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

The company now owns 16 culinary schools around the country, but CCA, with its 30-year history, is its crown jewel. Some former professors say the purchase benefited the school, because it brought an influx of capital that allowed the school to upgrade the kitchens and facilities. Some also say that the formerly independent school was disorganized, and that the corporate takeover helped students by introducing a standardized curriculum.

But the school changed in other ways as well. In 2003 it launched an 11-month program of hospitality and restaurant management. The culinary program, which had previously offered day and evening class schedules with seven hours of instruction each, switched to a schedule of three shorter classes each day. Career Education leased an empty building in Potrero Hill in anticipation of the influx of new students. Yet in 2005 the school laid off 23 associate chefs, who students said helped the chef instructors provide one-on-one instruction in the crowded kitchens.

Meanwhile, tuition and fees sneaked upward for all three programs that the school offers: the culinary arts and the restaurant management degree programs, and a baking and pastry certificate program. The culinary program's rise in total price was most dramatic: It went from about $36,000 in 2002 to a high of $48,251 earlier this year. The price just dropped about $1,000, but only because the school is eliminating its student dining facilities.

Students prepare and serve a lunch buffet at the school's Careme Room restaurant.
Paolo Vescia
Students prepare and serve a lunch buffet at the school's Careme Room restaurant.
The California Culinary Academy has become a San Francisco institution.
Paolo Vescia
The California Culinary Academy has become a San Francisco institution.

CCA isn't the only game in town. The City College of San Francisco offers a two-year culinary program that has students in school for eight hours a day, five days a week. At that program's end, the students have earned an Associate in Science degree, which means if they transfer to a four-year university, they're halfway through. In contrast, CCA awards students an Associate's Degree in Occupational Studies, the same degree that massage therapists get. The credits earned at CCA can't be transferred to any other institution.

Edward Hamilton, head of the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Studies department at City College, is proud that his program has a reputation for turning out work-ready students. And while he says that CCA also produces "reputable and qualified" students, he doesn't think they're any better than his. "Our students and their students compete for the same jobs," he says.

The total price for the two-year program at City College, including tools and uniforms? About $2,200.

In California, for-profit schools are regulated by the state's Bureau of Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, a watchdog agency that is universally derided for its lax enforcement, and which legislators are allowing to shut down this summer as they put together legislation to create a new, reformed agency (see sidebar). However, the Bureau does have a few explicit requirements for information that must be given to prospective students. Each applicant must be given a copy of the school's "completion rates," or the number of students who finish the program, as well as the school's "placement rates," defined as graduates who are working full time in the industry within six months of graduation.

CCA graduates who kept their application material show that they did receive this information — but the statistics they were given are highly questionable, if not outright fraudulent.

A page from a 2003-2004 catalog insert states that of 601 culinary students who graduated the year before, 98.5 percent had full-time jobs in their field. That's the information that convinced Sarah to sign up. She didn't question the numbers until after graduation. Sarah is now selling knives to try to pay off her student loans, and says that only two people from her class of 16 are still cooking. "We all feel like we can't afford to cook!" she says.

That high figure must have seemed like a stretch to the school, too. In the 2005 catalog that students received, a 2003 figure of 98 percent is covered by a stapled-in page that drops the placement rate down to 89 percent. Today, the school's materials claim an 81 percent placement rate. Graduates say the new figure might be accurate — if the school is including every Starbucks barista in its count of positive outcomes.

The complaints and allegations against CCA should sound familiar to its parent company, Career Education Corporation. Over the past few years, the company has been hit with a succession of student lawsuits, and federal investigations are underway. All take issue with admissions policies and question the truthfulness of admissions representatives.

In 2005 people began asking questions about the company's business model, and investigating how it made such spectacular profits. A 60 Minutes report on the company aired that year, and blasted several of its schools for lying to students, and providing a shoddy education. The TV team sent an undercover reporter to apply for a medical assistant training program, and showed that an admissions counselor was willing to enroll an applicant who couldn't pass the entrance exam and who had both a history of drug use and a fear of blood.

Through 2005 and 2006, former students from eight different Career Education Corporation schools filed lawsuits. All but one of the suits against the company are still pending; a case in Missouri was settled out of court in May with an undisclosed payment to the former students. While the education programs in question range widely — from medical billing to photography — the allegations in each case are strikingly similar. Each suit accuses a school of intentional misrepresentations and consumer fraud, and most specifically mention false statements regarding admission criteria and student job-placement rates. Career Education has denied the allegations made in the lawsuits.

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