Burnt Chefs

Former admissions representatives at CCA say they preyed on students’ dreams of becoming celebrity chefs and glossed over the painful economic realities of the industry

Next to the posters in CCA's bright and modern admissions office, there's a flat-screen TV that's perpetually tuned to the Food Network. Around lunchtime, there's the Barefoot Contessa. A few hours later, along comes Emeril.

The sheen of celebrity that clings to chefs these days is one of the best things CCA has going for it. People with dreams of prime time flock to CCA's admissions office, where the school's representatives know just what to do.

"They sell them this dream that they're going to have their own cooking show," says a woman who used to work as an admissions counselor, whom we'll call Emily. She asked to remain anonymous because she now works for a competing school. In 2004 she quit her CCA job and sent a whistle-blowing letter to the state regulatory agency. "You tell them, "We have this graduate who has a TV show ... and this graduate who has a show.' That's how you sell it," Emily says.

To channel leads to the admissions office, the school engages in a marketing campaign that includes ads on daytime TV, when people who are trying to figure out their lives are likely to be flipping through the channels. CCA also sends representatives out to speak at high schools, to recruit fresh-faced seniors who aren't interested in college, but have no idea what else to do. On the Web site, prospective students can fill out a survey to determine if they're a "candidate for acceptance," which channels them straight into an online enrollment process.

Jennifer D'Ambrosio also saw it all from the inside. She worked as an admissions rep in San Francisco for five months in 2004, after transferring from a Los Angeles school also owned by parent company Career Education Corporation.

D'Ambrosio says the CCA admissions office was a pressure cooker, and that the admissions representatives would go to whatever lengths necessary to meet their numbers — each rep needed 15 enrollments per month to stay in the administration's good graces. Both D'Ambrosio and Emily said that representatives believed that they would be fired if they didn't hit their numbers for a few months in a row, and they were rewarded if they did. Emily recalled getting a free dinner at the Ritz-Carlton and gift certificates to the school store for hitting her enrollment numbers. Under federal law, it's illegal for schools to pay recruiters based on the number of students they enroll, but CCA could be skirting that line.

In CCA President Gibson's written response, she denied that the school compensates its reps based on the number of enrollments, but said that their bonus policy is based on student retention and graduation rates. She wrote that she could not speculate on the circumstances surrounding the specific allegations being made, but that admissions reps were expected to deal with students with honesty and integrity.

But both former employees say they worked at CCA at a difficult time for the institution — the school had just started a new program in hospitality and restaurant management, and was trying to expand into a new building on Potrero Hill. The admissions staff apparently wasn't roping in enough students to fill those classes. During the year Emily worked there, the number of admissions reps doubled, from about 15 to more than 30. Today, there are 37 admissions reps listed on the office roster.

To close a sale, admissions reps engaged in tactics worthy of a used-car dealership, the two insiders say. Both women say the administrators were obsessed with meeting the numbers for the next start date, and admissions reps were told to pressure students who wanted to delay enrollment to start as soon as possible. They always told students that classes were filling up fast. And when the school didn't have enough students signing up for the management program, Emily alleges that her supervisor in admissions told reps to steer all their applicants to that program — by whatever means necessary. "Every student you interview today is going to hospitality and restaurant management," Emily claims her supervisor said. "Tell them that's the most marketable degree."

Finally, the admissions counselors tried to make the program seem worth its exorbitant price tag by giving students the impression that the school was selective. "We were advised to tell the students that because it's such a prestigious school, Cordon Bleu recognized, yadda yadda, you have to tell me why you should be accepted," D'Ambrosio says.

The two women claim that actually, anyone with a high school diploma who could get a loan was in. At the Los Angeles school that D'Ambrosio worked at prior to CCA, she says the admissions reps joked that all a prospective student needed for admission was the $50 application fee and a pulse. At CCA, the situation was a little different: "The admission fee was more than $50 — but you still just needed a pulse." Emily adds, "They were enrolling people who don't speak English, who tell you they have a very serious learning disability. It's like, 'Yeah, uh-huh, can you sign up for a loan? Then you're going to school.'"

The CCA graduates who now feel the most ripped-off have one thing in common: They went in to CCA with a strong desire to better themselves, and to rise in the world, but came out weighed down instead.

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