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

In November 2006 the federal Education Department told Career Education that it would conduct program reviews at 10 of its schools — including the California Culinary Academy. In these program reviews, the department looks at a school's compliance with rules governing the federal student aid programs. An Education Department spokeswoman confirmed that the review is in progress at CCA, but said she can't comment until it's completed.

Meanwhile, a Justice Department investigation is believed to be underway in Washington, D.C. According to Career Education's most recent annual report, the Department's Civil Division wrote to the company in May 2006 asking for certain documents. Specifically, according to the annual report, the feds are interested in information given to prospective students regarding job-placement rates and the costs of attending school, and also want details on how admissions personnel were compensated. A spokesman said the Justice Department had "absolutely no comment" on the matter.

All this has made investors somewhat queasy. A report by a financial analyst for Bank of America did note that Career Education claims to have turned over a new leaf: The company has a crop of new executives to replace those tainted by the recent lawsuits and inquiries, and placed new directors of compliance at each school (although the position is currently vacant at CCA). However, the report questioned whether the company's commitment to "learning outcomes" had improved and noted that the ratio of admissions representatives to career counselors throughout the company is still 15 to one.

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.

None of the CCA students we spoke with knew much about Career Education or its legal troubles. But almost all of them say they wished they had done more research on CCA and studied the terms of their loans more carefully. Several say they have thought about taking legal action, but don't know where to start. Their outrage has found various outlets. Some graduates have resorted to posting diatribes on Yelp.com and other online review sites, trying to warn off potential students. Former student Matthew Jarvis, the manager at Zazil restaurant in the Westfield Mall, has another idea: "I've sometimes thought about going to the school on my days off with a picket sign: 'Don't go to school here, come ask me why.'"

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