August 24, 2016; Time, “Money”

As the school year begins and more than two million new students launch their college educations, a few question whether the time, effort, and expense will pay off. How should graduates and their families measure the value of their undergraduate education? What if, instead, there was a guarantee that they would complete their education in four years, or attain employment in their chosen field after graduation?

Many students and their families spend more money on annual college tuition than others make in a year. The average college tuition and fees for the 2015-6 school year was $32,405 at private colleges, $9,410 for state residents at public colleges, and $23,893 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. As tuition continues to rise, so does average student debt, reaching $26,600 for students earning only their bachelor’s degree. Overall, students across the country hold $1.2 trillion in college loans, and 17 percent of them are behind in their payments. The NPQ nonprofit newswire reported recently on the student loan debt issue, noting that debt for recent graduates is often highest at institutions with relatively modest tuition costs.

At many schools, students struggle to enroll in the classes required for graduation, leading to only 19 percent graduating from public, four-year universities on time. Students who complete their degree in four years naturally borrow less than those graduating in five years or more. Additionally, students who obtain meaningful employment are less likely to fall behind than those who do not.

Whether and where to receive a college education is a complex, costly, and risky decision, similar to the decision to purchase an expensive product or service. Consumers are often protected by “lemon laws” if a product does not live up to expectations, but students who seek college degrees must pay back their loans whether they graduate or not. What if students had guaranteed access to these courses? What if employment in a student’s chosen field was guaranteed upon graduation?

A growing number of public, nonprofit, and for-profit colleges are offering students on-time graduation guarantees. For example, four years ago, the State University of New York at Buffalo developed “Finish in 4.” Incoming freshmen sign a pledge to complete a full load of classes each semester, meet with an advisor annually, and declare a major by their junior year. If they live up to their commitments but still fail to complete their studies within four years, tuition after the fourth year is free until they graduate.

Other colleges are offering employment guarantees for graduating students. Adrian College, a Methodist-related private college in Michigan, created AdrianPlus, a guarantee that students will earn an annual income of a minimum of $37,000 after graduation. If students do not attain such employment, the college will reimburse all or part of students’ loan payments.

Udacity, a for-profit online “nanodegree” program in computer coding, offers a slightly different approach. The school guarantees students employment within six months of graduation or a complete refund of their tuition. Davenport University, another private nonprofit institution in Michigan, offers a similar guarantee of full-time employment in a student’s chosen field. Students unable to attain employment receive three semesters of additional coursework to supplement their degrees at no additional tuition charge.

In the past, colleges and universities have fought the connection between degrees and employment, saying they were not trade schools. It is exciting to see that fallacy begin to dissipate.—Gayle Nelson