I come from poverty, and so my choice of college was going to be a very important one. It was my single best shot at getting out of poverty, and with the expenses involved I couldn’t afford a misstep. A useless degree, either because of the nature of what I studied or the school’s reputation, would simply send me back to the lifestyle of poverty I was trying to escape, but now with tens of thousands of dollars of inescapable debt piled on top of me.
I had rather good test scores on the SAT and ACT, and so had been inundated over the past two years with brochures from nearly every college and university in the nation. My mother and I pored over them, discussing pros and cons, and debating who I should focus on applying to, if there was a school I felt I could prioritize when applying to, and what I wanted to study. The last question was a particularly tough one. Very few 17 year olds know exactly what they want to do in life, and I was no exception. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and that meant I wasn’t sure what schools were the best fit for me. Sure, I could settle for a state school, but again: This was my one shot. Why not aim as high as possible? The state school would still be there if I failed to go anywhere else, after all. In order to aim high, though, you need to know what you’re aiming at; without a career in mind, I couldn’t aim for the best schools for said career, and so we found ourselves mired in my indecision.
Then, like a miracle, we got in touch with a recruiter from a school in California. He was calling from a Le Cordon Bleu school to see if I wanted to try enrolling there to be a chef. The idea was not that crazy to me as I had taken a restaurant management class in my high school. I had been cooking for myself since I was 9 years old, and for my family since 12. I’d already spent the past few years rifling through my mother’s copy of The Joy of Cooking, experimenting and trying new things and refining my own unique recipes. Now I could have a chance to attend one of the campuses of the world’s most prestigious culinary school. It was beyond exciting. The phone call with the recruiter was quite promising as he seemed impressed by my passion and knowledge, and touted the benefits of attending their school: the foodservice industry was huge, so there was job security; a chef could look forward to anywhere from $50-100K per year in earnings; the American demand for cooking shows and celebrity chefs meant there was always a potential for my own television show or book deal if I had the talent for it; and their elite training ensured I could skip years of grunt work at the bottom of the ladder, a massive investment in my own future that would boost my career right from the start.
Job security, stability, good money, a real solid base to start a career, and all in a field I had a genuine passion for and loved to do. It seemed perfect, but of course we had questions:
1. What about tuition? We were assured that they had need-based financial aid, and would meet 100% of my needs after we exhausted the family contribution on my FAFSA.
2. What about cost of living? The school had no dormitories and our family was completely broke, with no family in Los Angeles I could live with. I would be completely on my own after arriving. Not to worry, the recruiter assured me—he promised me I would be given a work-study job once enrolled. I could work at the school and use my earnings to pay for my own apartment, plus the work-study would be even more experience in the industry. It would almost be as if I was getting paid to learn!
3. What about after graduation? Did they offer job placement? You bet, I was told! A world renowned name like Le Cordon Bleu meant that their job placement team could find you work anywhere you wanted, and fine dining chefs were always in demand in the biggest and finest cities in the world. Finding a job would be easy, I’d just need to decide where I wanted to work and then the school would help me in finding employment there.
Sounded good, but of course I’d still need to be accepted by the school. The recruiter had me fill out an application because luckily he was heading to a meeting to discuss new applications, and if he had mine in time, he could try and get me accepted then and there. My mother and I pulled up the school’s website to complete the application and do some of our own checking in.
Sure enough, there was the Le Cordon Bleu name and logo; a cursory search revealed that Le Cordon Bleu had, in fact, partnered with schools in America to bring its world-renown culinary training to the U.S. as previously there had not been any campuses for them in our country. So, this appeared to be legitimate. The pictures of famous chefs like Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck, and Martin Yan giving guest lectures only served to reinforce the legitimacy. We completed the application together, and the next day got a very enthusiastic call from the recruiter: They had accepted me!
I couldn’t believe my luck. Getting into Le Cordon Bleu as a chef was like getting into Harvard law, or MIT. This was it, the sure next step forward I needed to be a success and break out of poverty. I might even be successful enough to help my parents, too, who had no retirement savings and nothing to count on in their future but meager Social Security payments. (My dad had often joked that my brother and I were his retirement investment; after I got accepted, I joked back that his investment was about to mature.)
