Regulators Light A Fire Under Culinary Schools

A culinary student cuts vegetables during a class at the Cordon Bleu program at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 2009. Students are pouring into culinary schools to pursue their dreams. But once they graduate, many of them face a mountain of debt — and low starting salaries.

hide captionA culinary student cuts vegetables during a class at the Cordon Bleu program at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 2009. Students are pouring into culinary schools to pursue their dreams. But once they graduate, many of them face a mountain of debt — and low starting salaries.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

America has apparently gone crazy for cooking. Reality shows from Cake Boss to the new America's Next Great Restaurant have helped convince many Americans that they, too, can open up their own bakeries or restaurants.

Students are streaming into culinary schools in growing numbers, many paying for their education with federal loans. Now those schools are under pressure to prove that students graduate with more than just a ton of debt.

Starting At The Bottom — And Staying There For A While

It's potato day at the Cordon Bleu school in downtown Chicago. Chef John Fuente faces a line of students holding plates of three potato dishes they each made. "Dauphinoise looks beautiful. Really good color," he says, while chewing a mouthful of freshly browned potatoes. But he does not swallow. With a couple of dozen students awaiting his judgment, Fuente must taste, then spit; he's got to watch his calories.

Patrick McCreary and Michelle Mecaskey are students at the Cordon Bleu school in Chicago. Despite years of  experience in other fields, both may have to start at the bottom of the cooking ladder as they  try to pay tuition at Cordon Bleu.

hide captionPatrick McCreary and Michelle Mecaskey are students at the Cordon Bleu school in Chicago. Despite years of experience in other fields, both may have to start at the bottom of the cooking ladder as they try to pay tuition at Cordon Bleu.

Larry Abramson/NPR

Some of the 1,200 or so students at this campus are just a few months from graduation and will soon enter the restaurant world. They come from every background — straight out of high school, the auto industry, retired military.

And there's Roger Hollis, who's facing an unexpected career change. "I'm a mechanical engineer, and I lost my job after 25 years — the construction industry's really hurting. I'm 52 with a 7-year-old, so I decided to follow my passion and go back to school for cooking."

Hollis says he has taken out thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for an associate degree in cooking. Despite his work experience and his expensive degree, he'll still be starting at the bottom, as a line cook. "Twelve, 15 [dollars] maybe an hour, yeah."

Many former students say that with that income, it's virtually impossible to keep up with their student loan payments. Newbies may spend years as a line cook; the average salary, according to the online industry magazine Star Chefs, is less than $29,000 a year.

Attorney Michael Louis Kelly represents California students suing the parent company of Cordon Blue, Career Education Corp. His clients say the school promised something it cannot deliver.

"The model doesn't work," Kelly says. "You can't go to school, accumulate $30- or $40- or $50,000 in debt, and then go into an industry where you're going to have to start out at $8 or $12 an hour anyway."

Cordon Bleu is in the process of paying a $40 million settlement from a similar California class-action suit, in which students said they were deceived and saddled with debt.

Regulators Turn Up Pressure

For-profit schools across the country have faced a stream of such suits. Now, the Department of Education is clamping down with new rules that could limit federal loans for schools with lots of unsuccessful students.

Career Education Corp., worried that its cooking schools will have a hard time complying with the new federal rules, recently announced major changes meant to ensure that students graduate and repay their loans.

Still, the industry argues that the government's metrics don't make sense. Culinary grads have good career prospects, they say; they just start out with low pay.

But Jarrel Price, an industry analyst with Height Analytics, says Washington wants to see better results in the short term. "Despite greater lifetime earnings potential, many policymakers believe that it's fair to evaluate income levels immediately after graduation, because that's when students are going to have to be able to start repaying their loans."

Cordon Bleu claims great success in getting that initial job, saying that 97 percent of the graduates from the Chicago campus get positions in the industry. Plaintiffs have charged that the company games those numbers and includes any food-related job as a placement.

Kirk Bachmann, president of the Cordon Bleu school in Chicago, says that's not true. "Someone that would consider going to Starbucks and be a barista or a teller would not be considered a placement in this school, because they would not have needed to come to this school to secure that job."

But students must take Cordon Bleu's placement numbers on faith. There's very little scrutiny from federal regulators or from the school's accrediting body.

If You Can't Stand The Heat ...

Culinary schools are not alone. All career schools — from auto repair academies to cosmetology schools — are worried that stricter government guidelines could limit their access to student loans.

But culinary students come to school with an amazing enthusiasm that could blind them to the risks they face. Michelle Mecaskey, who left a good job to come here, is bouncing with enthusiasm about her career choice — even though she is taking a big risk. "I'm a surgical dental assistant. By coming into patissier and baking, I take a huge pay cut."

Other students don't have a career to fall back on if cooking doesn't work out. And for some students, this highly competitive, high-stress profession will turn out to be a mismatch.

Will Blunt, the managing editor of Star Chefs, says no matter what their qualifications, some people are not cut out for the kitchen. "It's a passion-driven industry, and you need to have a real taste for it in order to be willing to withstand the hours and the low pay."

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