Disgruntled students sue culinary schools

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Food enthusiasts have been enrolling in culinary school in growing numbers, lured by dreams of working as gourmet chefs or opening their own restaurants.

For many graduates, however, those dreams have turned into financial nightmares, as they struggle to pay off hefty student loans and find work in a cutthroat industry known for its long hours and low pay.

Now, some former students are suing for-profit cooking schools to get their money back, saying they were misled by recruiters about the value of culinary education and their job prospects after graduation.

“They just oversold it and pushed it. They made misleading statements to lure you in,” said Emily Journey, 26, a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy, part of Career Education Corp.’s chain of 16 Le Cordon Bleu cooking schools.

Journey, however, may get some of her money back. Under a pending $40 million settlement in state court, Career Education Corp. has agreed to offer rebates up to $20,000 to 8,500 students who attended the academy between 2003 and 2008.

In 2004, Journey was a recent high school graduate, dreaming of opening her own bakery, when she enrolled in a 7-month program in pastry and baking arts at the San Francisco school. Recruiters convinced her it was a worthwhile investment and helped her borrow $30,000 to pay for it.

After finishing the program, the only job she could find paid $8 an hour to work the night shift at an Oregon bakery­. “Something anyone could have gotten without a culinary certificate,” she said.

Journey, who now lives in Bakersfield, has abandoned her baker’s dream and now plans to attend community college to become a nurse or dietitian. Without the settlement money, she will be paying for that culinary certificate for another 15 years.

“Was it worth the money and the time to have this loan hanging over my head?” she asked.

“Absolutely not.”

Two other Le Cordon Bleu schools — the California School of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles and the Western Culinary Institute in Portland — also face lawsuits from former students who say they were duped by deceptive advertising, particularly the schools’ job placement rates.

Schaumburg, Ill.-based Career Education denies that its recruiting and marketing practices are illegal, but its schools recently changed their policies to “ensure that students understand that we are not promising any specific job outcomes or salaries,” spokesman Mark Spencer said.

The publicly traded company, which operates more than 90 career scolleges worldwide, agreed to settle the San Francisco lawsuits because they were too expensive to litigate and distracting to employees, Spencer said.

Enrollment at for-profit colleges and trade schools has surged over the past decade, fueled by federal student aid that makes up as much as 90 percent of revenue at many institutions. Profit-driven career colleges are facing heavy criticism for their aggressive recruiting and marketing practices, as well as their graduates’ low rates of loan repayment.

Students who attend for-profit institutions represented 12 percent of all college students in 2009, but 43 percent of those who defaulted on federal student loans, according to a recent report by The Education Trust, an education advocacy group.

Matt Foist, 46, regrets his decision to borrow $45,000 to attend the California Culinary Academy in 2005, when the Silicon Valley software engineer was looking for a career change.

“They did a great job of selling it to me,” Foist said. “I was kind of tricked into believing that I would become a highly regarded chef in the San Francisco area and that I would make a lot more money than the reality turned out to be.”

After realizing he wouldn’t be able to earn enough to cover his student loans, he decided to stick with software engineering. Five years later, he said he’s barely made a dent in paying off his culinary school debt, though the settlement money will help if it comes through.

His advice to people contemplating culinary school: “Don’t go. Go to a community college.”