Money-back guarantees hardly seem to go with higher education. And offering them to prospective applicants during a recession sounds downright insane. But that's the sweetheart deal a community college in Michigan has started dangling to try to increase its enrollment. Beginning in May, people who take six-week courses in certain subjects will be guaranteed a job within a year or else they'll be refunded their tuition money.
It's a radical idea, particularly for a school located in Lansing, Mich., where unemployment sits at 11.7%. Lansing Community College, the third largest community college in the state, has 30,000 students a year but is looking for more. 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.
Though the college hasn't partnered with any companies to hire the newly minted trainees, Jones says she wouldn't be surprised if such arrangements come together down the road. "We've had employers who've heard about this call us," she says. "They want these people."
Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that while some schools have been promising to refund money if credit hours don't transfer to another school or if tuition increases after the first semester, he believes Lansing's get-a-job-or-your-money-back offer is a first. "If every community college in America did something like that, they'd all be broke," he says. "They'd be refunding all their tuition."
Whitehurst says he would rather see community colleges and technical institutions providing more information about program-completion rates among students and their employment outcomes. This kind of transparency would allow prospective applicants to make more informed decisions instead of gambling their futures away. "Currently we just don't have that in post-secondary education," he says.
There's plenty of outrage these days over how much people are paying for college and what they're getting or not getting out of it. Last August, for example, a graduate of Monroe College in New York City sued the for-profit school for the $70,000 she spent on tuition because she felt the school didn't equip her with the vocational skills to land a job.
But for Lansing Community College, this new and very targeted money-back guarantee may be a stroke of marketing genius. The school will get to pick from qualified applicants, and may induce some people who never thought of themselves as college material to sign up for classes at Lansing.
"What we really want ... is [for] them to get comfortable with higher education," Jones says. "And maybe they'd like to continue."