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New IJ Research Holds a Mirror to the Ugly Face of Beauty Licensing

IJ supporters know that we’ve long fought to exempt natural hair braiders, eyebrow threaders, and other niche beauty service providers from burdensome licensing requirements. We also challenge and end so-called good character requirements that prevent aspiring beauty workers from becoming licensed because of long-past and irrelevant criminal histories. But we’ve never taken on cosmetology licensing itself directly—until now.

IJ’s latest strategic research report, Beauty School Debt and Drop-Outs: How State Cosmetology Licensing Fails Aspiring Beauty Workers, is the first to explore what it looks like to complete the education required for state cosmetology licenses. Using federal data on cosmetology schools nationwide, the report finds that traditional cosmetology school—required for a state license to work—is a raw deal for many aspiring beauty workers. 

Specifically, the report finds that state-mandated cosmetology school is expensive and time-consuming. On average, it costs more than $16,000. Many students are lower-income, and most take on sizable debt, typically borrowing over $7,300 in federal student loans. 

Despite the high cost, cosmetology schools do a shockingly poor job of graduating students on time—or even at all. On average, less than a third of students graduate on time. And even with another year in school, more than a third still don’t graduate. As a result, students are delayed or blocked from working and may have to pay their schools even more money. 

Making matters worse, this investment rarely pays off in terms of earnings. Cosmetology school students who graduate and become licensed can expect to make just $26,000 a year on average. This is less than restaurant cooks, janitors, or concierges, none of whom must invest in costly education to work.

The new report also casts doubt on whether forcing aspiring beauty workers into costly and lengthy schooling is necessary to protect the public. We know from IJ’s landmark study License to Work that state education requirements differ quite dramatically—from 1,000 hours in New York to 2,100 in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota—even though the risks associated with cutting hair are unlikely to vary much from state to state. Yet, as Beauty School Debt and Drop-Outs finds, a whopping 95% of cosmetology programs exactly match state mandates. Most tellingly, when states reduce licensing hours, schools quickly fall in line by reducing their own. 

If there were anything inherent to cosmetology that required a certain number of hours in school, we would expect to see greater consistency in program hours—to say nothing of licensing hours—across states as well as greater reluctance on the part of schools to lower hours in the face of changing state mandates.

The current system of state cosmetology licensing is a failed model of professional development that succeeds mostly in transferring wealth from students and taxpayers to cosmetology schools. Over the years, IJ has freed braiders, threaders, and others from this system. Now we are escalating our efforts, showing state legislators that the system isn’t working for traditional cosmetologists either. They should refocus regulation on what matters: safe, sanitary practices at the point of service. When it comes to cosmetology licensing, the government needs to cut it out.

Mindy Menjou is IJ’s research publications manager.

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