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New Dallas College tool aims to show students why a degree is worth it

A new Dallas College tool seeks to entice the students who paused their education back to school by showing them the value of a degree.

The pandemic’s toll on higher education continues as colleges and universities struggle to bounce back to enrollment numbers.

As a result, the undergraduate student body is now 9.4% — or nearly 1.4 million students — smaller than before the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The new tool gives prospective students an idea of future earnings with a particular degree or certificate and weighs that against the cost of the investment in time and money that they’d spend on college.

“When students know why they’re making sacrifices to go back to school, and they know why they’re working so hard … then they’re more likely to persist and ultimately graduate,” said David Mahan, the Research Institute at Dallas College’s executive director.

The dashboard contains earning data of graduates from more than 3,500 higher education institutions across the country, including both two-year and four-year colleges and universities.

The tool also allows users to compare colleges and provides rankings.

Students can explore various scenarios and see how earnings could change based on what school they attend, what age they’d start school and what career they pursue.

Early findings from the tool show that those who pursue college — either four-year or two-year institutions — on average earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more over 40 years than those with only a high school diploma, according to a Dallas College news release.

The tool pulls the numbers from publicly available data from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard as well as from the census. The federal earnings data is based off those who received financial aid in college who later reported income to the Internal Revenue Service after graduating.

Allowing people to dive into the data in a digestible way gives them the power to make better decisions, said Emily Sharma, a technical writer at the Research Institute.

“It’s not just us putting a marketing spin on things,” she said. “There’s actual data to back up why Dallas College is worth it or why college in general is worth it.”

Other entities have similar or related tools. The Colorado Community College System, for example, has an interactive tool that aims to help prospective students find their return on investment of a program by calculating earnings minus program cost.

The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity, and Georgetown University also have various reports that look at the return on investment and most profitable degrees.

Dan Hooper, who founded the education nonprofit ScholarShot that works with at-risk students, said that while he’s uncertain how receptive high school students will be to such tools, it’s imperative to get more people in college to increase their chances of improving their economic status.

“It opens doors. It opens opportunities,” Hooper said.

Because younger Texans may not think about the long-term, Hooper suggested such tools also show the average hourly wage for a high school diploma earner versus that of someone with a vocational or associate certificate or an undergraduate degree.

“When we show to high schoolers the benefit of getting something at community college, we show it in terms of the dollar per hour increase and the kids, the kids get that,” he said.

Those that use such tools should also be aware of limitations, said Austin Slaughter, a technical research associate at MDRC, a social policy research organization. Data can be imperfect and insufficient, so caution should be used before taking any information at face value, Slaughter said.

Users should not expect the same exact results shown in the tool as past students, he said.

Much of the federal earnings data in the dashboard was collected before the pandemic and, in general, workforce and economic conditions fluctuate over time.

So while “college is a good bet on average, it will not pay off for everyone,” he noted.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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