If you’ve been swindled by a for-profit school, or are familiar with the litigation filed against Career Education Corporation, you know what’s coming.
I emptied my savings accounts of all the money I had saved from working in high school (I had taken the GED and graduated early so I could work even more and save even more for my college fund), and used it to pay for the gas and expenses to drive my mother and I from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. I found a room for rent for the amazingly low price of $400/month, utilities included! Between paying my deposit and first two months’ rent, buying an initial round of groceries, and giving my mother money for the drive back home, I had spent almost everything I had saved, but it was worth it: I was a brief two-mile walk to the school, and was all set to start on the path of being a chef. I celebrated by taking a little bit of money left and treating myself to a couple cooking tools at the school store, along with a copy of Kitchen Confidential by Tony Bourdain. (I’d heard rave reviews about it and wanted to give it a read.)
One of the first things I had to do, of course, was get my financial aid handled. Now, I wasn’t kidding when I said our family was impoverished: We had more than exhausted my family contribution just getting me to the school, so all the tuition and expenses for school were going to be fully covered by student aid. Hooray! … right? Well, it turns out that meeting your needs means “ensuring you’ll get student loans approved for the full amount.” There were no grants, no scholarships, nothing available from the school to apply for, and I was too late to apply for any third-party ones (like the James Beard scholarship), so student loans were my only choice. No problem, I thought; I would soon be on the fast track to earning close to or over six figures. Doctors and lawyers took on much bigger debts than I was going to, right? Surely I could afford it.
The loans came out to about $45,000 for a single year program. At the end, I would have a diploma. Not a degree, a diploma. Yes, $45K for a single year. The Ivy League schools weren’t that much per year (and I knew that because I had some of their brochures). Well … it was worth it, right? For my future?
Next came the work-study job. I asked them about when I would start, and was told there weren’t any openings, and although I could apply for a future one, the waitlist already had dozens of names on it. No no, I explained, the recruiter assured me I’d have one. After all, we’d made it clear to him that I would have no money or family once I moved here, so it was vital I had a job if there was no student housing. He’d promised me. I wouldn’t have done this if I’d known I would be on my own. They insisted nobody could promise a work-study position as they were first come, first served.
I spent the next seven weeks frantically looking for a job, to no avail … in a week the rent would be due and I’d have nothing to pay it, plus I was just about out of food, having spent the last of my money at the dollar store to buy cheap meals. I checked in with student aid, and they told me still no work-studies open … but I could get a cost-of-living loan. I ended up borrowing even more money just to keep a roof over my head and food in my stomach, but that very quickly ran out: they couldn’t just loan money forever to some kid with no job and 45,000 in debts, after all. I still struggled to find work. I’ll never forget the day I saw a sign, written in Spanish, advertising a night dishwasher job; when I asked the owner if I could apply, he said he had no openings; when I pointed out the sign, he told me to my face, “I only hire Mexicans to do that job,” and then literally shut the door in my face.
If you’re wondering how I afforded to live in Los Angeles, I should mention that I lived in a room that was part of a slumlord’s holdings in a very, very bad part of town. Bad as in “I came home and found notices taped to the front door warning about gang wars breaking out.” Bad as in “I got mugged multiple times, stabbed once, and shot at once.” Bad as in “I got racially profiled by the cops because ‘white people only come here to buy drugs.’” I had a local once ask me, after hearing I’d lived in the neighborhood nearly a year, “How are you still alive?”
As I read Kitchen Confidential, I soon learned something terrible: Culinary school graduates were considered the most worthless of prospective employees. They had a reputation as lazy, spoiled white kids who watched too much Food Network and couldn’t handle the stress of kitchen work, and expected to be treated like executive chefs right out of the school (gee, I wonder where they get that idea?!). A pit formed in my stomach as it dawned on me: I was actively making myself less attractive to potential employers by getting this education!
