NPR ran a story yesterday about the culinary school craze. It targeted ‘for profit’ schools, some of which operate in this market. Cooking schools are packed, numbers are growing, many students pay for these schools with federal loans, and now these schools are feeling the pressure to prove that students graduate with something other than crushed dreams and an insane mountain of loans to repay. I never went to cooking school. Things were different back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. There were no waiting lists for culinary schools, they didn’t cost what they do now, and there were fewer of them. They also were teaching a different curriculum, focusing then on the journeyman skills. Today schools teach to all aspects of food service, from rockstar chefdom to butcher, from hotel culiinarian to food photographer or flack—at least the best ones do. From Culinary Institute of America to the French Culinary Institute to Johnson and Wales, there are many great schools that can be a superb starting point for any wannabe professional food freak. They all should be used in conjunction with what I call the art of cooking, stressing time spent (two years for sure!) in real kitchens cooking side-by-side with real chefs, the ones who are innovating and creating, not the ones who are automatons or replicators.
That being said, everyone wants a stage cooking at the French Laundry. Five years ago Thomas Keller and I were talking about this issue, and he told be received almost 10,000 requests for internships and stages of some kind the previous year. There is simply not room for everyone at that table, and there is certainly not room on the backside of the graduation process for all these people coming out of schools competing for the same $12 an hour job. The upside is that the students graduating from the premiere schools are equipped to go into the workplace doing something other than cooking in restaurants, using their education to work on political, social, or agricultural issues for example. The students I worry about are the ones coming out of schools such as the ones talked about in this NPR article. As these schools pump out more and more grads, the odds of “making it big” (the original canard that’s sold here in many cases) decrease, they don’t get better, and things won’t tilt in the students’ favor as long as we keep flooding the market place like this.
Placements after graduation to me are even less important as to where the grads are several years down the road. Repaying a loan is impossible on the starting wages for line cooks and prep cooks without real restaurant experience. After a few years, as these grads add layers of responsibility to their lives, it seems to me things could look even bleaker for the majority of cooks who are less talented than their more successful peers and are getting chewed up by the industry that I love—sexy yes, but she has no time or patience for anyone but the most talented. The schools in question need to stop selling the sexy Top Chef/Iron Chef /TV star/Beard Winner/Michelin Star side of the equation so that at the very least the next generation of students understands what kind of a field they are entering.Here are some interesting quotes from the NPR piece (parenthetical comments are mine):
Many former students say that with that income (@ $12 an hour), 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.
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. 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.
Here are some other interesting links from NPR:
For-Profit Schools Retooling Recruitment Strategy: December 8, 2010
Promise Of Jobs Lures Many To For-Profit Schools: November 23, 2010
For-Profit Colleges Try To Polish Their Image: November 23, 2010
For-Profit Colleges Under Senate Microscope: September 30, 2010
For-Profit Schools Balk At Stricter Regulations: September 9, 2010
On another subject, Daniel Klein is a young man in a hurry and he needs your help. Crowd sourcing a TV or online project is nothing new, but based on everything that I have seen so far on Perennial Plate I think Dan is on to something big. Check it out and help him out. There is a serious earnest quality with PP that I think is a great break from the usual dreck in this genre. Just sayin’.