FILE - Cosmetology

Buyer’s remorse came quickly when Michaela Spina signed up for beauty school in San Francisco. Now she warns anyone who will listen to think carefully before locking themselves into a student agreement.

“It was very obvious to me that they were just trying to take my money,” says Spina, who now works at a Union City salon. “I felt uncomfortable.”

Unfortunately, California regulators give aspiring beauty workers little choice. State laws force enrollment in expensive programs, making cosmetology one of the most onerously regulated fields for lower-income workers.

A new report from the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that defends people’s right to earn honest income, shows how school owners cash in at the expense of their students. “Beauty School Debt and Dropouts: How State Cosmetology Licensing Fails Aspiring Beauty Workers,” published July 22, uses federal data on cosmetology schools nationwide during six academic years spanning 2011 to 2017.

Overall, cosmetology students were more likely to take loans than the average student across all federal aid-eligible U.S. universities, colleges and vocational schools. They also borrowed more per year than the national average, and they were more likely to receive need-based grants.

State-mandated education creates these unnecessary and expensive burdens. Even occupations more directly linked to public health and safety often have fewer barriers to entry than cosmetology. Entry-level emergency medical technicians in California need 160 hours of training, for example, while manicurists need 400 hours of training.

If California beauty workers want to apply makeup, they need 600 hours of training. If they want to cut and dye hair, they need 1,600 hours of training.

The result in California is a debt trap. Cosmetology students in the state paid an average of $17,146 for their programs, and 58% took loans during the study period. To make matters worse, fewer than one in five California cosmetology students graduated on time. And once they started their careers, they earned just $27,770 per year – less than many other professionals who face no state-mandated training.

California had a chance to relieve much of the burden in 2021 with Senate Bill 803, a pioneering measure that would have allowed people to cut and style hair without government permission. The bill cleared the state Senate with a unanimous vote on June 3, but then the cosmetology lobby got involved to protect its racket.

Bowing to the pressure, lawmakers gutted the measure in a House committee on July 14. The new version would reduce the mandatory training hours for certain services, which is good, but the amended bill would retain arbitrary and excessive licensing requirements for everything from shampooing hair to giving facial treatments.

Hairstylists would need 600 hours of training, including 100 hours to study health and safety and 100 hours to study disinfection and sanitation. Minnesota, which eliminated licensing for hairstylists and makeup artists in 2020, covers the same material in four hours. The mini course works well for everyone except beauty school owners, who miss the forced tuition payments.

Even when deregulation occurs, nothing stops aspiring beauty workers from going to school. Regulators require no one to attend culinary, art, auto mechanic, journalism or business school. Students enroll because they want to learn new skills.

The choice gives them power. If educators fail to deliver value, students like Spina can go elsewhere. California cosmetology schools should have to survive on merit the same way.

Business owners like having a captive audience. But forcing lower-income workers into debt at the start of their careers is an ugly look for an industry focused on beauty.

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.