I finally found part-time work, but minimum wage barely paid my rent after taxes. I ended up living off the food I made in school, but eventually we stopped cooking food I could take home, and went on to making esoteric things like marzipan … which I lived off of for three days. When we moved on to other classes where not even semi-edible things like that were made, I no longer had food to eat. I ended up stealing pizza from the trash of a comic book store six miles away to survive. (I discovered a group of online gamers played there every day, and always ordered too many Little Caesar’s pizzas, so there was always at least a few slices thrown out.) For those keeping track, I was now walking about 16 miles a day round-trip for my school and food scrounging. I lost 70 pounds that year.
I did finally finish school, and got my diploma. The school had promised an embroidered chef’s jacket to every student as part of our graduation; mine arrived covered in animal hair, my name misspelled, and stained. They refused to provide a new one unless I paid for another. I declined.
I then made my way to the job placement department, expecting that finally, after all this work, it would pay off: I could have them find me a job literally anywhere I wanted. I wondered, where would I go next … New York? Maybe London? Hong Kong sounded cool, and was apparently part of a booming food scene. When I arrived, I told them I was there for job placement. I was handed a printout of the Yahoo! Hot Jobs classified ads for our zip code. I asked about placement elsewhere, and they said they could print out the listings for anywhere I wanted.
Did they contact employers? No, they didn’t, I was told.
Did they help write resumes? No, not a service they provided.
Did they have computers, or faxes, I could use to write my own resume or send it out? No, staff only.
Did they have a phone I could borrow to call these jobs? No, staff only.
I took a minimum wage job after graduation; I learned then that executive chefs can make up to six figures … if they’re famous, and in the best restaurants in the world, and lucky … and it would probably take me a good five to 10 years at the soonest before anyone would trust me with an executive chef position, but definitely not a high-paying one.
Everything the school promised to me had been a lie. I was now broke, nearly homeless, starving, with a soiled jacket and a set of second-rate knives and a diploma so useless I would end up lying to future employers about it to get hired (I would tell them I had learned my skills working as a prep cook in Utah, because I never got a callback from chefs who I made the mistake of telling I had gone to culinary school). The school had made almost $50,000 off me, and I was financially ruined, unemployable without hiding my education, literally scarred for life by the living conditions I endured to attend, and completely unable to keep up with my payments. My first payment came due, and the payment amount was over half my monthly earnings: I wouldn’t be able to afford a place to live and food to eat if I paid it. I asked if I could defer payments, or make partial payments. I was told no, and why would they compromise? The federal loans could seize my tax refunds for life until I paid them off, and the private loans couldn’t be discharged unless I died. They had zero incentive to work with me, and every incentive to bleed me dry.
Choosing “food and shelter” over “a good credit score,” I quickly defaulted on my loans.
I’m now 35. It’s been 18 years since I fell into this trap. I have only just begun to repair the damage done to my credit report (I now owe over $60,000, but the debts became too old to hurt my score a few years ago, allowing me to finally begin improving it). The only reason I have a house is because my wife, who is 13 years older than me, had much better credit and a stroke of unbelievable good luck happened to her. If I was not married, I’d still be living in poverty. I burned out on being a chef a few years ago, after nearly two decades of working 60+ hour weeks for a pittance destroyed my love and passion for my work. I got a new entry-level job at an insurance company that pays more than when I was an executive chef of a fine dining restaurant, and has benefits (something I only had once in my entire career as a chef). At 35, I’m basically starting all over again from where I was in high school.
Even worse, student loan forgiveness only applies to federal loans, which are just $10,000 of my debt. I owe $50,000+ in private loans, and I’ll never get out from under them unless I win the lottery. These schools blatantly lie and deceive their prospective students, bleed them dry, and shove them out the door without regard for the damage done. We aren’t young adults behaving recklessly and selfishly, we’re victims of deceitful and predatory business practices that went on for years and years without any negative consequences for the perpetrators whatsoever.
So, when people think I want loan forgiveness because I’m not willing to work for my education, or because I didn’t think about the consequences of my actions when I signed for the loans, I’m a bit bothered by it. My story isn’t unique, it isn’t even the worst one you’ll hear. Student loan debt cancellation isn’t a bad thing, it’s barely even a good start. In cases like mine, not only will it not fix everything, it will barely fix anything … but you’ll understand, I’m sure, if I tell you I feel like I deserve my money back.