Community College and Culinary Arts: How to Spend Less to Become a Chef

October 16, 2020 Loans & Finance

If you’re an aspiring chef looking to join the ranks of Carla Hall and David Chang, you’ll want to shop around for an affordable education, whether a community college culinary arts program, a trade school or other options.

Why is price important? Consider that although the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median wage for chefs and head cooks at $51,530 (as of May 2019) — roughly around the current national median wage — culinary professionals usually only make that much after years of working as a line cook. Line cooks earn only $12.67 per hour on average.

At the same time, some culinary arts schools charge more than $22,000 per semester, when including tuition, room and board. While those programs can sometimes be worth it, you’ll also want to check out lower-cost options, such as culinary community college classes.

Let’s look at the different ways to get a culinary arts education:

Community college culinary arts programs
Vocational or trade schools
On-the-job training


Where to find culinary arts programs
How to pay for community college, culinary academies and other programs

Community college culinary arts programs

One of the most cost-effective ways to get a culinary degree is through a community college. When you attend a community college, you will pursue an associate degree related to the culinary arts. In some cases, students pursue related specialties such as baking and pastry or hospitality management.

Culinary community college programs are designed to last two years. Typically students will need to be a high school graduate to enter a culinary community college.

In a culinary arts program at a community college, students learn the basic skills needed for a culinary career. Skills include cooking fundamentals, food safety and food business basics. Some programs may offer coursework in specialized areas such as baking or pastry fundamentals.

Following graduation, students are likely to be qualified to work in several positions in a culinary field. Some graduates may opt to head for an internship where they can learn more technical skills under the supervision of an experienced chef.

According to The Community College Review, the average tuition of a public community college is $4,804 per year for in-state students. This is less than a quarter of what students may pay for a single semester at one of the country’s highest-priced culinary programs.

Despite the lower price tag, the associate degree gives students the credentials they need to enter the culinary world.

Vocational or trade schools

Vocational schools (also called trade schools) are educational programs that prepare students for careers. Trade schools usually do not award degrees to graduates. However, the curriculum at these schools is similar to that at culinary community colleges. Students at vocational schools can expect to learn culinary fundamentals, food safety and culinary business basics.

While vocational schools may offer excellent education, prospective students need to watch out for the price tag. High-priced culinary academies may offer a similar experience as lower priced community colleges. That price differentials will be magnified if a for-profit institution offers the culinary program. For-profit institutions may charge several times more than comparable community colleges. Unfortunately, the higher costs may not translate to a better education.

For example, in 2018, Le Cordon Bleu closed doors to its US campuses. The culinary academy was a for-profit trade school. A few years earlier, the culinary academy’s parent company, Career Education Corp. paid out $40 million in a class action settlement. In the suit, former students claimed the company oversold the benefits of a Cordon Bleu diploma.

Today’s students don’t need to worry about overpriced education from Le Cordon Bleu North America. However other programs may have bloated price tags paired with limited payoff.

Before enrolling in a culinary program weigh the cost of education with your expected salary following graduation. This can help you decide whether the higher price yields higher value.


A bachelor’s degree isn’t required for becoming a chef, but several four-year universities offer hospitality or culinary programs. A bachelor’s degree is designed to offer a breadth of study beyond a student’s major. Students who pursue a culinary degree from a four-year school will study a variety of subjects beyond culinary basics.

A university’s broad-based education may make sense based on a student’s culinary career goals. A bachelor’s degree can help students gain a deeper understanding of nutrition, business skills or how to work in the hospitality industry.

On-the-job training

On-the-job training is a common path for people entering into the culinary world. The majority of head chefs gain skills through some form of on-the-job experience. By working as a line cook, aspiring chefs can get a taste of the culinary world without going into debt.

Those seeking formal on-the-job training should consider apprenticeships. The American Culinary Federation Education Foundation (ACFEF) promotes culinary apprenticeships. These apprenticeships take two to three years to complete. They train apprentices in culinary basics while apprentices work in real kitchens. Apprentices earn money while they learn, and they gain similar skills to those pursuing more formal education.

If an apprenticeship won’t work for you, consider Job Corps training. Job Corps is the nation’s largest residential career training program. It offers culinary training programs for qualified participants. U.S. citizens or residents between the ages of 16 to 24 may qualify to participate in the Job Corps. You do not need a high school diploma to qualify for the Job Corps, but students who enter the program without a diploma will be enrolled into a high school program or equivalency. Job Corps can be a useful program for developing culinary skills before transitioning to the workforce.

Where to find culinary arts programs

When looking for a culinary arts program, look for formally accredited programs first. Accreditation is granted to culinary schools that meet defined standards of quality. Culinary programs that aren’t accredited do not have an external party validating the educational quality.

Prospective culinary students will want to look for two types of accreditation. First, a culinary school should be regionally accredited. This type of accreditation ensures that the school meets academic quality standards. The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs (DAPIP) keeps records of all regionally accredited schools.

Culinary students may also want to consider industry-accredited programs. Industry accreditation ensures that the schools meet standards specific to the culinary or hospitality field.

The American Culinary Federation Education Foundation Accrediting Commission (ACFEFAC) is the primary accrediting institution for culinary programs. ACFEFAC keeps a list of accredited post-secondary culinary programs. The institutions meet its standards and competencies for faculty, curriculum and student services.

The Accreditation Commission for Programs in Hospitality Administration (ACPHA) is another important accrediting institution. It accredits programs that emphasize hospitality. ACPHA lists the accredited institutions on its site.

How to pay for community college, culinary academies and other programs

Once you’ve found a culinary program that will help you get the education you need, you’ll need to find a way to pay for it. Before enrolling in any higher education program, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). By filling out the FAFSA you will learn whether you’re eligible for grants, or subsidized loans. Student aid and private loans can help aspiring culinary professionals pay for community college.

If you’re considering a trade school or a culinary academy, your payment options may look different. Some trade schools that offer culinary programs are not accredited programs. Schools that aren’t accredited don’t qualify to participate in federal student aid programs. If your program isn’t accredited, you may have to turn to private loans to pay for culinary school.

Kat Tretina contributed to this report.

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