After graduating with honors from Animo Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood, Diana Rivera had no shortage of options.
That spring, congratulatory acceptance packets from three California State University campuses had landed in her mailbox.
But Rivera – who is now 25 – decided to go another route.
Inspired by cooking shows starring celebrity chefs such as Jacques Pepin and Julia Child, Rivera enrolled in a Pasadena school then known as California School of Culinary Arts, now called Le Cordon Bleu.
“I’d always enjoyed cooking, and thought it was kind of like an artistic outlet,” she said. “I wanted to explore it more. ”
She took out a $50,000 loan, which was co-signed by her stepfather, who works as a mechanic. Over the course of the next two years, that debt would balloon to $82,000. Despite the associate of occupational studies degree she’d earned at the college, finding a job that paid more than $10 to $12 an hour proved elusive.
Soon enough, a not-so-congratulatory kind of letter started landing in her stepfather’s mailbox.
“They sent letters saying they are going to put him in jail, because the loan is in his name,” she said.
Rivera is among 1,300 former students who in 2008 sued the for-profit school, claiming it essentially tricked them into paying sky-high tuition – as much as $42,000 for the 21-month associate degree program – by touting misleading job placement statistics.
“We believe the school tried to convince people it made good, sound economic sense to go to that school, and we believe that the school knew it wasn’t true,” said Ray Gallo, one of the two attorneys representing the students at Le Cordon Bleu.
The case against Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena is ongoing, and the school has had some vindication. About a year ago, a judge denied Gallo’s attempt to obtain class-action status, a school spokesman pointed out.
“The decision shows the allegations of some former students should not be considered representative of the experience of all students, the majority of whom we believe are satisfied with their education,” said Mark Spencer, the parent company’s director of corporate communications.
But the suit illustrates how lofty expectations in the culinary arts world often clash with harsh reality.
Gallo lays much of the blame on the table of the TV cooking shows.
“It glamorizes the profession – cooking is a manual job that doesn’t pay well,” he said. “Some people may get to be managers, and, depending on the size of the company, may be highly compensated, but that is not the majority of people who have anything to do with food preparation for a living.”
As for the for-profit school, it has taken a beating in the courts and in the press over the years.
Le Cordon Bleu is actually a limb of Career Education Corp., which runs a nationwide chain of 17 culinary academies whose collective enrollment nearly doubled from 2008 to 2010.
A class-action suit against the same company’s San Francisco location ended in 2011 with a $40 million settlement from the school. (Gallo represented the students in that case, too. ) In that suit, about 8,500 students received reimbursement payments of up to $20,000 each.
And the company’s Portland locale – Western Culinary Institute – was the target of a class-action suit in 2009 that, like the Pasadena case, is ongoing.
In the past couple of years, Career Education Corp.’s culinary programs have dialed it back on tuition, by about 10 percent. (At $37,850, the school’s 21-month associate degree program is still about 10 times as expensive as those offered at the community colleges.)
Meanwhile, enrollment has gravitated back to earth, to 8,500 from a peak two years ago of 13,000.
That’s not to say the school doesn’t have satisfied graduates. One is Julie Valenta Kiritani, a student in her 40s who has long worked in restaurants.
“My knife skills are way, way better than they were,” said Kiritani, who is chasing a dream to open a fast-casual restaurant that would specialize in pancakes and sushi. “I learned about sauces, baking, pastries, buffet service, catering services, and different cuisines from all over the world.”
Spencer, the company spokesman, noted that the quality of the school’s instruction is not in question.
“As with any school, the instruction we provide affords opportunity, but is no guarantee of personal success,” he said.
Rivera maintains that that isn’t the message representatives from the school told her stepfather before he co-signed her loan.
“They said, ‘She can be a personal chef, she can work in a high-end restaurant,’ ” Rivera remembers. “In reality, only the chef gets good pay, and there’s only one chef per corporation. “