America’s Top Chefs Need Top Culinary Arts Programs

As a girl growing up in a small Texas town, it was beyond my wildest dreams to think I’d one-day be competing on Bravo’s Top Chef — a dream that never would have come true if the Education Department’s new "Gainful Employment" rule had been in effect when I applied for federal student aid.

The "Gainful Employment" rule, which is expected to be released in early March, was meant to curb the rising amount of student debt in America. It will limit federal aid to students like me who seek to attend career colleges — such as my alma mater, the Art Institute of Houston.

The purpose of this rule is to limit the amount of financial aid that students at for-profit colleges and universities could receive if the program they are enrolled in doesn’t lead to "gainful employment." This would apply to institutions that are failing to provide students with the skills necessary to become gainful employed while repaying their student loans.

The proposed regulation is going to hurt students who need help the most: students who are considered at-risk, minority and low-income or older students who may be raising a family by themselves. The rule erroneously points to debt-to-income ratios and repayment rates as measures to determine whether or not students who attend a program are eligible to receive financial assistance.

The "Gainful Employment" rule is of particular concern to blue collar and minority communities like my own, where career colleges are one of the few lifelines to a better job. In an attempt to ensure that students do not take on more debt than they can handle, the Government has, in its bureaucratic haste, thrown the baby out with the bathwater by making it hardest for students who need it most to qualify for federal financial aid to attend career schools.

Keep in mind that 39 percent of the students who graduate from career schools are from minority communities. Many are the first in their families to attend college, are working full- or part-time, are single parents or veterans. They turn to these programs because of convenient class times and locations and because of the support they provide around job placement and tutoring.

As a working adult, my own experience at the Art Institute of Houston was so positive that I returned to teach there. I am very concerned that programs that are benefiting so many students and helping them get back on their feet in the job market could soon be eliminated.

The "Gainful Employment" rule will have an especially devastating impact on the culinary arts, since most culinary programs are offered at career schools. One landmark program, Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh, has already announced it will close its doors this fall; others will likely follow. As these programs close, who will train the next generation of top-chefs?

In today’s stop-start economy, we need to give students every opportunity to succeed. While I am living my dream, I am equally concerned that others have the chance to live theirs. Career colleges offer culinary students the opportunity to learn skills they need to put them ahead of the competition.

By closing off opportunities at career colleges to the next generation of students, we’re simply leaving them behind. In meetings with Members of Congress this week, I will urge that they raise their voices in opposition to the "Gainful Employment" rule before it’s too late.

Tiffany Derry is a popular favorite in this season’s Bravo’s Top Chef All Stars. She is Executive Chef at the upcoming Private Social restaurant, opening summer 2011, and a graduate of the Art Institute of Houston. As a distinguished alumni, Derry is working with the Art Institutes to advocate on behalf of career colleges.


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