For four years, Turner Jenkins had waited tables and tended bar in the Washington, D.C., area, when, he says, "I decided that I don't want to be doing this my whole life."
One option was resurrecting credits from a desultory college experience – one year at the University of Arizona, Tucson; another at Montgomery Community College in Maryland – and going for a bachelor's.
But many of his friends who'd graduated were unemployed, while others were in fields unrelated to their studies.
"I wanted to focus on something that I loved doing and have that be my profession," he says.
And what does this 25-year-old love?
"I like good food. I like to cook. I like the smile on someone's face when they're eating it."
So Mr. Jenkins swallowed his fears and applied to L'Academie de Cuisine, a top-rated culinary school in Gaithersburg, Md. Hours are long, the pressure unrelenting, and the rules strict.
"They can say, 'Yes, chef' and 'No, chef.' There is no such thing as 'But, chef ... ' " says Barbara Cullen, a school administrator.
Jenkins, who never gave 100 percent to academics, gets to school at 6 a.m. to be in uniform when class starts at 7.
Halfway through the 12-month program, he speaks with authority about calculating food costs, devising delicious ways to use every last edible scrap, and learning how to "keep the hollandaise warm but not [so] hot that it breaks."
His next challenge is setting up a six-month externship with a respected chef. When he completes the program, Jenkins will have paid $28,000 to lay the foundations for a career in fine cuisine, where average yearly earnings start at $33,000 and can grow to $85,000-plus. From being part of the 34 to 44 percent of students who drop out of college, Jenkins could become part of the 27 percent who, without any degree, earn more than the average bachelor's degree holder.