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(L to R) Melody Haag, a first year in the inaugural class of the new three-year doctoral program; Jennifer Mathews, Dean of ACPHS Vermont campus; and Brittany Allen, a third year in the ACPHS four year doctoral degree.

Nestled on a hill above Colchester’s bustling Mountain View Drive sits the only pharmacy college in Vermont: the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (ACPHS).

The small college holds less than 400 students on their Colchester campus and is easy to miss in its quiet location.

Of the different professions in health sciences, pharmacy has a less glamorous reputation, the soft-spoken younger sibling to surgeons, paramedics, and medical scientists. However, according to a new study conducted by Georgetown University, ACPHS ranks number one in the nation in net gain out of 4,500 colleges.

With the cost of tuition rising across the country and the wave of student debt gaining ground alongside it, the value of college has also become a central talking point in politics. The Georgetown study, “A First Try at ROI: Ranking 4,500 Colleges,” seeks to address this issue by asking, “Is college worth it?”

This question hits close to home in Vermont as the trend line for private colleges in the green mountain state continues to dip. Three private colleges have closed this year—Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College and the College of St. Joseph—with Marlboro College close on their heels. In early November, the small liberal arts school announced a merger with Emerson College in Boston and closure of their campus in Windham County by the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

Why does ACPHS seem to defy this shift?

According to the study, private nonprofit colleges offer a higher return on investment over a 40-year horizon, meaning students graduating from ACPHS have a higher lifetime earning potential compared to the overall cost. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, as the saying goes.

Jennifer Mathews, dean of the ACPHS Vermont campus, thinks that job security and growth potential within pharmacy as a profession is what keeps them at the top.

“For a good number of years, pharmacists have been at the top of most trusted professions,” said Mathews. “The nice thing about pharmacy as a career is that you have a lot of opportunities that go from bench to trench: Do you want to do research? Do you want to be involved in that front-end thinking about new and novel treatments and therapies? Do you want to be part of the medical team? Do you want to own your own business? There’s such a broad spectrum of what you can do and it’s kind of the centrality of the practice.”

Second and third behind ACPHS in terms of highest return on investment over forty years are also pharmacy schools: the St. Louis College of Pharmacy and the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, pushing out the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford and Harvard University.

In terms of health sciences, Mathews sees career paths post-education as clearly defined. “I think it’s relatively unusual in some pathways to say, ‘I can very clearly see what I’m going to do at the end of this.’ Students can go into an undergraduate program and not be clear on what it means to get a job at the end of this,” she said. “Students come into health sciences or the pharmacy program and it’s very clear what their end goal is. It has a clear end point.”

Brittany Allen, a third-year student in the college’s four-year doctoral degree, pointed to the “ever-expanding potential” of pharmacy as one of the reasons why she chose ACPHS.

“I chose this profession because I loved it, but there are new opportunities coming up everyday that make me love it even more,” said Allen.

“I think people think about the very traditional pharmacy role, the dispensing role, the community pharmacist” when considering pharmacy, said Mathews. But opportunities within the profession extend far beyond that role, she said, including clinical pharmacists, industry pharmacists, ambulatory care, long-term care, academia, government jobs, etc.

“Students coming into this program know what they want to do and know there are jobs at the end of that path. That’s not always true for every degree that students go into,” said Mathews. “I think that creates a challenge for institutions where maybe they’re fitting a more traditional model of undergraduate education. It’s hard for students, it’s hard for parents, to see what that person is going to do once they graduate. I think we try to answer that question for the students early on.”

For Melody Haag, a first-year ACPHS student at the Colchester campus, job security was a large factor in her decision to pursue a doctorate in health sciences. Haag received her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Vermont (UVM) and, upon graduating, dove into the workforce, conducting pre-clinical studies for drug discovery.

“I had no idea I wanted to be a pharmacist,” Haag recalled, but the unstable, chaotic nature of working in industry led her to explore pharmacy as a more secure opportunity. “That really scared me,” said Haag. “I wanted a job that I knew I could fall back on that I knew was very secure. And pharmacy is a very, very secure job.”

Haag also thinks that ACPHS’s small, specialized community—1,400 students total as of 2017—could be what keeps the college afloat while other Vermont colleges sink.

The Georgetown study data tends to support this claim, starting that small private nonprofit colleges edge out larger public colleges in long-term net gain despite students at private colleges accruing more than double the amount of debt. But the three recently shuttered Vermont colleges fit that description of success—small, private, nonprofit—leaving the question: is college worth it?

For Allen, it is. She’s chosen to continue school after finishing her doctorate at ACPHS to follow a career in ambulatory care.

“I’m willing to take that risk because I know it’s going to be rewarding. I want to be that pharmacist that I was able to learn from, and I want to be the pharmacist for that little old grandmother that comes in,” she said, laughing. “Because it’s worth it.”

To read the full Georgetown study, “A First Try at ROI: Ranking 4,500 Colleges,” or find a school, visit cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/CollegeROI/.

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