Unqualified instructors, unmotivated students, outdated curricula, impractical testing, and student loan abuse are only some of the problems with cosmetology school education. Reform is not likely to start with the government, but from within the industry itself.
Cutino, who spent time as a teacher herself, says requirements for teachers must be raised: “There’s no assurance that these people can teach. We need to improve the training requirements and licensing requirements. When we first started putting our school together the state required an eight-week course for teachers on technique, building a curriculum, writing tests, working with different types of people and different learning abilities. That course isn’t even offered anymore.”
Most states require nail instructors to be licensed cosmetologists, which, many nail industry experts argue, isn’t any better preparation for teaching nails than requiring a cosmetologist license is for doing nails. Many instructors spend a few thousand hours in school but relatively few in the salon (although in several states, instructors may forego part of the classroom training if they have work experience). Some states, like Massachusetts and Maryland, do require salon experience; other states, Iowa and Illinois among them, even require continuing education of instructors.
EASY MONEY, BAD MONEY
When the subject of cosmetology school education comes up, inevitably so does the subject of money. Many school administrators say government grants and student loans are the root of all evil in cosmetology school. There was a time when government money was relatively easy to obtain, both to start schools and to find student education. However, when students began defaulting on their loans and pushing schools’ loan default rates into the double digits, the government stepped in with tighter regulations. School went on notice to lower their default rates or risk becoming ineligible for many of the loan programs.
Says Smith, “The federal government has tried to control graduate who default on their loans by excluding schools with high default rates form the loan programs. However, the government has erred in assuming that there is a correlation between the default rate and the quality of the school.”
Smith attributes part of the rise in loan defaults to the recession, but also point to poor loan servicing and the simple fact that many of today’s younger generation do not have a sense of financial responsibility.
That a high default rate is not an indication of a school’s quality may be disputed by those schools that have managed to keep their rates low. Sissy McQuinn, owner of Nail and Skin Care Array in Atlanta, and Alice Forlin, owner of Gino Robair Beauty College in Riverside, Calif., and point with pride to their low default rates, which they attribute to an intensive admissions screening process.
Says Forlin, “We try to nip this in the bud. We don’t apply for a loan for a student unless it’s absolutely necessary. We counsel them not to borrow money unless they actually need it. Too much easy money can cause the student to lose his motivation.
At Pivot Point Beauty School in Chicago, students are indoctrinated about loan repayment before they’re admitted, while they’re enrolled, and after they graduate. Director of nail education Debbie Mack explains: “It starts with the admissions representative explaining the seriousness of the loan. We tell students that if the loan isn’t repaid their credit can be ruined, they may not be able to buy a house or car, they may not get their tax refunds. During school, students see videotapes about what happens if they miss a loan payment and what assistance is available if they can’t repay right away.
“Once they leave school we send a series of letters to them, reminding them that they’ll be getting a loan coupon book for repayment and telling them about deferments. These letters go for about six months, and we let them know we’re available if they need it.”
Gordon miller, a vice president at Pivot Point Beauty School, says the quality of education does suffer when administrators are judged more on their default rates than on factors such as completion rates and job placement. “The problem schools are having today is that the government measures our success based on only one thing: our default rate. It doesn’t look at our completion rate or our job placements or the fact that we have given these students an opportunity to get jobs and become taxpayers,” he says.
Miller believes the government’s narrow thinking damages the quality of education and the morale of instructors and school administrators. He explains, “Being measured only by our default rates has changed the industry’s way of thinking. Instead of focusing on how to maximize job placement or student completion, we have to put a lot of effort into minimizing student loan defaults. When you’re a small school you only have so much money and hours to get the job done, so if instructors are involved in loan counseling, as they are in some schools, they lose education opportunities. Every moment we give up is a lost opportunity. This also has an emotional effect on the school leadership. Rather than leading and inspiring educators, they’re putting their leadership efforts into fighting this battle.”
There are plenty of U.S. cosmetology schools that have waiting lists of salon owners who want their graduates. What makes these schools successful is the same thing that makes any business successful: a commitment to quality, superior standards, long-term commitment, and solid industry partnerships. School reform starts with improving the quality of students, elevating school’s internal standards, expanding and updating curricula, investing in instructor education, fostering industry relationships, and finally, lobbying for national change.
Successful schools say that improving the quality of education starts with rigorous screening to ensure that entering students are ready and able to learn, responsible enough to repay their loans, and will benefit from the education. This process starts with a pull-no-punches orientation.
“You’ve got to really interview your students well. Find out if they’re capable or if they’re just coming for the financial aid. You can tell whether they’re going to make it or not,” says McQuinn.
Experts agree that if a school is going to produce successful salon professionals, it has to provide a curriculum that goes beyond getting a student ready for her board exams. It must teach students about the realities in today’s salons: how to get along with people, retailing and sales techniques, job-hunting, and starting a new salon.
There needs to be greater emphasis on continuing education as well as formal education. Illinois’ new licensing bill is one of the few that requires nail technicians to amass continuing education hours. Mack reinforces the importance of continuing education to her student with this analogy: “I tell students that I see a doctor who’s 58 years old. If he worked on me only from what he learned in medical school 30 years ago, I’d be scared. Beauty technology changes and you have to continue learning.”
Relationships with manufacturers are essential: A school may use a particular product to teach with, but students need to be exposed to all sorts of products and techniques. Davidson Beauty School is a branch of Davidson Beauty Supply and has some built in manufacturer relationships that have enabled the school to offer students product directly. Most manufacturers send educators into the schools regularly to educate and demonstrate.