I'm about a month away from finishing a program at one of hthe Community Colleges here in the Phoenix area. I've been very pleased with the program and really think considering the whole program - including books, uniforms and supplies- cost me less than $4000 I've received a really good value for the money I spent.
Not all programs are created equal. The one I'm in is focused around two restaurants - a lunch room and dinner room. First semester is lunch service, second dinner service. We are broken into three rotations and rotate through them each semester: Bakery, Hot Foods, and Garde Manger/Dining Room Service. All of my chefs have had at least 15 years professional experience, all have had Exec Chef experience from many of the top resorts and restaurants here in town. Several are CIA graduates and many have trained in Europe extensively. One of the best things to me si that the student-chef ratio is always below 10-1. Right now in my group we are 7-1.
They are upfront in our program to tell you you will not be any sort of "chef" when you finish. The goal of the program is to give you the skills to go out in the industry and be a top notch cook in any sort of establishment. Quality skills and the abillity to keep up in a real world environment is emphasied. Everything is hands-on everyday. I had no experience whatsoever coming into this program and last spring placed at the top here in AZ in a competition...this took me to the National level competition where I placed 7th. I was pleased with this and know much had to do with the quality of teaching I was receiving.
We've studied and made all the mother sauces and many derivatives. The menus are designed with this in mind. We've had lots of hands on chacuterie experience. I knew nothiing about baking coming into this...I'll admit this had been the part of the program I'd like to see improved. On the Hot Foods side we receive instruction not just on the how but the why. In both bakery rotations we received a lot of how instruction but not much why. I would have preferred more on this....that said I have learned how to many techniques and become comfortable doing most that is asked for....but I don't fully undertsand the chemistry involved in baking. But there are definitely continuing education opportunities I can pursue, excellent books to read, or find employment in a bakeshop and further my educaiton in this area if I decide that's where my interests might be.
Picking a school is a personal choice. I'm in my mid 30's with one college education behind me...I didn't want to go into debt to learn this. I will be starting my Master's in Nutrition next year to combine iwth my AAS in Cul Arts....for my goals this option worked out fine and now that I'm at the end I have no regrets. Before choosing a school(there are several here in town) I went out and talked to local chefs about which schools they liked to hire from and why. I was consistently told that the program I am in was well-respected, they loved to hire graduates, and for the money, from the programs here in town I coudln't beat what they were offering.
Good luck in your decision making process and your future! :)