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The University of Texas System is piloting a program to insert workplace skills valued by employers into the four-year curriculum, in an effort to boost earnings for alumni of the majors that typically make the lowest salaries. 

These microcredentials might range from digital skills to data analysis to business skills such as project management, said Lydia Riley, the UT system’s director of academic affairs. The eight colleges will decide in a few more weeks, she said, and the credentials should be available to students next fall.

Skills-based credentials and certificates have historically been offerings of community colleges, and a facet of career and technical training designed to help people get jobs. In contrast, four-year colleges and universities have focused primarily on getting students across the stage at graduation, not on whether their skills will be directly transferrable to the job market.

“It’s no longer enough to just be thinking about helping our students across the completion finish line,” said Courtney McBeth, senior vice president and chief program officer at Strada Education Network, which is helping to fund the project. “But we also need to think about, ‘what are the outcomes beyond completion, in terms of economic mobility, first job, employment outcomes?’

“It’s an ‘and’ solution,” she said. “It’s no longer degrees versus credentials.”

Related: Will the cost of a college degree actually pay off? 

Texas’ embedding of micro-credentials is one of 15 projects designed to improve post-graduation outcomes for students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds; students who are low-income or first generation; and students who have transferred or are working while going to school. The projects, funded by the Strada Education Network and the Task Force on Higher Education and Opportunity, include structured career skills training, development of mentorship programs and advising for students as they enter the workforce. 

McBeth said the projects underscore the idea that career services can no longer be relegated to one office on a campus – they need to be a responsibility shared by faculty, staff and advisors. She said Strada hopes that models like the one being developed at the University of Texas System can eventually be used by other institutions to help more students, and that Strada plans to share what’s learned.

The effort to connect curriculum to workforce skills follows a recent Strada and Gallup survey that found that adults who have both a college degree and a non-degree credential reported that their education helped them achieve their goals, made them attractive job candidates and was worth the cost – and reported this at higher rates than those who only held a college degree.

Even though they perceived their education to have been more valuable, their reported earnings and job satisfaction were not substantially higher than those who had a college degree but no non-degree credential, the survey found. Riley said UT hopes that its approach can help students increase their earnings over time. 

“It’s no longer enough to just be thinking about helping our students across the completion finish line. We also need to think about, what are the outcomes beyond completion, in terms of economic mobility, first job, employment outcomes?”

Courtney McBeth, senior vice president and chief program officer, Strada Education Network

The program in Texas is a pilot. If it goes well, the microcredentials could be embedded into other majors, as well, so that more students can benefit, Riley said. Riley said the University of Texas System received a $50,000 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to help fund the program, which aims to serve roughly 3,700 undergraduate students by the end of 2022.

After the eight colleges present their selected majors and relevant credentials to Riley in early March, she said, they will begin to figure out how to embed them so students are most likely to succeed. It will be up to the individual campuses, she said, but likely some of the credentials will be built into course curriculum, others could run in tandem with a student’s regular course load or serve as a sort of capstone project. 

Riley said the colleges are identifying the majors using data from seekUT, an online tool that uses the U.S. census, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Workforce Commission to track employment and salary data for students who have graduated from the University of Texas.

Related: The number of college graduates in the humanities drops for the eighth consecutive year

The majors whose graduates tend to earn the lowest salaries after graduation are majors such as theater, studio art, creative writing, psychology and anthropology. The median annual wage for these majors, one year out of college, is around $30,000 or less. 

But some majors that are traditionally viewed as pathways to higher earning jobs appear near the bottom of the list, too. At UT Austin, biochemistry graduates earn a median salary of between $26,000 and $29,000 one year after graduation, depending on whether they earned a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science and arts degree. But they see significantly larger increases in median salary at the five- and 10-year post-graduation marks compared to studio art and general humanities majors.

At UT Dallas, biochemistry, biology, and cognition and neuroscience graduates are the three majors with the lowest median salaries one year after graduation – all around $30,000. Environmental science graduates from UT El Paso earn about $19,000, and biochemistry graduates earn about $20,000, one year out. 

The earnings data alone won’t determine which majors will be selected for the pilot program because colleges are also supposed to be considering which majors enroll disproportionately large numbers of students of color.

After they select the majors for the pilot program, each campus will confer with local workforce leaders in selecting the relevant microcredentials, to make sure that they will actually help graduates get better jobs more easily, Riley said.

McBeth said the workforce partnerships are essential to the success of these programs and helping colleges prepare their students to fill needs in the local workforce. 

“The more we can get economic development workforce and higher ed leaders together to be working towards ensuring individuals have access to and can complete education and have meaningful careers and lives, it’s just really important,” McBeth said. 

“We know that a liberal arts education and the problem-solving, the critical thinking of higher order skills, combined with industry relevant skills, is setting those students up for both academic, life and career success over the long term.”

This story about workforce skills was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Olivia Sanchez is a higher education reporter. She previously covered local and state government for the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Sanchez earned a bachelor's degree in psychology...

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