Sanction or sunset 58 college programs? Texas policy group says they should be

A state analysis shows the struggles of some institutions to give students a good early return on investment in specific academic fields.

For students looking for the best colleges and universities to embark on a path to success, the brand of an institution might not matter as much as the programs contained within it.

That has been the impetus behind the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard as well as efforts by organizations with ties to higher ed to try to ensure that students get what they pay for–ultimately a career with decent return on investment while incurring the least amount of debt. They say the performance of those academic fields is vital in increasing job and promotion opportunities, as well as earnings.

Over the past few years, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has released a report on the state of those offerings, titled “Holding Texas Colleges Accountable For Student Loan Debt and Earnings Outcomes.” This year, armed with new data from the Scorecard, it highlights 58 programs within public universities in Texas that it says are underperforming and not worthwhile for students to pursue. The TPPF says those institutions should be held responsible if they don’t take action to improve them, including potential losses of federal financial aid and withdrawals of state aid for lagging programs.

“Many students and parents rely on Texas’ public universities to open doors to promising career opportunities at an affordable cost,” Andrew Gillen, senior policy analyst at TPPF, said. “The vast majority of programs at Texas public universities fulfill this role. But some programs leave their students with excessive student loan debt. Graduates from these programs do not earn enough to afford to repay their student loans.”

The struggles of students to pay back loans–to the tune of $1.75 trillion–is one of the biggest crises facing higher education. President Joe Biden’s call for forgiveness of $10,000 for as many as 43 million borrowers, plus another $10,000 for Pell recipients–might provide a short-term solution but doesn’t fully address potential problems in the future. Yes, loan debts could be capped, and Pell grants might get a substantial boost if his proposals go through. But students taking out loans to pay for majors that won’t give them adequate earnings could still be overburdened financially and have the same debt issues as previous borrowers. TPPF said it is the duty of colleges to ensure this doesn’t happen.

“Some programs prepare students for life after college better than others,” Gillen said. “Responsible colleges will seek opportunities to expand these successful programs and phase out programs that fail to prepare students for success.”

More from UB: The top 100 colleges and best in majors, with a lean to ROI, according to Niche

A neat metric that TPPF has developed is something it refers to as “debt as a percentage of earnings,” which effectively is a look at the financial outlook of students three years after graduating from specific programs at universities. One pattern emerged: associate’s degree programs at Texas public universities tended to be less risky for students than all others, though some data was unavailable because of privacy. Bachelor’s degree programs on the whole did well, too. However, graduate, master’s and professional level programs raised those risk levels. The latter saw a nearly 1 to 1 ratio between those that were very successful and those that were “low performing.”

A couple of the academic areas that struggled to make the grade after Year 3 at more institutions than others, might be surprising. They include Clinical, Counseling and Applied Psychology; Student Counseling and Personnel Services; Music; Law and Dentistry. In fact, students who earn their first professional law degrees at Texas A&M, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University all earn less on average in Year 3 than the debt they have incurred. At Texas Southern, that debt can be as much as $130,000 while median salaries are $67,000. A doctoral degree in architecture from the University of Texas might offer a nice salary of around $64,000 but also could come with a monthly payment of $816. Of course, over a lifetime, some of those payoffs might be more substantial depending on career trajectory. But early on, those paths can severely restrict the financial flexibility of individuals.

Texas Southern had the most underperforming programs (10) in the TPPF analysis, followed by the University of Texas at Austin (8) and Prairie View A&M University (6). Broken down under four groups of recommendations, the TPPF says many of them should either be sanctioned, with the potential for “funding and enrollment restrictions,” or given a sunset tag, that is they should be eliminated altogether. They include:

  • Bachelor’s degree in fine and studio arts, Texas A&M Corpus Christi
  • Associate’s degree in business operations, support and assistant services, Houston Community College
  • First professional degree in optometry, University of Houston
  • Master’s degree in multi/interdisciplinary studies, University of North Texas
  • First professional degree in dentistry, University of Texas Health Science Center for San Antonio
  • First professional degree in law, Texas A&M University-College Station
  • First professional degree in dentistry, Texas A&M University-College Station
  • Doctoral degree in music, University of Texas-Austin
  • Master’s degree in music, University of Texas-Austin
  • Master’s degree in radio, TV and digital communications, University of Texas-Austin
  • Doctoral degree in architecture, University of Texas Austin
  • Master’s degree in teacher education and professional development, Texas Southern University
  • First professional degree in law, Texas Southern University

Within the report, the Foundation also highlighted states that are doing better than others in keeping risk low for students by having few low-performing programs. The best of the best is Rhode Island, with 73 programs the TPPF said could be rewarded with additional funding for their efforts on debt-to-earning ratios after three years and in having no programs that fall into the sunset category. It was followed by New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Minnesota. Texas ranked 14th overall. The bottom five includes California, Kentucky, Montana, Louisiana and Alaska, although they did have a lot of data restricted because of privacy. Still, they also had the fewest programs listed under the reward category.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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