Should Chefs Go to Culinary School?

by Ben Miller

Time ran out for two Culinary Institute of America attendees in last weeks episode of emTop Chef./em Was their tuition money worth the hefty price tag?

Time ran out for a Culinary Institute of America student and alumna in last week's episode of Top Chef. Was their tuition money worth the hefty price tag?

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)

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21 responses to “Should Chefs Go to Culinary School?

  1. This is kind of a local hobbyhorse of mine. In my city, we’ve long had one of the expensive Art Institutes and another for-profit, TV-advertising school that offers a culinary program. Last year Le Cordon Bleu opened a location, surely charging over $20k/yr for students who will graduate into an industry that starts out around $10/hr.

    Yet El Centro Community College has an excellent program located in downtown. Tuition and fees? Less than $2k/yr. Nice facilities and great instructors that rival if not exceed the expensive places. It has a better location that’s more amenable to internships or jobs.

    I worked in for-profit education briefly after college. There may be a handful good places and some good ones, but the vast majority are a joke. And I guarantee the local community college has a superior program at 1/10th the cost in whatever area 90 percent of the time.

    (I do hear good things about the CIA, though, if one if sure they’re going to make a career out of it. )

  2. It looks the same in Chicago – both the CHIC Cooking & Hospitality Institute of Chicago and Kendall College have default rates over 10% for 2004. Compared to “regular” colleges that are usually 2% or less.

    Our community college has a 45 credit program for $108 per credit ( about $5k ) over most of 2 years. Clearly a bargain.

  3. This article hits rather close to home, as I’m a M.A. in history who’s worked as a baker and sous-chef for several years and am now a prep cook at an apparently prestigious deli in the Midwest. I’d like to do something involving sustainable cuisine in the food-service industry, and have had a lot of advice given me both for and against culinary school.

    My old boss, who suggested that I should pursue a culinary career, either never attended or dropped out and on the whole, I think, cautioned me against it. The high-end, somewhat fusion restaurant next door, where I worked doing prep work for a few months, had as its chef and owner a very skilled professional who hadn’t done culinary, had once worked under Gordon Ramsay (which I really can’t imagine), and was very highly regarded by pretty much everyone I consulted. Another friend of mine, a sous-chef at a local high-volume medium-range bistro, often loudly complained about the people he’d work with who’d been to culinary but had no practical experience in the restaurant industry or any other sort of non-domestic food service environment.

    So on average I’m against going to culinary school; my present amount of student loan debt is something I’ve reconciled with paying pretty much until I die, and I don’t need any more. Community colleges certainly sound like a good alternative, and I doubt you’d really get a much better education at a “name” institution (a probability that actually mirrors my experience in grad school). I’d certainly be interested in hearing from others who’ve had experience with the subject.

    Good, thought-provoking post.

  4. View from above the 49th

    In the 1980’s my then husband and I both attended a presigious frenh culinary school. Very expensive and worth every penny. I was always considered a great cook, culinary schoo gave me skills I would never have gained no matter what book I read, cooking class I took or if I cooked for another 20 years. Yet, while my skills increased and my cooking got even better, only one of us became a brilliant chef. While I might be a great chef and have cooked in many fine restaurants, my husband was, is and will remain an artist and a true genius in the kitchen. Yes a good cooking school can produce great cooks, it takes great talent and a true gift to produce true brilliance in the kitchen. As for working in the industry, the turnover is high as the rewards are not great. The best reward is when someone truly appreciates the food or if a chef is recognised by his/her peers but that only happens a dozen or more times in a lifetime (I mean true recognition). Other than that chefs are left to cook for us rubes, the ignorant and the jaded palate, quite discouraging in a career. A true chef can not leave their kitchens and often their best reward it their own restaurant. As restaurant ventures usually require capital, partners are often involved. It is far better for the business if the partner has an understanding of how a kitchen operates and is comfortable working with food, that is where people like me come in handy. In my opinion the worst partner a great chef could have would be an accountant.
    Sounds like a great idea for a business partnership but a nightmare for a restaurant. Brilliant cooks are also troubled artist types, somewhat complicated and easily bored.

  5. Ben – Top Chef isn’t a representative sample. And the same applies for culinary schools in general. I think comparing the cohort default rate of stand-alone culinary schools to the national average of schools tells us more about the sample of students than about the quality of schools.

    49th’s last line is telling: “Brilliant cooks are also troubled artist types, somewhat complicated and easily bored.”

    I’d wager that the fixed effects that push people to “self select” into cooking school are more likely to explain default than the quality of the school. What’s most interesting in your analysis is the inter-coooking school differential: presumably this shows the true “quality.”

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  7. Hi! I liked your article. I want to educate people about the reality of the Culinary industry.

    http://realityoftheculinaryindustry.blogspot.com/

    Please visit my blog on this topic and let me know your comments and suggestions.
    Thank you,
    Veena.N.K

  8. Ben,

    Great job on a under-covered topic. I appreciate the links, too. I learned a few things.

    Thanks

  9. Pingback: Choosing a Culinary College « Career Finder Blog

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  11. Culinary schools for girls offer different types of cooking programs to their students like restaurant management, hospitality management, chef professionals, baking and pastry arts management and lots more. Many best girls culinary schools in USA that offer quality based educational programs to the girls. These schools have best chef professionals and instructors to provide their program to students

    http://www.girlschools.net/

  12. I’m on the fence about applying or apprenticing. Thanks for the informative article. There is still so much to consider!

  13. Pingback: Why Go to Culinary School? « The Internet Food Association

  14. Lisa Masters

    I recently read this entry and have been thinking about the issue ever since. As a graduate of Remington College (www.remingtoncollege.edu), I really do see the value of receiving a formal culinary education. However, the most important aspect of learning about the profession is working in a kitchen. I worked for next to nothing in a kitchen at a high-end Dallas restaurant. I learned so much about running a kitchen in that job. In the end, here’s my recommendation: Go to culinary school, as long as you won’t be buried in debt…

  15. If you are thinking about going to culinary school, the first thing you need to know is what really goes on behind closed culinary school doors. I went and I wrote all about it: Culinary School: Three Semesters of Life, Learning, and Loss of Blood http://amzn.to/eOKJWw

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