Is Culinary School Worth the Money?

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Whether you want to be a specialty chef, personal cook or restaurant owner, you'll need to decide whether your path will involve honing your skills through on-the-job training or completing a culinary arts program. Since the cost of school can be very high for top culinary arts programs, you'll want to consider your total education costs alongside potential starting salaries. The good news is that lower-cost options do exist for culinary arts training and that these programs can offer career benefits beyond a difference in your earnings.

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Consider the Cost of School

When you start to explore culinary school programs, you'll find that the top schools can have very high tuition rates on par with major universities. Unless you get scholarships and grants or use personal funds, this can mean taking out a lot of student loans and having to make those payments for a decade or longer.

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For example, attending the New York campus of the Culinary Institute of America for an associate's or bachelor's degree during the 2021-2022 school year will set you back $16,400 per semester alone. The Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts lists the cost of an associate's degree in culinary arts at $31,798 in 2021 for its Austin campus.

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On the other hand, you can consider the less expensive alternative of completing a culinary arts program through a community college where you'll find some similar courses to the curriculum of a top culinary school. For example, in 2021, you can get an associate's degree in culinary arts through Gateway Community College in Connecticut and pay just $3,984 a year for in-state tuition.

Consider also:Federal Student Grants

If you can find a quality culinary arts program and pay for it without taking out too many student loans, you might find that it's worth it to get this specialized training, which can help with advancement and boost your appeal to employers.

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Look at Potential Earnings

To get an idea of what you might make in various roles with an associate's or bachelor's degree in culinary arts, it helps to look at some salary data for degree holders compared to national statistics. While jobs for culinary arts grads vary, two common roles include sous chefs and executive (or head) chefs.

As of August 2021, PayScale reports that wages for culinary arts associate's degree holders range from $37,000 to $95,000 for executive chefs and $31,000 to $57,000 for sous chefs. Other PayScale data shows that bachelor's degree holders earn between $48,000 and $110,000 as executive chefs and $33,000 and $60,000 as sous chefs. These figures compare to the ranges of $34,000 to $59,000 for sous chefs and $44,000 to $93,000 for executive chefs in general.

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Note that the lower end of these ranges likely is typical for starting salaries in these roles. While you'll find the degree-specific and general salary ranges appear similar on the lower end, the difference is more prominent for executive chefs on the upper end when they have a bachelor's degree. Further, factors like the type of restaurant can also matter since chefs in world-renowned restaurants may earn significantly more. You can also have more control over your earnings if you use your skills to open your own restaurant.

Consider also:Federal Student Loans

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Weigh All the Benefits

Besides any salary benefits you might see from a culinary arts credential, keep in mind that having it can help your job prospects in general, especially if you want to work in a high-end restaurant. While you can often find entry-level jobs without the qualification, having the academic and hands-on training can help you stand out for chef positions and prepare you to manage or own a restaurant later on. Completing a culinary arts program also opens up opportunities to specialize in certain cooking styles or foods that interest you.

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Studying vs. Working Your Way Up

If you can find a quality culinary arts program and pay for it without taking out too many student loans, you might find that it's worth it to get this specialized training, which can help with advancement and boost your appeal to employers. This means you should closely compare programs and their costs, seek grants and scholarships and even consider working part-time as a cook to minimize the debt. Most programs will include an apprenticeship that gives you hands-on cooking training so you can leverage both your experience and education when you start looking for chef jobs.

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On the other hand, you could consider the path of working your way up through work experience and training from your employer over the years and avoid the potentially high cost of a culinary program. This path might mean looking for a prep cook position at a local restaurant, demonstrating a good work ethic and skills and then eventually receiving a promotion to a line cook position. After a few years, you might find yourself eligible to work as a sous chef and eventually get the promotion a few years later to executive chef where you can make higher earnings.

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