The culinary school financial trap

Would-be top chefs face a challenge that most lawyers, engineers or nurses do not: few jobs in their chosen field pay enough for them to retire their student loans. Culinary school graduates are struggling to make their monthly loan payments in an industry where "the average hourly wage for a restaurant cook was $9.86." With two-year culinary school tuitions and supplies closing in on $50,000 "as many as 11 percent of graduates at some culinary schools are defaulting on federal student loans."

Yikes. Anyone considering culinary school should spend some time getting some real world restaurant experience (and don't count your high school fast food job). Not only will see if you really like it, you'll get a sense of how much you can learn on the job and how much you're likely to make. Then you can do the calculations and decide if attending the Culinary Institute of America for $90,000 makes sense.

I spent time working in a professional kitchen, trying to decide if I wanted to go to culinary school. Ultimately I decided not to, in part because I couldn't see how I'd get any kind of return on my educational investment. I knew I'd have to work at least ten years of insane hours to make any progress in a real kitchen, and at my age, that didn't make sense. Other goals (like marriage and a family) would have made the requisite commitment very difficult.

I know the culinary schools aren't going to like to hear this, but I think you're better off learning on the job. Even if you work for free (because you don't know what you're doing), you'll only be spending money on food and rent, and maybe after work booze — don't think you'll have time for much other life. Within a few months, you should learn enough to get on the payroll in somebody's kitchen. It's hard to imagine you'd be even $25,000 in the hole by that time.

14 thoughts on “The culinary school financial trap

  1. i am one of those people whi is still paying off her student loans after nearly 10 years. i may have been able to do it sooner, if i had made a steady income. have to say though, the only time i made the $9 and hour was right after cooking school. i was then fortunate enough to get a chef postion where i made a lot more money. then i discovered the world of freelance catering which pays atleast $20 and hour. never looked at restaurants again.
    i know the pay is pitiful but i think the rise of the celbrity chef has discolored many peoples’ vision of what a hot kitchen is really about

  2. Some of what a student pays the CIA $90,000 for are the connections (and prestige) that come with its degree. More so than even knowledge.
    I think Meg is right — you can learn more actually working in a kitchen. (The CIA and other schools require you to extern — work for free — in a kitchen during the program.)

  3. But how do you get a bank to loan you money to spend a few months effectively unemployed, working full-time at a restaurant for no money?
    One (perhaps unfair) advantage of formal education is that you can get loans for it. And lots of people don’t have the ability to go $25,000 in the hole.

  4. Brachinus, let’s do a little rough estimating. Say your rent is $800/month. Groceries and utilities are another $500. And say you even have a car payment of $300 and weekly gas of $50. That comes to $1800/month. Throw in $200 for incidentals. So you’re at $2,000/month.
    Go work for three months for free, which is plenty of time (especially if you volunteer for extra work) to learn a ton in a professional kitchen. Then go get a job that pays something, anything. If you started with $0 savings (but $0 debt as well), you’d be $6,000 in the hole.
    Skip the bank, you could probably do that on credit card cash advances, and move the balance around between cards to keep the interest low, assuming your credit isn’t terrible.
    And I think if you really wanted to do this, you could reduce that monthly budget quite a bit to go less into debt. Still, that’s a much smaller number than any tuition debt, regardless of loans.

  5. I am a nurse. I attended a well-established Nursing School in the early 90’s. I am sad to say that I am still paying off my student loans. Please do not lump nurses into the same category as lawyers and engineers. Unfortunately, we are not in that category. As a new graduate, with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing, I was offered $11.75/hour. And that was for a straight night shift position. Majority of nursing positions are based on an hourly wage. You receive a small differential for the particular shift you work and weekends. Climbing the corporate ladder as a nurse has little to do with work ethic, skill level and overall performance. It is based on years of service with an occasional small raise thrown in for cost of living increases. Life as a nurse isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The good salaries come with working nights, weekends and lots of overtime.
    If I had the chance to do it over again, I probably would have gone to a 2-year program….start working for a large academic based institution and had them pay for my continuing education.
    Now, as a nurse leaving the health care world for a life as a sheep farmer and cheesemaker….I must agree with the author. Keep your money…work hard in a kitchen and prove yourself. Either way, you will have to work your fingers to the bone– repaying your loans or gaining cred in the kitchen.

