Advice? Baking and Pastry arts degree vs certificate,
As far as schools go, community college all the way. The only advantage the big schools have is a larger advertising budget. Otherwise for the most part the quality of education is comparable (from my experience). I would highly advise an actual degree such as an AA or a BA as it is indeed an accredited degree. A "certificate" is pretty much a worthless piece of paper with the school's seal on it imho.
Avoid the Art Institute system and take the others advice of working in the industry in some capacity, before, during, and especially after school.
On a side note, I hear Community College being thrown around as the best option. I don't think that all community college programs are created equal. Some are much better than others and in doing comparisons with the school I work at (none listed below), we actually provided about double the amount of hours spent in the kitchen with a local CC.
Like big named schools with advertising budgets (LCB and AI) and big named schools with advertising budgets and a solid alumni list (CIA, J+W for example), just do your homework and don't get "sold." AI and LCB will sell you. Trust me.
Also, if you get a degree, you could usually transfer some or all credits to other institutions to earn a BA/BS so if you ever want to move into the corporate side of food industry, it's easier than just having a certificate.
The previous poster's mention of comparing actual hands on kitchen hours in the curriculum is a valid one; as with the private places, there are crappy votechs out there too. But past a certain point, you're also dealing with the law of diminishing returns. For example, it's true that you'll get lots of experience in fish butchery at the CIA, whereas maybe you'll only get a few fish at a CC, but nothing is stopping you from just going to a reputable fish monger and trailing there for free, and thus saving tens of thousands of dollars in the process. The same would apply for pastry.
Also, 24 is not at all old; I got my start in culinary school at 32 and am still going strong at 37. That said, I also don't have any spawn. Health insurance, money and just plain ole parent time will be a bigger concern, so do take a hard look at whether or not it suits you to follow this career path while spending a few years making 9-12$/hr (lower in other locales) with no benefits, and no holiday/vacation time or even normal day to day coinciding time with your kid. In fact, all of this I think would also factor into whether or not you go to a school where you can parlay your degree into something suitable for a work environment which allows for more reasonable hours and benefits, e.g. hotels and such.
I agree with Pixie, I went to WCI and although i learned a lot, I mostly ended up with way to many school loans. When community classes, basic trial and error and some business classes would have done the same thing, without the debt. People wont care what certificate, degree or classes you took, as long as you make them pretty and tasty cakes. Its definitely a good idea to see if you could even do it as a job first. Most people find out real quick that the hobby they loved so much SUCKS (for them) as a job or a career.