ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
America, it appears, has gone crazy for cooking.
(Soundbite of TV show, "America's Next Great Restaurant")
Unidentified Man #1: It's the American dream.
Unidentified Man #2: This is "America's Next Great Restaurant."
Unidentified Woman: The title that's eluded them all: "Top Chef."
NORRIS: Reality shows like these are blanketing the airwaves, and Americans are streaming into culinary schools in growing numbers, many paying for their education with federal loans. Now, these schools are under pressure to prove that students graduate with more than just a ton of debt.
NPR's Larry Abramson tells us more.
LARRY ABRAMSON: 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.
Mr. JOHN FUENTE (Chef): Dauphinoise looks beautiful. Really good color.
ABRAMSON: With a couple dozen students awaiting his judgment, Fuente has to taste, then spit - he's got to watch his calories.
Mr. FUENTE: That's a great flavored duchesse.
Unidentified Woman: Thank you.
Mr. FUENTE: Nice job. Perfect moisture.
ABRAMSON: 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, former autoworkers, retired military.
And there's Roger Hollis, who's facing an unexpected career change.
Mr. ROGER HOLLIS (Mechanical Engineer): I'm a mechanical engineer, and I lost my job after 25 years. And the construction industry is really hurting. So I'm 52 with a 7-year-old, and I decided to follow my passion and go back to school for cooking.
ABRAMSON: Hollis says he has taken out thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for an associate's degree in cooking. Despite his work experience and his expensive degree, he'll still be starting at the bottom, as a line cook.
Mr. HOLLIS: Twelve, 15 maybe an hour, yeah.
ABRAMSON: Many former students say with that income, it's virtually impossible to keep up with your loan payments. Newbies may spend years as a line cook. Average salary, according to starchefs.com, is under $29,000 a year.
Attorney Michael Louis Kelly represents California students suing the parent company of Cordon Bleu, Career Education Corporation. His clients say the school promised them something they cannot deliver.
Mr. MICHAEL LOUIS KELLY (Lawyer): The model doesn't work. You can't go to school, accumulate 50 - 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.
ABRAMSON: Cordon Bleu is in the process of paying a $40 million settlement from a similar California class-action suit from students who say they were deceived and saddled with debt.
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.
The industry argues 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.
Mr. JARREL PRICE (Analyst, Height Analytics): 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.
ABRAMSON: 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 in legal suits have charged that the company games those numbers, and includes any food-related job as a placement.
But Kirk Bachmann, president of Cordon Bleu Chicago, says that's not true.
Mr. KIRK BACHMANN (President, Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago): 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.
ABRAMSON: But students must take those Cordon Bleu placement numbers on faith. There's very little scrutiny from federal regulators or from the school's accrediting body.
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, one that could blind them to the risks they face. Take Michelle Mecaskey, who left a good job to come here.
Ms. MICHELLE MECASKEY: I'm a surgical dental assistant. By coming into patissier and baking, I take a huge pay cut.
ABRAMSON: Other students don't have another career to fall back on. And for some, this highly competitive, high-stress profession will turn out to be a mismatch.
Will Blunt of industry journal starchefs.com says no matter what your qualifications, some people are not cut out for the kitchen.
Mr. WILL BLUNT (Managing Editor, StarChefs.com): 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.
ABRAMSON: The parent company of Cordon Bleu, CEC, says it is worried that its cooking schools will have a hard time complying with new federal rules, which will punish schools with lots of dropouts.
Some investors fear CEC might get out of the cooking business altogether. Instead, the company recently announced major changes meant to ensure that students graduate and repay their loans. It shows that even in this extremely popular field, for-profit schools have to change the way they do business if they want to stay on the right side of regulators and investors.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.