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America’s Culinary School Grads Struggle With Student Loans. Which Presidential Candidates Will Save Them From Crushing Debt?

From canceling student loan debt to vague promises of accountability, how Warren, Sanders, and Mayor Pete pledge to help culinary school grads

Culinary students plate a dish Shutterstock
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Collectively, Americans owe $1.6 trillion in student loans, spread across an estimated 45 million people. One third of American adults under 30 have student debt, according to Pew Research. “[N]early 40 percent of borrowers may default on their student loans by 2023,” according to a 2018 Brookings report. To call it a crisis isn’t an overstatement.

Culinary school graduates in particular have been speaking out about suffocating student loans for years. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” a cook in Austin struggling to pay down his loans told the New York Times back in 2007. In 2012, a discussion board found chefs telling a line cook who was struggling to meet his monthly payments while working 65 to 70 hours a week to move back in with his parents and get rid of his car. Chef Brad Spence told Eater in 2013 that he could “barely live” while balancing loan payments, rent, and his wages in New York City, where he worked as a cook fresh out of culinary school. That same year, the Huffington Post offered advice to a culinary school graduate on eliminating her student debt in bankruptcy.

The culinary student debt crisis is particularly severe for a simple reason: Culinary school is expensive, but wages are abysmal. Tuition for a culinary school can run up to 10 times higher than at a standard four-year public university, per Eater’s reporting in 2015. For example, current tuition (not including room and board) at the Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Park, New York, campus is $15,100 per semester — so $60,400 to finish the four semesters required.

A screenshot of the financial aid page at the Culinary Institute of America, which suggests banks including Sallie Mae and Wells Fargo for private loans. Screenshot: Culinary Institute of America

The field is notoriously low paying — restaurant cooks in the New York metro area earned a median annual wage of $31,910 in 2018, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This leaves graduates ill-equipped to meet monthly payments. Complicating this issue is that many students take on private — as opposed to federal — student loans, including from banks recommended by the schools themselves, which tend to carry higher interest rates and depend more on the borrower’s credit history, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Student debt relief has been a huge talking point for the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, especially for progressives like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And while proposals to refinance federal loans have long been part of the discussion of America’s student debt crisis, I wanted more clarity on how these candidates would address private loans and student debt faced specifically by America’s culinary school students and graduates. I reached out to the campaign reps for every Democratic candidate slated for Thursday’s Democratic primary debate. I got official responses from just three of them: Sanders, Warren, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Texas politician Beto O’Rourke’s team declined to comment, and the rest of the inquiries went unanswered.

Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke share the stage for the July 30 debate. Getty Images

Sanders, who campaigned on eliminating tuition at four-year public colleges and universities in the 2016 primary, has continued to focus on education as a key part of his platform. His current free college plan includes making public two- and four year colleges tuition- and debt-free, and canceling over $1 trillion of student debt. A Sanders rep said in an email: “Bernie’s plan will cancel all federal student debt and will take over and pay off private loans taken out for the explicit purpose of education, including culinary education.”

Warren released her plan addressing the student debt crisis in April. At the heart of the plan is tuition-free college and cancelling $50,000 in student loan debt for everyone whose household income is below $100,000, and offering debt relief assistance to everyone whose household income is below $250,000. Her campaign rep said in an email, “Elizabeth’s student debt cancellation plan includes cancelling private debt.”

Buttigieg — a millennial — has been open about the student loans he and his husband still have (totaling over $130,000). His website outlines a vaguer plan than those of Sanders and Warren, but promises to make public college debt-free for low-income families and cancel “the debts of borrowers in low-quality, overwhelmingly for-profit programs.” His campaign rep said in an email: “As President, Pete would hold for-profit colleges to strict standards, ensuring they don’t leave students with unaffordable debt or unacceptably low earnings. Nearly one in five culinary or cooking-related programs have failed that test — and under Pete’s leadership, those programs would have lost eligibility for taxpayer dollars soon after. Pete would also increase protections on private student loans to better protect all borrowers, including making student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy.”

The status quo is not working for America’s culinary students — and if nothing changes, it’s plainly obvious that unless you have the privilege to do it debt-free, culinary school is just not worth it. If any other campaigns get back to me — or if there are major policy updates during Thursday’s debate — I’ll update this story accordingly.