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Report: Not Just What You Study but Where That Matters

by Reeve Hamilton

Two students with degrees in the same major, but from two different public universities in Texas, might earn significantly different amounts in their first year in the workforce. And the institutions that produce the highest-earning graduates are not necessarily the state's highly esteemed flagships.

That's the message Mark Schneider, president of College Measures, a higher-education research organization, attempted to convey at a Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board meeting in late April. He was there to discuss his new study, Higher Education Pays: The Initial Earnings of Graduates of Texas Public Colleges and Universities.

The study examined the median first-year earnings of students in Texas based on the institutions they attended, their programs of study and the levels of education they attained. Schneider found that "the payoff varied considerably from program to program and from institution to institution."

For students who earn bachelor's degrees, for example, there is a nearly $20,000 difference between the institution whose graduates had the lowest median first-year earnings and the institution with the highest. The lowest, at $28,451, was Sul Ross State University in Alpine, which is in a remote location with a weak labor market, Schneider said. The highest, at $48,086, might surprise some: the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

Philip Castille, the president of University of Houston-Victoria, which ranked fourth on the list, was in attendance for Schneider's presentation, and it piqued his interest. "I was really struck that the public is fixated on premier and elite institutions, but the actual best bargains in Texas higher education are regional comprehensive universities."

This appears to hold true even when looking at just one program. For graduates with bachelor's degrees in psychology, for example, the median first-year earnings ranged from a low of $18,516 at Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen to $36,056 at the University of Houston-Downtown.

"If you look at the data," Castille said, "there is no connection at all between the prestige of the institution from which you got your bachelor's degree and the amount of earnings you achieved in your first year after graduation."

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