College of Culinary Arts to Close Amidst Financial Loss and Fraud Scandal

in by

The Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, a San Francisco-based cooking school founded in 1977, announced late last year that it’ll no longer accept new students, and will shutter its doors for good in September 2017.

The company that owns the school, Career Education Corps (CEC), attempted to sell its educational franchise, but was unable to find a buyer. In a press release, the company pointed to high food and facility costs as the main reasons for the closure. “New federal regulations make it difficult to project the future for career schools that have higher operating costs, such as culinary schools that require expensive commercial kitchens and ongoing food costs,” said CEC president and chief executive officer Todd Nelson.

The culinary school, which has a campus at 350 Rhode Island Street, has been mired in conflict and financial loss since 2007, when journalist Eliza Strickland published a damning piece about the company’s fraudulent and predatory admissions policies in S.F. Weekly. Since then, the school has been embroiled in several lawsuits with former students, who allege that they were misled about future job prospects and the quality of the education that they’d be receiving.

During its early years, the school, originally named the California Culinary Academy, was considered a prestigious place to train, graduating chefs that went on to illustrious Bay Area careers. James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher, two cooking celebrities, spoke at the school’s first graduation. The institution was doing so well, in fact, that in the mid-1990’s it decided to rapidly expand to include three additional satellite campuses across California, as well as a New Orleans location.

The academy bit off more than it could chew.  By 1999 it was in default on its San Francisco tax payments. A large publicly traded for-profit company, CEC, which was known for its ability to increase profits of small schools, was called in to aid the struggling academy. The Corps paid $31 million for CCA, and simultaneously secured a deal with the Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris allowing it to use the Le Cordon Bleu stamp of approval in conjunction with the academy’s programming. Its name was changed to the Le Corden Bleu College of Culinary Arts.

CECs acquisition of CCA altered the school’s personality.  Within the first two years of the deal the number of matriculated students rose from 442 to 1,868. The company added a new program in hospitality and management, and leased a larger building in Potrero Hill, to accommodate a growing student body. Admission costs rose alongside these changes, as did lay-offs. In 2005, 23 associate chefs were let go.

In her S.F. Weekly article, Strickland reported that admissions officers were instructed by CEC management to lure incoming students into taking massive loans to pay for their educations. Entrance quotas had to be filled, and the illusion was created that CCA was a selective school when, in fact, anyone capable of taking out a loan was admitted. Statistics around job placement after graduation, and aid offered with the job placement process, were inflated.

In 2011, CEC was hit with a class-action lawsuit by students suffering from its fraudulent advertising tactics, which culminated in a $40 million settlement. In 2013, CEC was sued by the state of New York for systematically deceiving students with fraudulent advertisements and job placement rates; it agreed to a $10.25 million settlement. Later that year, CEC announced the closure of 23 of its 90 schools across the country, due to a net loss of $33 million and a 23 percent enrollment drop.

Last December, CEC announced that it’ll close all 16 of its Le Cordon Bleu North America schools, three of which are located in California. Current students will continue with their culinary education, and programming will remain active until the last matriculated class graduates, in September 2017.

Future plans for the Rhode Island Street building are unknown.