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Culinary Institute of America students turn up the heat, walk out because of falling standards

Student chefs at Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne. Students at the Culinary Institute of America say their expensive degrees are being devalued by slipping standards.

When was the last time you heard a college student demanding stricter enforcement of the dress code? That’s one of the complaints of a group of students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., who walked out of class yesterday.

In the kitchen student, chefs wear the iconic crisp white jacket, kerchief and -- when appropriate -- tall white toque. Students who go on for bachelor’s degrees are expected to wear business casual at all times.

“They’re showing up in UGGs and hoodies and they’re not tucking their shirts in,” says 20-year-old Zachary Hoffman, one of the organizers of the walkout. “They’re wearing shorts sometimes.”

Hoffman says students like that are degrading the value of a CIA degree. Part of the problem, he says, is the rise of celebrity chefs and food-centered television shows.

“I think some of the students come in here thinking they’re going to come out and be the next Anthony Bourdain or the next Cat Cora,” he says.

A more likely reality is a pile of student debt and a tough job market.

The student protestors also worry admissions standards have been lowered. Incoming students used to need six months of experience in a professional kitchen. As of last fall, the school changed the requirement to include so-called “front of the house” experience, like serving or busing tables.

As students’ interests have expanded to include wine and research and development, it made sense to expand the requirement, says CIA provost Mark Erickson.

“It’s really just demonstrating that they understand the rigor that is expected from somebody in our industry,” he says. “That’s satisfied in the front of the house just as it is in the back of the house.”

Erickson admits the dress code could be better enforced and students like Zac Hoffman hope they'll get the chance to wear those chef’s whites once they graduate. When he finishes next January, Hoffman expects to owe more than $100,000 in student loans.

“I want to make sure that that enormous amount of debt is worth what I’m going to get out of the school,” he says.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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