four years and requires only 120 credit hours, according to the almanac.  The average full-time community college student in Texas takes more than four years to get an associate’s degree, during which time about 95 credit hours are amassed. The associate’s degree is meant to be a two-year, 60-credit-hour degree.

“You’re paying for those classes, the state is paying for those classes, and people may well be going into debt for those additional classes,” Gardner said, estimating that the extra coursework costs university students an average of more than $6,600.

The stats found in the almanac could help the work of David Laude, senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management at the University of Texas at Austin. As the university's “graduation rate champion,” he is working on raising the school’s four-year graduation rate.

He likened the issue of extended time in college to somebody going out to eat at a restaurant and staying from opening until closing. Not only is it an inefficient use of the customer’s time, he said, but because the table was occupied, nobody else could be served by the restaurant.

“The university has a responsibility to be as efficient as it can because its primary job is to serve the citizens of the state of Texas,” Laude said. “Its primary job is to put as many graduates of this institution out there into the workforce.”

According to the coordinating board, the average UT-Austin student takes 4.3 years and 131 credit hours to earn a bachelor’s degree. The school’s four-year graduation rate is about 52 percent, one of the state’s highest. Laude has been tasked with figuring out how to bring that rate up to 70 percent for the graduating class of 2017.

Doing that requires changing students’ perspective so that on-time graduation becomes the norm on campus, Laude said.

“A lot of times, students undervalue that year they would have after they graduate that could be better spent doing other things, whether it’s launching themselves into a career or launching themselves into the next stage of education,” he said.  

Laude said the university had stepped up its efforts to provide the current freshman class at UT-Austin with constant reinforcement that graduating in four years is optimal. As a result, Laude said, the school recently experienced its highest retention rate of first-year students from the fall to spring semester. 

Laude said UT-Austin has also reprioritized access to courses so that those students closest to graduation had priority, no matter what year they enrolled.

He said UT-Austin is working on more ways to make sure “this incredibly entangled university can disentangle itself so graduation, for a student, is a downhill process, not an uphill climb.”

Other schools are also attempting innovative solutions to encourage students to get their degree on time. For example, the University of North Texas, where the average student takes 5.3 years and 142 credit hours to earn a bachelor’s degree, recently unveiled a new fixed-rate tuition plan that will offer students up to $4,000 back for finishing on time. 

“We’re going to try to encourage students to get out so they can start earning money,” UNT President Neal Smatresk said. “We hope that reward will incentivize this behavior that we think is very positive.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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