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Well, it’s complicated

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced that the federal government would forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt for millions of Americans. The program applies to students who took out loans from the federal government’s Direct Loan program, affecting as many as 20 million Americans. The plan, however, does not impact the millions of people who are saddled with educational debt from private banks, which according to student debt expert Mark Kantrowitz, accounts for about 7 percent of all student loan debt. That’s especially worrying for many graduates of culinary schools.

As Eater has reported previously, culinary school graduates often face staggering debt after they finish their degrees. A 2015 Eater analysis found that culinary schools, especially private ones, can cost as much as 10 times the price of public university tuition. And culinary school students fall into a similar situation as students in other fields: Because tuition often exceeds the maximum amount that the federal government allows students to borrow each year, private loans are often used to fill the gap. (Some private culinary schools aren’t eligible to receive federal funds at all, because they’re not accredited with the Department of Education, making private loans the only option.) According to one 2016 analysis, attendees of the Culinary Institute of America, one of the country’s top culinary schools, can expect to owe more than $52,000 in private debt after leaving school.

After finishing culinary school, these graduates then proceed into a field that is notorious for its unpaid internships, low wages, and demanding work hours; data from 2015 indicated that for many prospective students, culinary school was not financially worth it. Recent decisions have backed that up: In early August, the Department of Education announced that it would forgive $6 billion in student loan debt at a number of for-profit colleges — including 10 different culinary schools, like Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts and Western Culinary Institute — across the country. According to Business Insider, the move, unrelated to Biden’s plan, was the result of a 2019 class-action lawsuit that alleged the Department of Education ignored claims from borrowers that they’d been defrauded or misled by these schools about the marketability of their degrees.

For many people who attended culinary school, federal student debt forgiveness may still be an option. Under Biden’s new plan, the Department of Education will provide up to $20,000 in debt cancellation to borrowers who also received Pell Grants, which are grants administered by the federal government on the basis of financial need. Students who did not receive Pell Grants will be eligible for up to $10,000 in debt cancellation. Both programs are only available to individuals whose income is less than $125,000, or $250,000 for married couples. As such, if you attended a public university’s culinary arts program, like Cincinnati State University’s Midwest Culinary Institute, your student loans may be forgivable. The same goes for community colleges and accredited private institutions like Johnson & Wales University.

Even if you attended an accredited school, though, you likely also have private debt thanks to the soaring cost of tuition. At present, attending the Culinary Institute of America costs more than $16,000 in tuition alone per semester, even before you account for expenses like required supplies or room and board. That’s well in excess of the $12,500 that students are allowed to borrow in federal student loans each school year.

For folks stuck with private debt, the outlook is much more dire. Loan forgiveness programs for private debt are rare, and many private lenders won’t even discharge your loans if you die or become permanently disabled. “Generally, there aren’t any loan forgiveness options available for private loans,” Kantrowitz says. “Even things like joining the military so they’ll pay back your loans generally only applies to federal loans. There may be a few programs, but they’re relatively rare.”

He also doesn’t think there’s much hope for new legislation from Congress that would discharge private debt. The HEROES Act of 2020 had some provisions for private debt forgiveness, and passed in the House of Representatives, but completely stalled out in the Senate. “There’s a lot of resistance to forgiving private loans,” says Kantrowitz, noting that resistance extends across the aisle. “In order for the Democrats to pass loan forgiveness legislation, they would need to take over several more seats in the Senate, but I think the scenario of passing a bill with loan forgiveness for private loans is highly unlikely.”

With no meaningful relief on the horizon and debt that continues to mount, many people with private student loans will never be able to pay off what they borrowed for their education. That’s especially worrisome for the restaurant industry, which is already facing nationwide staffing shortages as workers flee into industries that offer better pay and benefits. Even though Biden’s news is huge for millions of people, it’s likely that many culinary school graduates will still be feeling the pinch from their student loans for years to come.

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