Doing ‘absolutely nothing,’ for credit!
In 2016, Glenda Martin wasn’t aware of any trouble brewing between La’ James and the federal government, or that the school had spent the previous two years in a legal dispute with the Iowa attorney general’s office.
All she knew was that cosmetology was in her blood, as she likes to say. Her mother was a cosmetologist, and started teaching her how to style hair when she was a preteen. There was never any doubt about what career Ms. Martin would pursue. The only question was where to enroll. The way she saw it, she had only for-profit options: PCI Academy, an hour away in Ames, or La’ James International College in Fort Dodge, where she lived. (One community college campus offers a cosmetology degree, but it’s in a sparsely populated corner of the state, three hours from Fort Dodge.) She had heard that PCI students were pressured to push a certain number of products before they could get their own kits.
“I would have enjoyed another choice here in town,” she said. “I would have definitely checked it out.” Unknown to Ms. Martin, there could have been another option, just a few miles down the road: Iowa Central Community College. In the fall of 2004, the college submitted an application to the state cosmetology board to open a program. But in early 2005, the Iowa Cosmetology School Association and La’ James sued Iowa Central and got a temporary injunction that prevented it from moving forward with the program.
The lawsuit argued that the state code prohibits public entities from competing with private ones. If Iowa Central opened a cheaper program, the suit contended, La’ James would be “irreparably harmed by the loss of employees, members, clients, students, potential employees, potential clients, potential students” and other factors. Mr. Becher said the company had sued to “protect the students” from a subpar education. Ms. Wood Becher added, “It’s kind of a quality control thing.” The two sides ultimately compromised; students could earn associate degrees by completing cosmetology certificates at La’ James and taking six business classes at Iowa Central. La’ James lost nothing in the deal, but students lost the option of paying significantly less.
The Iowa Cosmetology School Association said its members’ prices are “consistent with the cost of all postsecondary education today” — particularly considering that they do not receive state subsidies. The average annual in-state cost of attendance at Iowa’s community colleges is $4,697. The University of Iowa, the state’s most expensive public four-year institution, costs $9,492 per year for in-state students. This year, Iowa Lakes Community College, about three hours northwest of Des Moines, announced plans to offer a cosmetics degree. The college’s president, Valerie Newhouse, said one cosmetology school had already threatened litigation. In 2016, Ms. Martin went for a short tour of the La’ James campus in Fort Dodge. The school’s storefront was airy and glamorous. Hair products lined the walls under enlarged photographs of well-coiffed women. Makeup displays were fronted by placards advertising the services available in the student-staffed salon. Students dressed in black shirts and pants. Before her visit was over, Ms. Martin filled out her enrollment and financial aid paperwork. She took out $23,000 in loans. Ms. Martin liked La’ James at first, she said, but quickly discovered problems. She found the classes boring and repetitive. Some instructors had students read aloud from textbooks and watch instructional videos. Ms. Martin said that she supported Iowa’s 2,100-hour requirement in theory — as did several of the women we spoke with — but that in practice, many of those hours were wasted, particularly once she got to the salon floor. Although Fridays and Saturdays would be busy, the rest of the week generally dragged. She’d be itching to practice what she had been learning in class. But some days there were so few customers that she’d sit and wait for hours.
One day, she braved a snowstorm to get to the salon. The school had stayed open, requiring students to come in. Ms. Martin was the only one who did. She left at the end of the day without having seen a single customer — but those hours still counted toward the 2,100. She would shake her head when she saw other students, sick of the boredom, go home early. “That only works against you,” she said. “You have to stay here and do absolutely nothing or you go home and lose the hours.” The Iowa Cosmetology School Association said the state’s system “provides the right amount of training time to practice on actual people.” It also said that if some students waste hours sitting around, “it is unfortunate for both the student and the school.” In interviews, more than 20 former students at schools represented by the association described experiences like Ms. Martin’s. One former La’ James student, Michelle Wipperman, said foot traffic in the salon at the Cedar Rapids school was so low, some students asked administrators if they could advertise more. She recalls being told that it would be too expensive.
“I would say probably 60 percent of our time was sitting around waiting for people,” Ms. Wipperman said. “There were times where I personally had met all my goals that I needed to meet. I was literally just waiting. I had to finish my clock hours.” Despite these experiences, when Ms. Martin finished her cosmetology certificate, she re-enrolled for further training in esthetics. She thought the extra skills would help her someday in her own salon. Ms. Martin passed both her exams. But the school will not release her transcripts, so she can get her licenses, until she pays the several hundred dollars it says she owes. She disputes the debt and says she can’t afford to pay.