  6. Annie, just to be clear, that’s a quote from the article, not my own words. But it did strike me as odd to see nurse included because I didn’t think of nursing as a highly paid profession, certainly not on par with lawyering or even engineering.
    Now cheesemaking! That sounds fun, even if it’s not lucrative.

  7. Sadly, I agree with you, and I feel I should add shools that a little more than Puppy Mills cranking out graduates with out adequately preparing for the realities of the business. I graduated from one of these schools and was very rudely shocked at the gaping holes in my education. I was fortunate that I used inheritance money to go to school and did not have loans to pay off, but I can’t imagine trying to find a decent paying gig based on the education I recieved. I’m not just tlaking about making a living wage, but also about saving for retirement and having health benefits. Culinary Puppy Mills don’t teach about that.

  8. I have a solution! Skip the high-priced schools where you are paying for prestige, but don’t skip formal education. I earned a certificate in culinary arts from The Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State College. A few years ago the school was upgraded to a state-of-the-art culinary program complete with 13 separate kitchens including a fish mongering kitchen, butchery kitchen, production kitchen, several pastry facilities, even a TV studio from which the school broadcasts cooking shows and demonstrations. And the cost? In-state tuition is about $80/credit hour. So a certificate is less than $3,000 and an associates degree would be roughly $5-6,000. AND Midwest Culinary Institute recently partnered with the University of Cincinnati to offer a four year degree in Culinology- only a handful of such programs are available throughout the country. I am aware of many programs available at community colleges…and I know many talented, successful chefs, caterers, and the like who earned their formal credentials in them. Most, including Midwest Culinary, have either optional or mandatory co-op programs in partnership with top restaurants so practical application of learned skills are covered, too.

  9. I think the nursing positions the article was speaking of are RN positions in places where there are severe shortages of qualified applicants. I know that I have seen ads for RNs in the SF Chronicle that are offering RNs something around $50 an hour. That’s not EVEN on a par with kitchen work, no matter how high you are in the kitchen pecking order.
    Cooking may be very fulfilling, but it’s certainly not financially rewarding.

  10. Cooking schools are obviously engaged in extremely unethical behavior. They are allowing their students to get into heavy debt knowing full well that they won’t get high paying jobs with their cooking degrees.

  11. What they fail to mention about those $50/hour nursing positions is that they are only holiday,nights and weekends…possibly even split shifts with no guarantee for work…no health benefits or 401K, temporary and the least desirable hospital to be found. The higher the pay…the shorter the staffing = not good working environment.
    BUT, with that said…some people will do anything for money. Even endangering the lives of people. Majority of companies that pay $50/hour for nurses have such a high employee turn over rate that they cannot possibly keep up with all the accreditation necessary to ensure the nurses are well educated and able to care for the patients properly.
    And I’ve lived in SF….50/hr doesn’t go far. cost of living is outrageous there compared to the Midwest or places in New England that I’ve lived.
    After being in this profession since the 90’s….and have been on the verge of becoming cold, bitter and over worked….cheesemaking and farmin, all be it not a HUGE moneymaker, brings me joys in ways that nursing never has. But, again…no one made me be a trauma nurse. I could have worked in the nursery.

  12. A class of 30 students graduate every 3 weeks from the CIA. I graduated in ’81, so that’s 25 years x 17 class/year x 30 students = 12,750 graduates. How many jobs like Alice Waters or Anthony Boudin’s?

  13. The high cost of higher education is an enormous scam made worse by the inclusion of student loans into the number of debts that cannot be claimed by bankruptcy.
    I am seriously considering sending my son to the local voc. tech. when he reaches high school age. Currently, he is interested in graphic design and culinary arts, both programs offered by the school. If he decides to go further in his education and attend culinary school or design school (as I did, still paying off those loans too) then he will at least have a marketable skill to help earn his tuition, rather than getting into a indentured servitude arrangement with our countries financial institutions. Good call, Meg.

  14. I have a son who is a sous chef who has learned by working his way up in the kitchen. Given the hours in most restaurants, it is a shame that there aren’t part-time culinary programs since many of their days are empty until 4-5ish. It is a vicious cycle, no better pay or advancement without formal schooling, but no money for formal schooling!

Comments are closed.