College has always been the oddest of consumer products.
Can you think of any other product that is marketed as an investment for which people will shell out six figures with no guarantee of anything -- and absolutely no recourse if the product (education) does produce the intended result (a well-paying job)?
Now, one community college is looking to make its product risk-free and more consumer-friendly. Lansing Community College in Lansing, Mich., offers six-week training courses for students interested in careers as call-center specialists, pharmacy technicians, quality inspectors and computer machinists. The cost for each of these certificate programs is is $2,400, but a special money-back guarantee program is being offered to 61 students. If they attend every class, complete every assignment, and make a good-faith effort to get a job, if they are unable to find employment within a year after graduation, they'll get their tuition back.
Timehas more on this innovative marketing strategy, which is believed to be the first money-back guarantee in the history of higher education. While its offer is unlikely to catch on in a broader way, Lansing Community isn't the only school trying to ease its students concerns about the job market amid this tough economy. Bellevue University, a private college in Nebraska that caters to part-time adult students, is offering to allow students who lose their day jobs to defer all college expenses for up to six months.
Like Any Investment, You Can Lose Money on Higher Education
The problem of job insecurity for recent college graduates, however, can't be resolved with "money-back guarantees" -- which, by definition, can only transfer the costs of an individual's poor investment in education to other students and society at large.
The real question that families, institutions of higher learning, and lawmakers will need to confront soon is this: Have we as a society dramatically oversold the financial benefits of higher education? It's hard to argue that that's not the case. Back in February, it was reported that the $800,000 increase in lifetime earnings that The College Board and other institutions claimed was associated with a bachelor's degree had been quietly reduced to just $450,000 based on further research. Yeah, sorry about that -- and don't even think about asking for a refund.
Meanwhile, student debt loads are exploding upward along with default rates and, as I reported Thursday on DailyFinance, during the first four months of 2009, fewer than half of college graduates under 25 were working at jobs that required a degree -- and that doesn't include the huge percentage of students who drop out. Marty Nemko of US News & World Report has noted that "among college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class, 76 of 100 won't earn a diploma, even if given 8 1/2 years."
It isn't Lansing Community College that should be offering refunds to students who go into debt for education and then fail to reap any rewards. It's the parents, teachers, guidance counselors, admissions officers and financial aid counselors who tell kids "It's OK. Go to the best school you can get into. Sign this promissory note. Your education is an investment and your earnings will increase enough to more than make up for however much you pay."
Turns out, it doesn't work like that. There is ample data to suggest that hundreds of thousands of kids are enrolling in college each year who will later find themselves worse off financially for the experience. By the time those young people figure that out, the guidance counselor will have retired, the admissions officer will have moved to another school, and the student loan company will have referred their account to collections. And, to adapt a line from my favorite Charles Aznavour song, only the unemployed young adult with an anchor of debt around his neck because he thought higher education was the ticket to financial security is left on stage to end the play.