Schools like Everest College are higher (priced) education: Take it from a certified pharmacy technician

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I remember nearly falling over in my chair one afternoon when a student on a TV advertisement relayed the benefits of her schooling to become a certified pharmacy technician. At the time, I was employed with a major drug store chain as a pharmacy technician, or as they say in the biz, a CPhT. I was 18 years old and had no formal schooling for the job.

In two recent articles, The Denver Post chronicled the elusive -- and expensive -- pitfalls of for-profit schools like Everest College in Aurora, which offers a CPhT program. The stories reminded me of my days in the pharmacy and the education I didn't need.

The CPhT job paid higher than most starting journalism jobs, and with a little free time after college classes (the real kind), and a few flash cards, I was certified to count, mix and sell DEA controlled drugs. When I wasn't counting or mixing drugs, I was a freshman sneaking beers into the dorms. (Don't worry, I'm no longer certified.)

The company for which I worked paid me first as an uncertified technician, then paid for the certification exam -- I got the day of and before off -- and then offered a hefty raise after I narrowly passed the exam.

I'm still amazed that some people pay tens of thousands of dollars and endure years of school for the same result -- though I never got to star in a TV commercial. It's as amusing as it is sad, and it's part of a much larger problem.

The for-profit higher education business, which was once self-regulated by its own cheeseball, daytime commercials and the reasonable skepticism of consumers, has now grown into a $1.4 billion industry, the Post reported.

More and more students who enroll in for-profit education are defaulting on loans, which indicates that their degrees don't hold enough weight in the industry. What's more, a year's tuition at the Art Institute of Colorado, for instance, runs a whopping $22,904, according the Chronicle on Higher Education database. If it sounds like a rip-off, that's because it is. Compare that to $7,932-a-year at the University of Colorado, the state's flagship, which has its own College of Arts.

Make a whole lot of sense? Probably not.

But as a very fresh college graduate, I do have to admit that the shift in interest to these programs offered by companies like DeVry, University of Phoenix or ITT Technical Institute makes some peripheral sense.

Here's why: smaller classrooms, in-town schooling, night classes, face-to-face attention, online classes, and a negligible core curriculum outside the major/interest area.

The alternative: large classrooms, twenty-five thousand students, a robust core curriculum, moving away from family, adjunct professors, ancient dorms, and the Boulder hippies.

The former has some very real appeal for those who trust daytime TV commercials -- especially people whose high school careers didn't exactly earn them a gold star from, say, Denver Public Schools.

And when you consider the fact that Colorado's public higher education funding is absolutely abysmal and on the verge of collapse, it's hard to go all-in on a four-year degree.

At the same time, community colleges are turning people away as they face possible extinction, and the interest in higher education is sky-rocketing while infrastructure plummets. (See today's analysis of these issues from my alma mater college newspaper, the Rocky Mountain Collegian.)

What's worse, no one seems to be doing much about it -- except the for-profit sector, which is raking it in. In 2009, DeVry reported a nearly 44 percent increase in overall revenue, reaching about $1.46 billion nationally, according to its filings with the Securities Exchange Commission.

In this case, what most people don't know might actually hurt them. Many public colleges and universities have jumped on the for-profit bandwagon, offering many of the same perks at a fraction of the cost to both your wallet and your future dignity. Take Colorado State University, for instance. Through their online venture, CSU Global, students can earn a bachelor's in business management or a master's in teaching, to name a few. At $299 per credit hour, it's not exactly Ivy League, but it's a viable solution for those in non-profit/for-profit higher education limbo.

While institutions like the CU-Boulder and CSU, which have so greatly benefited the state's stakeholders, look for better models, some say privatization of public colleges and universities is a solution -- and it seems that numerous consumers agree, either because they're disenfranchised or because they just don't know any better. Either way, neither CU nor CSU offer a CPhT program.

Better call Everest College for that. Or just apply at your local drug store.

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