The fight to reduce hours!
In the last five years, legislators in at least 11 states have introduced bills to lower the number of hours required for a cosmetology certificate. These efforts are driven by a mix of anti-regulatory libertarians, national salon chains that are having trouble hiring enough qualified stylists and the national association for cosmetologists, which wants its members to be able to carry their licenses across state lines. While aggressive lobbying by schools has managed to stall or defeat legislation in several states, at least eight have reduced the number of hours in their regulations. In recent years, required hours were lowered to 1,500 in South Dakota and Montana. And Nebraska legislators, after a long battle with the schools, trimmed their mandate to 1,800 hours. Administrators from schools in those states disagreed with the reductions, but said they were still able to cover the same material as before. Iowa, with its 2,100-hour standard, remains “an embarrassment,” said Dawn Pettengill, a Republican state representative who will retire next month. Hoping to lower the profession’s barrier to entry, Ms. Pettengill this year introduced legislation that would drop the hours to 1,500. Republicans in the Senate proposed a similar bill. Schools and their lobbyists mounted a fierce push-back. The schools “were livid,” said State Senator Jason Schultz, a Republican subcommittee chairman. “I didn’t expect the amount of opposition.” The school association’s political action committee had given more than $20,000 to Iowa candidates since 2014. It also had three lobbyists registered with the state; for the last session, the organization paid the lobbyists’ company $12,500.
While the dollar amounts weren’t huge, a little goes a long way in Des Moines. Hearings weren’t publicized, or even required, giving an advantage to the well-organized group. The schools argued that maintaining 2,100 hours was crucial to ensuring that students were able to learn everything needed to run salons in rural parts of the state, including nails, esthetics, business and state law, not just hair-styling. Their courses, they said, provide more depth than those in other states. A review of cosmetology curriculum’s nationally, however, shows that most states teach subjects beyond hair-styling. More than half explicitly mandate instruction in law or business topics. The Iowa school association also maintained that important differences in regulations complicated comparisons of schools across state lines. In Massachusetts, for example, a recent graduate must work under supervision for two years.
“We do not feel it is necessary to lower the standards of Iowa’s education just because other states have done so,” the association said. “It doesn’t make sense to us to produce graduates that come out of our programs with less skills, less confidence and who are less likely to succeed.” At a subcommittee hearing on the Senate bill, only one person testified in favor of fewer hours. Senator Schultz said that he had wanted the bill to move forward, but that since “only one side showed up,” he couldn’t justify it. Both bills died in committee. It’s not clear how much money the schools would lose if they no longer had students working on salon floors for so many hours. In Nebraska, schools argued at hearings that they would have to raise their tuition to make up for lost revenue if the state reduced the hours. La’ James supported, but did not testify in favor of, Iowa’s legislation, and the Empire Education Group, which owns the nation’s largest chain of cosmetology schools, has backed legislation in Ohio to drop the hour requirement to 1,000.
The increased scrutiny on cosmetology regulations at the state level follows a federal Department of Education effort, starting in 2009, to crack down on for-profit schools that charge high tuitions for credentials that do not lead to well-paying jobs. For each program, the department compiled so-called gainful employment information, which compared student debt with earnings after graduation and issued ratings. The figure for all programs nationally was 24 percent. Cosmetology programs fared particularly poorly: Nearly 40 percent of them, including 12 in Iowa, either failed or were in a warning “zone,” indicating that their students were not making enough to comfortably pay back their debts.
Cosmetology schools say the numbers do not accurately capture what their graduates earn in an industry with so many tips. And it is true that cosmetologists have the potential to make a good living. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for a cosmetologist is $24,850. Those in the top 10 percent earn more than $50,000, or nearly $25 an hour. The problem is that most of these professionals flounder for years before getting to that point, if they reach it at all. After more than seven years on the job, Ms. Lozano finally got a raise. But that meant the loan payments she had been able to defer came due. The money she’ll use to finish paying them most likely won’t come from haircuts. Ms. Lozano plans to go back to school to become a registered nurse. If she’s able to find a position in that line of work, she could more than double her current salary. And it will give her and her daughter, who wants to be a doctor, another thing to bond over. “I told her she wasn’t allowed to go to school for hair,” Ms. Lozano said. “I don’t want her going through the same thing that I did — the debt, and everything after the fact. I won’t let her do it.”