In order to cut, color, and style hair, an aspiring stylist has to get licensed — almost always by attending a beauty school. But those schools come with a high cost that doesn’t guarantee very high wages for those who graduate.
Looking at data from the Department of Education’s gainful employment website, which collects paycheck information for graduates of higher education programs, David Wessel of the Brookings Institution found that average earnings for cosmetology school graduates are pretty dismal. Among 671 cosmetology programs across the country, graduates’ average earnings at 80 percent of them were below $15,000 a year. Graduates of most programs, or 60 percent, earned between $10,000 and $15,000. Meanwhile, those from just six could expect to earn more than $20,000 a year, while just one program produced graduates earning above $25,000.
Tuition for these schools nearly matches the low pay graduates can expect when they leave. In Oregon, which has one of the highest requirements to get licensed by making students clock 2,300 hours, average beauty school tuition is $16,937, with some schools charging as much as $24,515. In Massachusetts, which has one of the lowest requirements at 1,000 hours, average school tuition is still $11,360.
Wessel pointed out one particular example, Newberry School of Beauty in California, a state that requires 1,600 hours of certification to get licensed. Its 12-month program costs $15,818, but graduates earn an average of $12,487. And two-thirds of its students took out student loans to cover that cost, loans that carry the same terms and conditions as those taken out to pay for higher education at more mainstream institutions that can be used for a wider variety of jobs. Some students didn’t even complete the program: just 42 percent of those who did actually did it in 12 months.
Part of what depresses wages for cosmetologists is that they are often paid incorrectly. In a 2008 survey of hairdressers and cosmetologists in New York City, 45 percent were paid less than minimum wage and more than 98 percent didn’t get overtime pay for putting in more than 40 hours a week. Most also had to work off the clock before and after their shifts started and had to work through meal breaks.
For many, this may stem from being improperly classified as independent contractors, rather than regular employees. Salons and spas without any direct employees have grown 83 percent over the last decade, and today more than 90 percent of all salons don’t have any official employees. At the same time, more than a third of hairdressers, stylists, and cosmetologists report that they are self employed, compared to just 7 percent of the whole workforce.
This means that they are not required to be paid minimum wage or overtime, aren’t protected by anti-discrimination provisions, and have to pay extra self-employment taxes. Some hairdressers are truly independent contractors, setting their own hours, using their own products, and simply renting a chair in a salon. But for many, the reality is that they have to obey salon owners’ rules and should be classified as regular employees.
One solution to the problem of high beauty school tuition could be to lower and standardize the licensing requirements between states, while still including enough time to learn about safety best practices, as Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress suggests. Another would be to have stricter oversight of the industry to ensure that stylists are properly classified and paid. After a New York Times exposé on the nail salon industry in New York City, which paid workers very little if anything at all, the state promised more investigations of salons, instituted new rules to protect the workers’ rights and health, and education around rights that includes a poster in each workplace. But hairdressers, waxing salon employees, and others in the beauty industry labor under many of the similarly exploitative conditions as manicurists.