The Cost-Benefit Guide to Choosing a College Major

The Lone Star State wants you to know just how much that anthropology degree will be worth.

University of Texas Austin campus at sunset-dusk - aerial view
David Sucsy
Feb. 24, 2014, midnight

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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