A growing number of colleges in the United States are sending graduates to the job market backed by a 12-month guarantee against a defective education. They promise future employers that if their students fail to perform as advertised, they will take them back for extra tuition, free.
These guarantees - typically they cover graduates for a year - are being adopted by two-year community colleges from Oklahoma to Chicago. Officials insist they are not a gimmick, though few students under existing programs have ever been returned.
"It is like a store that has a warranty on a product. Hopefully most of those products would not be returned to the store," says Ronald Temple, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago. "We are saying we will provide a trained workforce, and if they are not, send them back to us."
City Colleges is set to guarantee students beginning in the 1996/97 academic year, and Dr Temple wants to offer the education equivalent of roadside assistance - on-site retraining for former pupils.
Other colleges involved in tuition warranty schemes describe them in terms of tuning education to the needs of employers. Oklahoma chancellor Hans Brisch hopes to bring business and academia together in "creative dialogue".
The Oklahoma state education authorities have adopted warranties for all two-year applied science graduates starting in the autumn term. But they also want to extend the system to four-year liberal arts degrees, though it may be harder to stamp a performance guarantee on a history or English major.
In Texas and Illinois, use of the guarantees are already widespread. But no one else has gone quite as far as the St John Fisher College, a private college in Rochester, New York state, which last year offered the students themselves as much as a $5,000 refund on their tuition fees if they failed to land a job after six months.
To qualify for what the college has proudly called "The Fisher Commitment" students must map out a career plan, complete at least one internship, and graduate with a 2.75 grade point average or better. Half the freshman class has taken it up. College president William Pickett believes the refund offer is a factor in an 8 per cent increase in enrolment this year.
In Oklahoma the state pays about 75 per cent of tuition costs, students and their families only 25 per cent. Qualified students are regarded as important to lure new companies to a state, an important development issue in the booming economy of the New South.
The Oklahoma scheme is typical. If an employer takes on a graduate, and finds training weaknesses within 90 days, there are three-way consultations between student, employer and college. Students get up to nine credit hours, the equivalent of three college courses, in free retraining.
"Once an employer says your student does not meet the skill level he has to be very specific," said Brisch. "'I don't like John Doe', or 'Joe Schmuck is not cutting it' is not enough, there has to be a reason why. If there is a matter of somebody not showing up to work or being tardy habitually, that is a matter for a personnel department."
Returns of students are rare. Henry Ford community College in Dearborn, Michigan, which began guarantees in 1986, has had only one graduate come back. Oklahoma's one campus with a program in place has not seen a single one returned.