Enrollment at the company's 16 Le Cordon Bleu cooking schools increased from 8,400 in 2008 to 13,100 in 2010, according to Career Education officials.
Le Cordon Bleu officials defend the value of a culinary education, saying many restaurants, hotels and hospitality companies don't have the time or money to train employees.
"Culinary arts education today gives people a much-needed foundation they need to be successful," said Edward Leonard, vice president and corporate chef for Le Cordon Bleu Schools in North America.
School officials point to alumni such as Jill Barton, a 2005 California Culinary Academy graduate who recently opened a crepe shop in Santa Barbara, or Gonzalo del Castillo, a 2007 graduate who co-owns a San Francisco tapas bar.
The academy's tuition and fees range from $21,000 for a certificate in pastry and baking arts to $43,000 for an associate's degree in culinary arts. Those costs don't include books, supplies, or room and board.
The school's website says 48 to 100 percent of graduates find work in their field of study or a related field, depending on the program or methodology.
Critics say many of those jobs don't pay much more than minimum wage and don't require formal culinary education.
"It is a ridiculous business decision to attend one of these schools," said attorney Ray Gallo, who represents plaintiffs suing the California Culinary Academy. "The whole thing doesn't make economic sense. They know it and they don't tell you."
In June, the U.S. Department of Education in June issued new regulations aimed at protecting students who attend private career colleges. Under the new rules, a school can only have access to federal student aid if at least 35 percent of its graduates are repaying their loans — or if graduates' annual loan payments don't exceed 12 percent of their earnings.
Critics say the new rules are a small step in the right direction, but don't go far enough.
"Unfortunately, it's really a buyer-beware environment for people seeking higher education at culinary schools or other kinds of training programs," said Lauren Asher, who heads the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success.
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."
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