Jan 212011

The Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh is closing next year. Normally, this wouldn’t really phase me much, as I don’t have any interest in attending culinary school. I like to cook, but I’m more of a weekend warrior in that regard. I am, however, generally interested in local Pittsburgh news, so I read the Post-Gazette’s analysis of the closing.

Pretty standard fare, until you get to the bottom, which caused all of my hair to promptly fall out.

“As a for-profit institution, CEC has faced increasing pressure from the Obama administration and Senate Democrats in the past year. A proposed “gainful employment” rule from the Department of Education would deny federal funding to schools with graduates facing high proportions of debt related to their expected salaries. In 2010 a two-year associate’s degree from Pittsburgh’s Le Cordon Bleu cost $42,660. According to financial aid data for the 2008-09 school year, 47 percent of all students received federal student loans, worth more than $6.5 million to the school. Mr. Miller cited the “gainful employment” rule as a major factor in CEC’s decision to close the Pittsburgh school, and he predicted that it would soon affect other for-profit schools in the area.”

Let that sink in a moment. The school is closing because of pressure directly from the Obama administration.

Mind you, this is supposedly a highly regarded school, producing graduates who are in demand around the country. A brief Google search of “Le Cordon Bleu, Pittsburgh” returns scads of news articles from around the country about new, hot restaurants whose owners and chefs hail from Le Cordon Bleu.

Graduates of culinary schools don’t make a lot of money. That’s because chefs, pastry chefs, and their ilk don’t make a lot of money. You have to work grueling hours for pittance before you can climb your way out of the bottom of the ranks in a restaurant. Being a chef is difficult. Getting to the point where you are a head chef, or where you own your own restaurant, is very difficult and takes many years. Even when you do reach that point, restaurants fail all the time. Reaching a year is considered a major milestone. The restaurant business is not for the weak.

Surely we can give the students the benefit of the doubt that they understand this. That they know how much they are going to have to work, how little money they will make, and how difficult and uncertain their success will be when they make the decision to attend a culinary school. That they are doing this in spite of those challenges, because their desire to work with food, to follow their passion, is that great.

But because the Obama administration has made an arbitrary decision that no one should be permitted to take the risk of that amount of debt when the resulting employment does not produce millionaires, Le Cordon Bleu is closing.

I am angry about this, for two reasons.

First of all, since when does the government have any business deciding what debt we are and are not allowed to take on? That is a personal decision. If a student wants to go to culinary school, and wants to take on debt in order to fund it, that is his decision, not Mr. Obama’s or anybody else’s. It is frightening that the government can take aim at a private enterprise and strong arm it into closing because it does not approve of it. I understand that Obama and his ilk did not ‘intend’ for Le Cordon Bleu to close, but that is the result. Results matter far more than intentions.

Secondly, what’s next? Culinary school is essentially a trade school. You don’t go to college to become a chef, just like you don’t go to college to become an electrician. Most trade schools are also for-profit. Electricians, plumbers, and auto mechanics can do well for themselves, certainly better than if they hadn’t gone to school at all, but unless they build a very large, successful business, they probably won’t ever be wealthy. Do graduates of trade schools not make enough money in Obama’s estimation to deserve to get that training? Who is he to decide that?

Surely, we can agree that there are a lot of people who are shuffled into community colleges and low level state schools who shouldn’t have wasted their time and money in the first place. Surely taking on $20,000 in debt and getting training in a trade is better than taking on $20,000 in debt and dropping out of IUP after two years. At least the graduate of the trade school has some marketable skills that will garner him better money than the IUP dropout.

If this trend continues, will there be any trade schools left? Where will aspiring chefs, electricians and plumbers get their training? Will the sudden decrease in skilled labor in these fields cause the salaries to skyrocket for those who were lucky enough to get trained before Obama came to power? That will cost all of us. Restaurant meals will become more expensive, as will having our homes rewired and our plumbing fixed. We can do without restaurant meals, but what if we stop having our homes rewired? Fires will result. How long can you tolerate living with a backed up toilet or broken water main? How much can you afford to pay for that?

Who is this president, and what makes him think that he has the power to meddle in this market? What makes him think that his intentions matter more than the results? The government has no business doing this kind of meddling.

  • While I don’t necessarily disagree with some of your remarks, I noticed that none of your reaction touches on the fact that the financial aid is backed by the federal government. Thus, if too many of these schools turn out (or drop out, for that matter) people who can’t earn a wage enough to pay these loans back, the government is on the hook for them. That is why they are looking at the for-profit schools. The schools recruit students without regard to the number of jobs actually out there for them. Which isn’t to say the market shouldn’t correct for that ultimately, but how much government $$ do you want to waste on this until that happens? It may be a reasonable cost to bear, but it’s not a factor that can be ignored here.

    Also, with Le Cordon Bleu being a chain (incidentally one the original French school of that name really wishes they’d never licensed to), with a local lease being up, I think their mention of the rule (which doesn’t exist yet, it is only proposed) is a bit of a red herring. The combination of factors has caused them to decide to shut this location, not just the proposed rule. They aren’t planning to close any of their other locations.

    • Greg makes a good point regarding federal funding. In fact it’s so good it points to why higher education shouldn’t be publicly funded at all. While Rose is worrying about a shortage of skilled tradespeople (and perhaps rightly so), indiscriminate funding of trade schools seems to be producing a glut of them. With the supply of tradespeople outstripping the demand, each (unless especially talented and sought after) can command less pay. A similar problem is emerging in the general college market, and the bubble is threatening to burst.

  • Vze13xzi5

    There is a fundamental problem with your statement about the government should not be allowed to determine the amount of debt taken out for education that results in sub paying jobs. The government has every right to decide when it is their money being used to finance these educations. They are going to “deny federal funding” If these schools can not stay in business because the federal government is unwilling to make loans to their students then the banks will pick up the slack or they will have to charge less and rethink their position. If they were a nonprofit institution they could get by with a lot less. Why is it that the greedy always complain when someone wants to stifle their greed? The schools are getting paid by our government which means our tax dollars are simply creating profits for schools that are over charging their students. They get the government money whether or not the students finish school. What you don’t hear in this article is how these corporations are fleecing the government and leaving the students on the hook for something they may or may not get. Many for profit schools use relentless tactics to sway potential students and try and sell them on the idea that they will have a great career waiting for them once they finish the program. However the federal money they receive does not even come close to the amount they need for school and after a while many of them drop out on their own because they simply can not afford to finish.

    • Rose

      I agree with everything that you’ve said. But what about state schools? Why only the for-profits and not state schools? How many students going to college should be, on the government’s dime? Many of them drop out and leave with even larger student loans than what they would have from a school like Le Cordon Bleu. Even the ones who do graduate don’t necessarily get decent jobs, especially in this economy. My issue is that the administration is picking winners and losers. If we don’t want to spend our money on higher education, especially higher education that isn’t worth while, then that’s fine. I support that. But we’re going after for-profits but not bottom level state schools or even private schools who accept government-backed student loans. I’m not okay with that.

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