Are culinary schools selling a fantasy?
That’s the question being asked by students who are graduating with loans to repay and job prospects that offer little more than minimum wage for often menial kitchen work. It’s also the question being asked by lawsuits filed on their behalf.
Last week a $40 million settlement was reached in one of the lawsuits.
Allison Amador et al. v. California Culinary Academy is a class-action lawsuit representing 8,500 former CCA students. The suit claims that the school misrepresented itself and the value of its degree. The settlement offers tuition rebates and student loan forgiveness for the grads, without an admission of wrong-doing on the part of the school.
The students were recruited by admissions officers who used the high-pressure tactics of a used car lot to fill their classrooms. CCA did in fact treat its staffers like salesmen, with quotas, commissions, and finders’ fees—no-no’s in education, and possibly even violations of federal law. Touting the school’s supposed selectivity and standing in the culinary community, the staffers pointed to celebrity and television chefs on its roster of graduates to hook starry-eyed recruits. Claiming a 97% placement rate—twice the documented rate—they encouraged applicants to pile on student loans to pay for the nearly $50,000, 15-month program.
CCA did have a distinguished reputation for turning out many of the passionate and creative culinary professionals that made the Bay Area a top dining destination. But all that changed in 1999 when the school was bought by the for-profit Career Education Corporation. In its first two years of ownership, the company quadrupled the number of students enrolled, increasing class sizes and cutting kitchen hours. Admissions standards and education quality dropped while tuition continued to rise. And CCA is not the only one. Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, Western Culinary Institute in Portland, the Texas Culinary Academy, and at least a half a dozen other cooking schools are facing similar lawsuits.
The business model doesn’t work.
A year’s tuition at a culinary school like CCA is nearly $50,0000. Most graduates land low-paying jobs as baristas, dishwashers, and prep cooks. Do the math: those student loans won’t be repaid for a long, long time.
Get a dose of reality: peruse the StarChef survey of culinary professional salaries.