College Grads with Diplomas -- and Warranties

It's still a trickle, but some community colleges are starting to offer employers assurance that alums will be up to snuff on the job

It's a common gripe of employers: Too many newly minted college graduates lack important workplace skills, whether it's the ability to write clearly or to compute easily. From now on, if those ill-prepared graduates happen to be recent alumni of the Community College of Rhode Island, the boss will be able to do more than grumble. Beginning with the class of 2001, all CCRI diplomas will come with a guarantee that the graduates are job-ready -- plus a pledge from the school to retrain them if they aren't.

The sheepskin-cum-warranty is the project of Thomas Sepe, president of the two-year college, which is based in Warwick, R.I., and has about 15,000 students on three campuses. The details of the plan are being worked out now, but Sepe announced the guarantee policy during a graduation speech on June 2, when he told surprised students that "if your employer finds you are not able to do the things you have been taught, all your employer has to do is call me," and students would be reenrolled in the necessary courses free of charge. The same applies to deans of four-year colleges or universities where CCRI graduates may enroll.

CCRI's pledge is unusual, but not unique. Over the past decade or so, several of the 1,100 community colleges in the U.S. have begun offering this academic equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, according to Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington.


  Among those that do are the Community College of Denver. Its "guarantee for job competency" provides, in general, up to nine credits, free-of-charge, to graduates whose employers say they have failed to master skills for which they received degrees or certificates. Similar guarantees are given by Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., and the Dallas County Community College system.

Why do they do it? Good marketing is one reason. "We want to make sure employers hiring our graduates know they are trained in accordance with current standards and philosophies," says Patricia Jensen, a spokeswoman for the Community College of Denver.

Sepe says he introduced the guarantee in part because he believes that CCRI is doing such a good job of educating its students -- 96% of the class of 2000 either work full-time, are in school full-time, or juggle some combination of the two -- that he can afford to certify their competence. Sepe also hopes to send a message to professors that they share a lot of the responsibility for how well young people are educated. "I wanted to reinforce to the faculty that we are all accountable," he says. "Their effectiveness with students is their hallmark."

So do employers ever take the schools up on the pledge? It's rare, but it has happened. At the Community College of Denver a few alums with certificates from the institution's clerical programs have been sent back to the school for additional office-skills training, says Jensen. Better that, employers well might say, than a meaningless diploma.

By Pamela Mendels in New York

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