Community College Culinary Programs Rise As Cooking School Enrollment Sags
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — With enrollment in culinary institutes in decline and programs across the country closing their doors, schools such as the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, which graduated celebrity chef Alton Brown, and the Culinary Institute of Charleston, South Carolina, are committed to staying relevant and in demand.
“We’re constantly looking for new ways and opportunities to grow our school,” said Michael Carmel, head of culinary arts in Charleston. “It’s not necessarily a numbers game, but a quality game. We need to stay current with trends and have to be able to offer our students opportunities.”
The reasons for the challenges facing the industry are varied, Carmel and others say. Tuitions can be relatively expensive, while federal financial aid for these “career colleges” has tightened since 2014. Graduates with a high debt load often move into low-paying restaurant jobs.
In addition, there is an abundance of restaurant positions that provide on-the-job training for those looking to get into the business without accruing debt. Carmel said younger students aren’t necessarily seeking the high stress factor and long hours of restaurant work, instead placing a high value on a regular schedule, benefits and quality of life issues like time with family.
But culinary arts programs at many community colleges are thriving, in part because their training programs can be offered at a fraction of the cost of private culinary schools because of their strong ties to local employers.
Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, for example, recently opened the doors on a new Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Lab, housed in a former restaurant near the Muscatine Community College campus. The college district has operated a culinary arts program since 1991, and classes started in the state-of-the-art lab in January.
The lab is closely tied to local workforce needs. Students complete their classwork in the lab on Mondays and then spend the rest of the week in local restaurants and hotels gaining hands-on experience.
In New Jersey, Atlantic Cape Community College is credited with powering the Atlantic City restaurant scene, with the college’s graduates toiling in nearly every restaurant in the gambling and entertainment mecca.
“First and foremost we have excellent partnerships with our community, and when I say community I mean the restaurants in our area,” Jean McAlister, the dean of resource development told the Atlantic City Weekly. “We’re always updating the curriculum to make sure it’s relevant, so when students get out, they get the job they’re qualified for. Nearly 100 percent of all graduates from our culinary program obtain a job.”
The college recently held its annual combination networking and fund-raising Restaurant Gala, where students show what they’ve learned to prepare dishes for alumni and other ticket-buyers. The event has raised a total of $3 million for the college over the years, officials said.
In Michigan, Northwestern Michigan College recently added a one-year baking certificate to its culinary offerings. It is aimed at local bakers and pastry chefs who are already in the workforce and seeking to burnish and update their skills, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
The college already offers culinary certificates and associate degrees, but the added emphasis on bakery skills will feed a growing desire from resorts, hotels, retailers and restaurants looking to bring their bakery operations in-house.
The baking certificate will require students to learn more about mixing methods, recipes, safety, sanitation, dining room management, advanced techniques, plated desserts, cake decorating and chocolate making.
College officials said they are meeting two demands: from employers, who need more skilled workers, and from students, many of whom are seeking short-term certificate programs of a year or less.
But while many community college programs are doing well, the legacy culinary schools are struggling. Schools like the New England Culinary Institute, where enrollment has fallen from about 800 in 1999 to around 300 today, are consolidating, cutting expenses where possible and adjusting curriculum to attract students. The school is also expanding instruction about the business side of the industry.
“Even our founding chef has always said a chef is a businessman,” said Philip Stevens, spokesman for the Institute.
New England’s school, which cofounder and former president Fran Voigt recently announced was facing imminent sale but remains optimistic about remaining in Vermont, two years ago partnered with the United States Coast Guard and Sandals Resorts to teach new cooking techniques, another way to expand its reach.
Carmel’s program is also taking steps to attract more students. The Culinary Institute of Charleston, which has seen enrollment fall by 25 percent over the past three years, has begun reaching into high schools to offer college-credit programs, and partnering with local restaurants and the Metro Chamber of Commerce to assist with student tuition.
He hopes those steps will halt the enrollment decline, adding: “We believe it will level out within the next few years.”
Other schools have not been as fortunate, with many well respected culinary programs shutting their doors. Le Cordon Bleu was founded in the 1800s in Paris. While that school, which Julia Child attended, will remain open, the last of the 16 Cordon Bleu programs across the U.S. have ceased new enrollment and are closing.
In Minnesota alone, three of the five major culinary schools have announced they are shutting down. Southern New Hampshire University’s culinary program announced earlier this month that the culinary program will likely be eliminated, noting that enrollments have dropped by more than a third and applications are down 29 percent over the last four years. A final decision is expected this month.
“This is not just an SNHU phenomenon, it is a national trend, and even better known culinary programs than ours are contracting,” University President Paul LeBlanc said in a recent statement. SNHU’s overall enrollments are strong and growing, he said, “but culinary stands in stark contrast and in steep decline.”
Rick Smilow, president and CEO of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, said students cannot get the same level of training in a timely manner when learning on the job. Culinary school, he said, provides a “breadth and depth of training that, while possible to get on the job, would typically take years.”
While acknowledging the restaurant labor shortage, Smilow still sounded optimistic for the industry.
“The best restaurants are still looking for the level of commitment and curiosity that a young cook demonstrates by going to culinary school,” he said.
The challenges don’t appear to be discouraging culinary students like Sandra Curiel, 18, of Los Angeles, who was helped by a full tuition scholarship to attend New England Culinary Institute’s certificate program.
“It’s hard work but, you know, it’s something that I love to do and I want to do that for the rest of my life,” she said.
CCWeek Editor Paul Bradley contributed to this story.