Western Culinary Institute class action featured in New York Times story

Peter Goodman of The New York Times does a nice job here of looking at the problem of for-profit trade schools. The story mentions our class action against Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland.  And while it’s all exciting to see the case written up in the Times, that’s hardly the point.

The Goodman article points out the disparity between the costs of trade school education and expected earnings.  I was taken by a Sr. Vice President, Brian Williams, comment, “You go in the industry and work your way up.”

I don’t have any idea how much Mr. Williams knows about labor statistics. But the cold reality is that there are very few high-paying jobs in the culinary field–at least as compared to the scads of low-wage kitchen jobs that require no training. In short, there isn’t much “up” to reach.

Some suggest that this is not different from an expensive law or medical degree or a BA in liberal arts from a four-year school. I suppose it’s tempting to take that view, but in reality the differences are profound.

Let’s look at them.

Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu say in their catalogs that they provide entry level training. In the lawsuit, we take issue with what they don’t tell students.  A culinary degree doesn’t provide a student much in the way of qualifications for an entry level kitchen job. By comparison, you simply can’t practice law or medicine without degrees and licenses.

In marketing the program, the school tells its prospective students about high placement rates–above 90 percent. But they don’t talk about the pay.  The school collects initial placement and earnings for its graduates. As the New York Times article explains, the vast majority of students earn very low wages upon graduation. Those low earnings won’t allow most students to repay their loans.

Defenders of for-profit trade schools also cite the profoundly expensive four-year bachelors degree problem. They are right about the high cost of four year schools, but wrong to compare the two. Ivy league schools cost far in excess of most middle income families’ abilities to pay, leading many students to incur heavy debt loads.

But several things are different.  The liberal arts program doesn’t sell itself as “vocational training.” Nor does it tout its placement statistics or skill-based career training as the reason to attend. And the universities aren’t run by billion dollar corporations who are concerned about their Wall Street performance.

Our case has taken two years so far. If we succeed, students who suffered losses will recover money that will help pay down their debts.

We need better oversight of these schools, these loans and these lending practices, as students who enroll at for-profit trade schools often are underwater from the day they graduate.  Effective oversight of trade school programs and educational loans would prevent these types of abuses.

Curtis A. Nicholas says

Yes, I went to this school between Aug. 2005 and finished up with it in Dec. 2006. It all began in February of 2005 when I was working at McDonald's in San Antonio, Texas. I decided I was tired of working at minimum wage jobs here and there, and decided to go to school to learn something new. Well i had chosen to go to either a cooking school at Palo Alto in San Antonio or go to accounting school at Elizabeth City University in North Carolina. Either course I could have probably been paid off or would have been fully paid for with school work programs. Well I received a call from an agent from WCI and was basically silver-tongued into going to WCI with dreams of working in a big fancy kitchen and making some real money to have a real life. What I received as an education was far from what I needed to achieve in the real world with culinary arts. Since working for my externship which I quickly quit cause of harassment for the outstanding rate of money I paid to go there and my general lack of knowledge of real kitchens. Well since then I recontacted the supposed career placement division at the school, I was offered jobs in Alaska based around a season basis. Those of which I had to find my own mode of transportation to and from these jobs. I live in Florida and have no real earnings and or car to get around. I was basically forced to go out and try to get whatever I could. I applied at places like the Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, TGI Fridays etc. and was unable to get any jobs with them. Since then I've been unable to procure any real work to pay back these crazy student loans and have gone into default several times, in fact I'm in again cause of the job market dried up and I'm once again unemployed. Luckily my father pays for the personal part of the student loan I have, but I should be paying for it myself, but am unable to do so. I would recommend for anyone who has thoughts on going to this school to just save your money and go to a community college for the same skill training and save yourself 40 grand worth of student loan payments.

Curtis A. Nicholas
Jacksonville, FL

Bonnie Campbell says

It's been my experience, working with at-risk youth, that WCI will go to extreme lengths to convince youth to come to their school. Three years ago, I was working with a youth who really wanted a culinary arts degree. the folks at WCI kept inviting him to weekend engagements at the college so he could see what it was going to be like. He's help cook the food, then everyone would sit together eating this wonderful family-style meal.

He met with them several times before they got him to sign on the dotted line- $45K for an 18 month program. The policy was, if you start WCI, it'll cost you $45K whether you finish or not. I explained to him that I do not pay 4 years of tuition for my daughter, despite whether she drops out after 1 semester. I pay as she goes! Fortunately, he got out of it because he wasn't 18 yet. He ended up getting the same culinary experience at the cost of a community college.

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