Top Chef Contestant Misleadingly Defends For-Profit College With Abysmal Graduation Rate

Our guest blogger is Julie Margetta Morgan, a Policy Analyst with the Postsecondary Education Program at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

On Wednesday night’s episode of Top Chef, the final five contestants battled for a spot in the finals with a quick-fire challenge using only the ingredients contained in the snackbar on an Ellis Island ferry. Contestant Tiffany Derry made microwave nachos and popcorn and inexplicably claimed that it was a “bold move.” Needless to say, the judges were unimpressed.

This week, Tiffany has been making similarly inexplicable claims on Capitol Hill about for-profit colleges, since she attended one and feels the need to defend the industry from its critics. We’re not impressed, either.

Tiffany’s post on The Hill’s Congress blog makes various inaccurate statements about the gainful employment rule proposed by the Department of Education. She claims that the purpose of the rule is to limit financial aid to students:

The “Gainful Employment” rule, which is expected to be released in early March, was meant to curb the rising amount of student debt in America. It will limit federal aid to students like me who seek to attend career colleges — such as my alma mater, the Art Institute of Houston.…In an attempt to ensure that students do not take on more debt than they can handle, the Government has, in its bureaucratic haste, thrown the baby out with the bathwater by making it hardest for students who need it most to qualify for federal financial aid to attend career schools.

Really? That sounds like a terrible rule. Luckily, it’s not true — gainful employment does not in any way limit students’ access to federal aid. Rather, it asks career colleges to show that they are fit to receive such aid.

Totally misunderstanding the way the rule works is not the worst thing Tiffany does. The worst is that she uses her status as an outlier to justify the unchanged existence of a culinary program badly in need of reform. And Tiffany is not an outlier because she’s a successful chef, or a Top Chef contestant, or a reality TV star. She’s an outlier because she graduated from the Art Institute of Houston.

The Art Institute of Houston has a graduation rate of 33 percent. That means that out of every ten students who see Tiffany’s proud words about her alma mater and sign up at the Art Institute for a chance at their own Top Chef glory, seven will not even finish their program. And since the tuition at Art Institute of Houston is $17,000 per year, most of those students will wind up with significant debt that they are unable to pay. In fact, an estimated 23 percent of students at the institution default on their federal loans within three years.

The sentiment behind Tiffany’s piece in The Hill and her visits to Congress are dead-on. We should be mindful that in many parts of the country, for-profit colleges can be the most accessible option for students. And these colleges provide an educational outlet for many minority students and low-income families. But the high tuition combined with poor graduation rates and a concentration on low-paying, low-demand fields require an especial vigilance to ensure that these colleges are providing a true opportunity to all of their students, not just the outliers. The gainful employment rule works for low-income and minority students, not against them.

Congratulations to Tiffany for graduating, working hard, and making a name for herself. It’s a shame that nearly 70 percent of the students attending the Art Institute of Houston will not have the same opportunity.