Friday, April 09, 2010

Job Guaranteed or Your Money Back!

An alert reader sent me this story from Time. Apparently, Lansing Community College (MI) is guaranteeing students in certain pre-career certificate programs that they'll get jobs within a year of graduation, or they'll get their tuition back.

Gotta admit, I never thought of that. Of course, there's a reason for that.

First, credit where it's due. It takes what, in a less enlightened time, we used to call "balls of steel" for a community college in Michigan -- Michigan -- to guarantee anybody employment in anything. The college is hedging its bets somewhat; as the story notes,

The new money-back guarantee will apply to the four most in-demand technical jobs in the area: call-center specialists, pharmacy technicians, quality inspectors and computer machinists. The average pay for these jobs in 2008 ranged from $12.10 an hour (call-center specialists) to $15.72 (computer machinists).
The cost for one of these six-week training courses — which don't come with a degree but rather a certificate granting qualification in a specific area — averages about $2,400.
The money-back guarantee is only open to a total of 61 students in Lansing's pilot program. And the applicants are expected to be élite and competitive, says Ellen Jones, the college's director of public affairs. (All must have a high school degree.) Those who are accepted can't miss any class or assignments. They have to go through employability skill training and attend job fairs, and after they complete one of the six-week training courses, they must prove that they're actively applying for jobs.

So okay, this isn't quite at the level of covering, say, English majors. But still, for central Michigan, this is not to be sneezed at.

I can certainly see the appeal for students. If you're unemployed and looking at the prospect of staying unemployed for a long time, the idea of job readiness in six weeks is attractive. The money-back guarantee gets around the fear of student loans, or of being scammed.

And these are vocational certificate programs, not degree programs. The whole point of a vocational certificate is to get a job, so there's no issue of impurity.

Still, the whole idea makes me uneasy.

Part of it is because the college hasn't made any arrangements with any local employers to actually guarantee spots, so it's essentially bluffing. Average pay figures from just before the economy went off the cliff may or may not reflect what's actually available now. Even if they're accurate, the job market is very much an independent variable. The college can do a great job with the parts it can control, and the students may still hit the wall simply as a function of market conditions. For a college to have to issue a pile of refunds at exactly the moment when it's least economically able to do so strikes me as dangerous, if not crazy.

And then there's precedent.

Once students in other programs and at other colleges get wind of this, look out. They'll start demanding similar guarantees elsewhere. No college can guarantee a future job market in anything, but that won't stop the demand. Colleges with relatively little to lose -- because they're circling the drain anyway -- will take fliers on irresponsible guarantees, creating market pressure on the more responsible ones. Over time, I don't like where any of this leads.

I've mentioned before my experience at Proprietary U, where I saw the grads go abruptly from "in demand" to "out of luck" through no fault of the institution. That happens. In fact, I'd suggest, there's an excellent argument to be made that the best long-term job preparation is a transfer program. I've seen some programs, especially in allied health, manage to satisfy both by building in stop-out points on the way to a degree: leave the Nursing track early, and you can still find work as a CNA. That makes sense to me, especially if the program is structured to allow the newly employed student to come back and finish while working. But it's not a quick fix, and it's not a guarantee.

Still, any ray of hope in central Michigan is welcome. Good luck, Lansing. I wouldn't have tried it, but I've been wrong before...