The story of Tracy Lozano, who attended the Iowa School of Beauty more than a decade ago, is instructive (emphasis my own):
From what Ms. Lozano could tell, a cosmetology license was a realistic way to ensure a better life, and she was willing to make sacrifices. While also working nights at a Pizza Hut, she borrowed $21,000 to cover tuition and salon supplies and put in eight-hour days at the school for the better part of a year.
The amount of time Ms. Lozano spent learning to give haircuts, manicures and facials was enormous, but the requirement was set by the state, and she didn’t much question it. She was determined to earn enough money to move out of her mother’s house. Only a few weeks after getting her cosmetology license in 2005, she was hired at a local Great Clips.
The job, though, paid just $9 an hour, which meant that her days double-shifting at Pizza Hut weren’t over. Even with tips, Ms. Lozano didn’t earn more than $25,000 in any of her first few years as a cosmetologist. For years, she relied on food stamps and health insurance from the state. She couldn’t cover living expenses and keep chipping away at her loan payments. Thirteen years after graduating, she still owes more than $8,000.
Lozano’s experience is far from unique. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017, barbers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists had an average income of of $24,900, around $12 per hour. And as ThinkProgress points out, tuition to attend cosmetology schools can range anywhere from $10,000 up to $20,000. (Some programs are less expensive, but according to the Times, the average cost of tuition, fees, and supplies at a for-profit cosmetology school is $17,000.)
A big part of the problem is state licensing laws that require cosmetologists to undergo rigorous and often expensive training. The state of Iowa, for example, which the Times focused on but is by no means an outlier in its onerous requirements, requires cosmeticians to go through 2,100 hours of training. (State licensing rules have also in recent years come under fire for requiring hair braiders, who are overwhelmingly black, to get licensed, despite the fact that most programs do not focus on hair braiding.) As the Times noted, this is a system dominated by for-profit schools “in which the drive for revenue often trumps students’ educational needs.”
All of this has the effect of driving students into debt. Per the Times:
There’s little evidence that spending more hours in school leads to higher wages. Nor is there proof that extra hours result in improved public safety. But one relationship is clear: The more hours that students are forced to be in school, the more debt they accrue. Among cosmetology programs across the nation, Iowa’s had the fourth-highest median student debt in 2014, according to federal data.
Lozano, who has at least paid off part of her student loan debt, is doing better than many of her peers. Ashley Sandoval, another hair stylist, took out $22,000 to attend cosmetology school. Due to the interest she’s accrued, she now owes $29,000. “I’ll be paying it off for the rest of my life,” Sandoval told the Times.
You can read the full New York Times report here.