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Friday, March 18, 2016

Why Don't Universities offer money back guarantees? Does this make them as "fraudulent" as Trump U?

It has been an odd week. I get calls from the press occasionally but it been every day for about 10 days now. The major news outlets are all writing about Trump University and I was the Chief Learning Office at its inception until it went from online, learn by doing courses, to seminars. 

The reporters who call all have the mission of getting the dirt on Trump U. They are all disappointed to hear that I have no idea what was happening there after they stopped financing me to build what I believe in.   Reporters typically have a story they want to write and are trying to get a quote that supports their argument. I, on the other hand, typically try to get them to re-think, which I know is hopeless, but spent too many years as a professor not to try.

The New York Times reporter called me, as far as I can tell, because he saw that I was at Yale at one time and he had been a student at Yale. So, when he started on the “fraudulence” of Trump U, I asked if he thought Yale was fraudulent. He said “no” of  course, so I asked him what his major had been and what his goals were when we decided to attend Yale. He said he had always wanted to be a journalist. But there is no journalism major at Yale, I said. He responded that he had been the editor of the Yale Daily News and that had prepared him well. I am sure it did, but that is not an academic offering at Yale. Yale intentionally does not offer “training” as I have said many times before.

In a conversation with a woman from the Wall Street Journal, I asked her about her major (she had attended Cornell) and she told me it was English and History. I asked her if perhaps offering such majors wasn’t also fraudulent since kids going to Cornell do go there thinking they will get a job after they graduate. She responded that those majors taught her critical thinking skills. This is an answer I hear all the time about nearly any major by the way. (It is a kind of automated response that is a lot like ones that religions teach.) A “journalism” major could have taught her critical thinking skills as well of course.

What is really being offered by the Yale’s and Cornell’s of the world is a kind of badging. It is no shock that The New York Times writer went to Yale. Yale graduates are very much who the Times wants to hire, not because of what they may have learned there but because the Times is a kind of club and Yale is one means of entry to that club.

It is easy to make fun of Trump U because it belonged to no club at all.

All of this is meant to preface my real point. I run a company called XTOL which builds online learn by doing courses. 

These courses are offered by a number of respected universities. But, these course are pragmatic, meant to get those who complete them jobs (as data analysts, or programmers, or help them to think out how to be entrepreneurs.) The courses are offered by the continuing education part of our partner universities, precisely because they are pragmatic. Universities simply don’t see themselves in the job preparation business despite the fact that most students go to college in order to get a job.

Something is very odd here.

Then, yesterday I got a letter that really caused me to think. The letter was from one of the major investors in XTOL.  He suggested that XTOL offer a money back guarantee to all the students in our courses. His proposal was to refund their full tuition if they didn't get a job after successfully completing our courses.

At first I was shocked by this suggestion. This is a serious business guy (unlike me who is really an  academic who happens to be running a business.) My first thought was to wonder if we could actually do this. The truth is we could. The initial investments have been made and our overhead is low. Our graduates really do get hired, so we would probably make out fine.

My next thought was that Yale and Cornell should make this same promise. Why wouldn't they? Let me list the reasons:

  1. They couldn't even if they wanted to. They have have extremely high overhead. Enormous campuses to maintain, and very expensive faculty to pay.
  2. They would have to come to grips with the idea that they really don’t do job preparation. They would be proud of that, in fact. They are trying to teach critical thinking (which really means they are trying to do research and hope that maybe some undergraduates might get interested in doing research as well.)
  3. They would have to change everything they teach and their entire organization. The ancient idea of a major (and departments) is meant to make sure that undergraduates take the senior seminars that faculty really want to teach. If they switched to a guaranteed job model,  they would have to stop teaching the things they are excited about (i.e. their own research) and teach skills they don’t want to teach and mots likely simply don’t have.

In other words, this could never happen. But it is an interesting idea isn’t it?

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