by Ben Miller
Last week’s premiere of Top Chef saw the departure of Lauren and Patrick, a recent graduate and current student at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Meanwhile, Eugene, a self-taught cook placed in the top three, while Stefan–educated at a culinary school in Germany–won both the quickfire and the elimination challenge. This got me wondering: Are American culinary schools worth the money?
And it certainly is a lot of money. The CIA charges as much as $14,000 a semester plus a dorm rate as high as $3,325. Baltimore International College, where Melissa and Jill attended, is slightly cheaper, but can still run well over $12,000 in tuition and fees.
One thing culinary school does seem to do is help your chances on Top Chef. Forty six of the 63 chefs that appeared on seasons two through five (season one bios don’t have education listed), or 73 percent, attended culinary school. This number would be even higher were it not for the outlier of season three, where eight of the 15 chefs were self-taught, including runners-up Casey and Dale. (The most shocking discovery? Michael from season two went to culinary school.) This year’s cheftestants are more similar to other seasons–only two, Eugene and Hosea, did not attend culinary school.
But the individuals selected to participate in a reality show certainly aren’t a representative sample of culinary graduates. Being an education wonk, I decided to take a closer look at the data. Unfortunately, there is no nationwide test to determine the quality of culinary schools (if there were, I’d gladly be a willing diner judge. Instead, I decided to look at cohort default rates.
For those who don’t spend all day obsessed with higher education trade publications, cohort default rates measure how many student loan borrowers from a graduating class default on their debt within two years of graduation. The national average cohort default rate is right around 5 percent. A high cohort default rate generally indicates that students are having trouble finding jobs that helps them cover their debt. I say generally because the measure is far from perfect. For one, it only looks at what occurs two years out and not farther down the road, and two it is not perfectly correlated with school quality. (Those wanting to know more about the problems with cohort default rates can click here.)
The one good thing about cohort default rates is that the Department of Education publishes schools’ cohort default data right on its website. I pulled out every school with the word “culinary” in its name (none have chef or food), plus Baltimore International College and Johnson & Wales University, which also have culinary schools.
The results varied widely. The CIA was far and away the best of the large schools, recording a cohort default rate of around 2 percent each year in 2006, 2005, and 2004 (the most recent data due to the two-year measurement window). At the other end of the spectrum was Johnson & Wales and the JNA Institute of Culinary Arts. The former had over 7 percent of its 5,000-plus borrowers default, while the latter had 10 percent of its borrowers default in 2006 and 13 percent(!) default in 2005.
Think of the implications–over 1 out of every 10 students defaults on their debt within two years of graduating. Were cohort default rates measured over a longer time horizon, that rate would likely be even higher. And loan default is a serious consequence–borrowers can get slapped with thousands of dollars in collection costs and other fees, and their wages and social security payments can be garnished (and not in a tasty way) by the federal government.
From the data I had, I found that over 6 percent of all culinary students defaulted on their debt within two years–a mark above the national average. This is in keeping with findings from an article on culinary student debt by the New York Times, which documents the large debt burdens and high dropout and default rate among would-be chefs.
This article discusses one of the most troubling things I also noticed from my research: the likely high reliance on private loans. The cohort default rate data only listed 17 schools that participate in the federal student loan program, which means their students can take out fixed-rate loans with clear repayment terms. A school that is operating but is not listed in the cohort default rate database likely has its students take out private student loans to cover the cost of tuition. These are the most toxic type of student debt, with incredibly high variable interest rates and complex/misleading repayment terms.
High debt burdens coupled with low starting chef’s salaries can often force culinary graduates to default on their loans or drop out of the profession entirely. This is an even worse case scenario, because it means the student still owes tens of thousands of dollars and isn’t even practicing the skill they paid to learn.
So at the end of the day is a culinary school worth attending? I can’t speak to the quality of the food they learn to prepare, though it may improve your odds of getting on Top Chef. But unless you’re going to the cream of the crop (the CIA), the high tuition, crippling debt burden and large default rate should make all students at least think twice before enrolling.
(Image used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user Michael Dietsch)