Degree holders try cracking code to job market

Surrounded by her certifications, a book of her achievements and one of the medical books she had to have for class, an unemployed Heather Carr sits on a friend’s couch and talks about how she’s not ready to give up on finding a job in the field of medical billing, which she spent 12 months studying at IntelliTec College. Carr, a certified medical reimbursement specialist, hasn’t ruled out other options for employment including minimum-wage jobs.

Otorhinolaryngologist. The label for a physician who specializes in ear, nose and throat diseases is nearly impossible for most people to say, much less spell.

Yet the word is one of Heather Carr’s favorites, rolling off her tongue easily, before she spells it precisely.

In early April, the now 39-year-old graduated at the top of her class of about 14 students with an associate degree as a certified medical reimbursement specialist from Grand Junction’s IntelliTec College, 722 Horizon Drive.

Carr, a former radio personality, is upbeat, energetic and well-spoken. She has been hitting the pavement for months, looking for work — any kind of work — since graduating from the yearlong program. There, she delved into the medical terminology and broke records for her speed and accuracy at transcribing medical records.

But at this rate, loans on the roughly $21,000 vocational program, minus the $7,000 she received in grants, could come due before a job offer materializes.

“They say they have all this projected growth, that this field is growing,” Carr said of medical coding. “It may be a growing industry, it’s just not growing here. If I can just get on-the-job training, why did I get trained here? At this point, I’ve been looking for anything at all.”

Carr attended Central High School, but dropped out before getting her diploma. She later earned her GED from a program offered through Mesa State College (now named Colorado Mesa University). She yearned to delve into a career, and she made her dream of going to school a reality.

Carr gave it her all when she took the plunge at age 37, not missing a day of class. All winter, she rose at 4:45 a.m. to make three bus transfers from her grandmother’s home in Clifton, where Carr lived, to make the 7:45 a.m. start time at the private, for-profit school on Horizon Drive. All the while she hauled a backpack, crammed with 40 pounds of school books.

After some time, IntelliTec got her into their externship program (in which they match students with employers), working for a local business. During that stage of the training, Carr said she helped the business make money.

Still, full-time, paid work was scarce. Employers told her they weren’t hiring and encouraged her try again in the fall.

Carr has since applied to a rash of fast-food restaurants and any other prospects that arise. She has kept busy doing some part-time work landscaping for a friend. She saves bus money by walking around town, sometimes logging eight to 12 miles a day.

“I remember in early to mid-‘90s, just on a handshake you could get a job. Or you could walk into a place and fill out an application,” she said. “Now, they literally will not accept applications. It never even gets to the certificate.”

As the recession hit, more people looked toward the flexible hours and relatively quick turnaround times to complete degrees offered by for-profit trade schools to brush up on skills in the hopes of looking more attractive to potential employers.

As of July 1, the U.S. Department of Education rolled out its College Affordability and Transparency Center,, to offer students information to compare college tuition costs and information on graduation rates. The database on college costs and the likelihood that students will find jobs in their chosen profession is an attempt to keep students from being saddled with debt.

Furthermore, the site provides information about job-placement rates for students completing programs.

For example, costs for tuition and books on a 12-month medical-insurance coding-specialist certificate at IntelliTec in the 2010–11 school year were $19,210, not including living costs.

In comparison, in-state tuition, books and supplies at the now Colorado Mesa University were estimated at $7,996 per year. For-profit colleges, in general, take advantage of federal student loan programs, which can cost taxpayers money if students default on those loans.

At IntelliTec, 94 percent of first-time students receive financial aid, and 95 percent of students receive grants or scholarships, according to the report. At Colorado Mesa University, 46 percent of undergraduate students received some sort of federal student loan, with 44 percent receiving a grant or scholarship.

In 2008, 13.6 percent of students at IntelliTec defaulted on loans. During that same year, 9.3 percent of students defaulted on loans at Colorado Mesa University.

These days Carr is trying not to think about the loans. She’s also not too proud to take nearly any job offer.

Would she work in fast food?

“In a heartbeat,” she said. “That’s $7.35 more an hour than I’m making right now.”

She said she is proud of herself for earning a higher degree, even though it hasn’t yet paid off. She’s looking forward to a commencement ceremony slated for the fall.

“This is what a high school dropout can do with a little bit of drive,” she said, beaming at her degrees. “For the first time in my life, I’ll be in a cap and gown. I’m hoping my grandmother can make it.”


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