Debt Trap Creates Ugly Look for California Beauty Industry

Debt Trap Creates Ugly Look for California Beauty Industry
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California makes school optional for the people who cook your food, build your houses and watch your children. The state treats beauty workers differently, as Michaela Spina discovered when she launched her career as a skin care specialist.

Before she could collect her first paycheck, she needed at least 600 hours of education. Spina signed up for the required coursework in San Francisco, but quickly found herself trapped in a regulatory scheme designed to maximize profit for cosmetology schools at the expense of students.

“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 few options. State laws force enrollment in expensive programs, making cosmetology one of the most onerously regulated fields for lower-income workers.

Even occupations more directly linked to public health and safety have fewer barriers to entry than cosmetology. California emergency medical technicians, for example, need 160 hours of training to treat patients in life-or-death situations. Manicurists need 400 hours of training to paint fingernails.

If California beauty workers want to apply makeup or do waxing, they need 600 hours of training. And if they want to cut and dye hair, they need 1,600 hours of training — 10 times the amount required to care for crash victims bleeding on the pavement.

Meanwhile, California requires almost no schooling for school bus drivers, unarmed security guards, pest controllers and dental assistants. Others who work with dangerous chemicals or operate heavy equipment just have to pass state exams.

The list includes vegetation pesticide applicators, crane operators and truck drivers.

The oversight works well to ensure public health and safety, yet the government demands more from beauty workers. Many cosmetology students spend their days working for free in training salons, waiting for government permission to earn income for themselves.

The scheme creates a double revenue stream for beauty school owners, who collect tuition from their workers rather than pay them. A new report from the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, shows the results.

Beauty School Debt and Dropouts: How State Cosmetology Licensing Fails Aspiring Beauty Workers” finds a raw deal for students based on program costs, loan amounts, graduation rates and salaries. The first-of-its-kind analysis uses federal data on cosmetology schools and students during six academic years covering 2011 to 2017.

Nationwide, 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.

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 including tips — 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 interests.

Bowing to the pressure, lawmakers gutted the measure in a House committee on July 14. The new version of the bill would retain arbitrary and excessive licensing requirements for everything from shampooing hair to giving facial treatments.

California can do better than this. Voters should speak up, letting their representatives know that people have a right to earn an honest living in their chosen occupations without unnecessary costs and delays.

The state blew its chance to show leadership in 2021, regardless of what happens with SB803. Fortunately, policymakers can try again next term, giving the beauty industry the extreme makeover that it needs.

Cosmetology school owners might not like the new look, but enterprising individuals like Spina would win. Ultimately, the result would be more choice, lower costs and higher quality for everyone. Those are changes that would look good for all Californians.

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

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