A Guaranteed Job or Your Tuition Back

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

Yesterday was the last straw. A slightly under-employed scientist with multiple post-graduate degrees who is married to a physician asked me if I thought college was worth it. I gave him the answer I can now repeat in my sleep. All the data says, “yes, if you finish on time and don’t take on too much debt.” But as the conversation progressed, it became clear to me that it was time to throw in the towel. The standard defense of a college degree is just not good enough anymore.

Now consider a thought experiment. What if a college degree came with a guaranteed job or your money back, and the offer stands regardless of your major? For students and their parents, such a guarantee would remove a huge source of anxiety. It would give students more flexibility to explore all that academia has to offer without worrying about how such exploration will impact their chances on the job market. For colleges, such a commitment would address the number one concern of potential students and their parents: after years of hard work and thousands of dollars in tuition, will there be a job waiting once the tassel has been moved from right to left? Removing the pervasive fear of student unemployment will improve the overall campus climate by encouraging the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, as opposed to knowledge for the sake of securing a job. Most importantly, such a guarantee may help reverse the alarming decline in the application rate currently being experienced by almost all colleges and universities.

This idea isn’t as outlandish as it might initially appear. The oldest universities in Italy, England, France, and Spain were founded to train the clergy and civil servants. Their students received a virtual job guarantee upon admission. A similar situation currently exists among the 75-100 elite U.S. colleges where well over 90% of students are employed or enrolled in graduate school upon graduation. Virtually all colleges assert that a degree from their school will help students get a job and prepare them for a good life. Students, however, are increasingly skeptical; merely improving the marketing message doesn’t do the trick. Schools need to put their money where their mouth is.

In addition to providing students with an overwhelming value proposition, a job guarantee might result in other changes that would be beneficial to students and colleges. Schools would have a tangible financial incentive to focus on career readiness. Default on the guarantee would result in a stiff financial penalty. It is likely that the guarantee would also impact a school’s curriculum by including 21st-century skills that are valued in the job marketplace, supplementing the habits of mind that are traditionally associated with a liberal education. Inevitably, partnerships with the private and civic sectors to provide jobs to graduates would influence the aspects of the curriculum aimed at job readiness.

A job guarantee will not, by itself, eliminate public skepticism about the value of higher education. For too many families, high tuition still puts a college education out of reach. Outdated teaching methods must also be addressed because a guarantee would attract a more ethnically and economically group of students than would otherwise be the case. But these problems should be welcome when compared to the alternative: a shrinking pool of applicants, and the ultimate demise of hundreds if not thousands of our colleges and universities.

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