I saw another ad on TV last night for culinary schools. It had the flash and the glitz. There was the woman dressed as a chef talking about training chefs for exciting careers. And then today, I got another email from somewhere out there asking whether culinary school programs are worthwhile. So I’ve decided to take this one on.
Before going forward, I have to admit to biases and a point of view. I represent a group of students here in Oregon who are pursuing claims against Western Culinary Institute and Career Education Corp. Through the case, I’ve learned generally about for profit culinary schools. My take on all of this is colored by that experience, but it’s also driven by my private life as a dad who is putting kids through school. So none of this is legal advice. Think of it as one dad’s take on the cost of a private for-profit trade school education.
When you’re thinking about for-profit culinary school or any trade school, you’re already in a defined area of education. This isn’t about learning for the sake of learning. Instead, it’s getting skills that help you qualify for a job. That’s kind of obvious. Still, don’t ever lose sight of that because what you really want to know is whether the cost is worth it.
Costs at for-profit culinary schools can be very high. It’s not unusual for students to borrow $40,000 for a program that grants an associates degree in a period of one to two years.
The first question is what that buys you. Many trade schools provide potential students with placement information. Get it in writing. But you need more than just the numbers of students who are placed in the trade. You need to know what kinds of jobs they got, and you need to know what those jobs pay.
Here is what I mean.
There are plenty of jobs available in the culinary field. Think about all the baristas, line cooks, and dish washers out there. But those jobs usually pay very low wages, and they rarely require any formal training. So if a culinary school says that 95 percent of its graduates are placed in the field, you’ll want to know what kind of jobs those graduates are doing.
Here are some questions. How many of those 95 percent are chefs? Or restaurant managers? If 95 percent are placed in high-level jobs, then that’s one thing. But if those placement statistics include fast food workers, that’s a huge problem.
The other piece is that you need salary information, and it needs to be more than just an average salary figure. To say that graduates earn an “average” of $36,000 per year could mean that a lot of the students who graduate earn at that level, or it could mean that some earn $18,000 and some earn $54,000. You would want to know–wouldn’t you–if you were taking on debt of $40,000. So you would want to know how many earn $X, how many earn $Y, and how many earn $Z to put that average salary in context.
Some schools won’t give you that information. I would suggest that if a school will not provide that information, you might be getting into a really bad deal. You wouldn’t want to borrow $40,000 to go to school if the jobs that you get pay wages that won’t allow you to repay your loans. You also wouldn’t want to go to a program that doesn’t improve your job prospects.
Bottom line: Ask questions. If you don’t get answers, think about alternatives. There are a lot of great lower cost programs at our community colleges. They don’t straddle students with debt. The other way to get into the trade is to start at the bottom and work your way up. True, it takes time, but so does culinary school. The big difference is that working your way up the ladder doesn’t put you in debt.