Attending university: reading the fine print

2013 might just go down as The Year of the Unemployed—and Underemployed—University Graduate. The media had a lot to say about the subject at the beginning of the year. The media had the luxury of moving on. Young people are still living with the consequences of having taken it for granted that a degree could be reliably exchanged for gainful employment when they should have been testing that assumption instead.

Whether you wear aSTEM is where it’s at” T-shirt or one with “The humanities rock!” written on it, you already know what value business places on higher education, and that it matters when it comes to your children’s earning their daily bread and building a life for themselves: unpaid internships; fixed term contracts; no benefits.

There’s a good chance that you’re about to pay more for your children’s education than you did for the car you drive. That would make it your single largest expenditure after your house. PDD is asking you to do the same due diligence over making this purchase (“investment” might be a better word). Think back to how many documents you signed when you bought your car or your home. What did they cover? What contracts will the university your children will be attending want you to sign? What will it commit to deliver?

How will it compensate you or your son or daughter if its teaching assistants or professors go out on strike and your children can’t attend classes or write their final exams? Will it pick up the tab for their accommodations if they have to come back to pick up the pieces of a broken academic year? What monetary value will it put on the opportunity cost of a position your children won’t be offered because they won’t have graduated? Will it guarantee that your children will even find a job?

One day, acquiring an education may resemble a traditional buy-sell transaction where the university as vendor will compensate you if it fails to perform. But until that day comes, basic personal due diligence will mean reading the contract, especially the fine print, whether you’re selecting post-secondary education for your children or for changing careers. There will always be a need to expect the unexpected such as the ripple effect of a sudden and protracted increase in crude oil prices or interest rates, the disappearance of a major industry, the appearance of a disruptive technology—or all of the above.

Taking a hard look at what universities will and won’t guarantee, what work will and won’t be available when your children graduate, and where they’ll find it will be a real eye-opener. And now that universities are coming to grips with how their business is changing with, among other things, the advent of MOOCs, the possibility of the disappearance of certain universities has to be taken into account.

Think about the fine print now so that you won’t have to worry about it later. It’s only prudent. It’s also personal due diligence.

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