The Oncoming Decline of Culinary Schools?

Recently, the Obama administration implemented regulations requiring career college programs “to better prepare students for “gainful employment” or risk losing access to Federal student aid”.

What does this bit of governance have to do with culinary schools? A great majority of those places are for-profit, and have a business plan that includes getting a slice of that Federal student aid.

I’ve never been a big fan of for-profit education, less so when it comes to culinary schools. The problem is two-fold.

1) Some of the institutions are more keen on selling the glamourization of the restaurant industry, providing a rudimentary of set of kitchen skills, and then completely avoid discussing the real world of restaurants.

2) As this article in the Seattle Weekly points out : “many prospective chefs believe the $40,000 tuition fee collected by for-profit trade schools entitles them to a cushy executive-chef position upon graduation. They’re unwilling to accept a $12-an-hour prep-cook job or wash dishes.

In other words, the schools tell the students that they are going to be stars, make loads of money, and love the work.

What really happens is more akin to this:

Rick Park started working at a Jack in the Box in Austin, Tex., when he was 18. He moved on to sub shops, pizza parlors and chain restaurants, turning out hundreds of meals during a shift.

But Mr. Park wanted to be a chef. So like tens of thousands of other young people who grew up in the age of kitchen celebrities like Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse, he enrolled in culinary school.

Two years after graduation, all the “Bam!” has been drained from the dream. Mr. Park makes $10.50 an hour at a bistro in Austin best known for its French fries, trying to pay down his student loans. While he dodges phone calls from the bank, his mother helps him make his $705 monthly payments, almost twice his weekly take-home pay.

What do these culinary schools get out of this? An increase to their bottom line and no accountability for their role in this case of, let’s face it, borderline fraud.

Yes, some of these schools are of quality, and yes, some of the more unethical schools have their success stories. But these are the exceptions, and not the rules.

And yes, the students have some level of responsibility here. But when institutions cajole new applicants by obfuscating, misdirecting, and in some cases, out right lying about loan obligations and the reality of the restaurant industry, how much responsibility ends up on the shoulders of the individual?

Simply put, selling a degree for tens of thousands of dollars for a job that averages $10 an hour is unethical. Period. Full stop. If these new rules and regulations make the people selling these degrees go away, this is ultimately a good thing.