Making the Grade: Elevating Nail Schools

by Sree Roy | September 11, 2012

A full classroom of enthusiastic students is a beautiful thing. Eager hands raised at every question. No grades below an 85% on any test. Students who are lifelong friends with each other, and lifelong friends with their instructors. A 100% homework completion rate. This isn’t a fantasy. It’s a day-to-day occurrence at numerous law schools, medical schools, journalism schools, business schools, and, yes, at select nail schools and beauty schools’ nail programs.

Karyn Lenhart was one such enthusiastic nail student (now she’s a licensed nail tech and salon owner), who was so happy with Citrus Heights Beauty College in Citrus Heights, Calif., that she went there twice — once for her esthetics education and a second time for nails. Citrus Heights is so successful that it has a waiting list for many of its programs. “When I was researching beauty schools, one kept coming up over and over again. Whether it was word of mouth or passing statistics, everyone said, ‘Go to Citrus Heights Beauty College,’” Lenhart remembers. “I applied, took an exam, and then got wait-listed. I decided it was worth the wait.”

Lenhart’s school choice paid off. “My expectations were high. I knew I got more than my money’s worth the first time so the bar was way up there. The school’s programs don’t disappoint.” As soon as she graduated from the nail program and passed her state board exam, she immediately added nail services to her menu of salon offerings. “I had enough knowledge to go out in the world and put my hands to work,” she says.

At Royal Beauty School in South Houston, Texas, instructor Madelyn Johnson has spent the past three years making improvements to the nail program and delights in seeing the improvements pay off for her students. Johnson says, “I have salon owners call me all the time to hire my students. I have two students who right out of school got hired at day spas and who are still working there more than a year later. Salon owners have called me to say what great students we have at Royal Beauty, reporting back that the graduates are on time and cordial to the customers.” Improvements Johnson implemented included setting up a definite classroom schedule, teaching techniques that will make the students money even if those techniques aren’t tested on the state board exam (including gel-polish and 3-D nail art), and turning the student product kit from the size of a caboodle to the size of a checked bag. With the support of the school director, Johnson added more products to the kit to prepare students for real world nail salons. 

Project coordinator and instructor Gracie King, who works at Bella Beauty College in San Antonio, Texas, also teaches students beyond what’s required to pass the state board exam. “One of my graduates had an inspection and the inspector asked her where she got her training, because he had never seen such a clean and organized salon,” King says, adding that several of her students have come back to become instructors themselves, helping the industry improve by training and graduating more educated nail techs.

Unfortunately, these school success stories are not universal, and many argue they are not even the norm. I discovered this firsthand a few months ago, when an aspiring nail tech e-mailed me to ask if I could recommend a great nail school in her area, which is one of the most populated metro areas in the United States and also has one of the highest populations of licensed nail techs. I e-mailed a few established nail salon owners in the area and waited for the responses to roll in. When they did roll in, I wondered if I could simply delete all the e-mails and pretend I’d never asked. “No, don’t have one. Sorry,” said the first, who added that “advanced education is best after they get their license” as the only way to really get proper training. Another owner, who owns two nail salons no less, said, “I don’t know of any good schools to recommend.” And one salon owner resorted to calling area schools a four-letter word, adding that school is “just to pass the test.”

Johnson is not surprised. “Do you want to know who I learned from in nail school? The girl sitting next to me. The instructor was a cosmetologist who specialized in hair and knew nothing about nails. She announced to the class that she knew nothing about nails. She was just there to show us how to pass the state board exam.”

Next page: Obstacles


Silk and linen wraps are only done at 31% of nail salons (according to NAILS’ 2011-2012 Big Book), yet a wrap practical appears on many state board exams. This is in contrast to nail art, which is done at 89% of nail salons, and brush-on gel-polish, which is done at 79% of nail salons, but which are generally not tested on state board exams and frequently not covered in nail schools.

Silk and linen wraps are only done at 31% of nail salons (according to NAILS’ 2011-2012 Big Book), yet a wrap practical appears on many state board exams. This is in contrast to nail art, which is done at 89% of nail salons, and brush-on gel-polish, which is done at 79% of nail salons, but which are generally not tested on state board exams and frequently not covered in nail schools.


Teaching can be a thankless job, and while we may say we appreciate our teachers in theory, in reality, there are several major obstacles preventing nail teachers and nail schools as a whole from moving forward.

Funding is one such hurdle. Many state programs that help pay for other postsecondary degrees, such as nursing or truck driving, do not pay for nail school, invoking such bizarre arguments as the industry is not high growth, high demand, or high wage (this despite the fact that the 2012 projected nail market size is $7.3 billion, according to NAILS’ 2011-2012 Big Book, up from $6.6 billion in 2011 and $6.2 billion in 2010, and that a nail tech graduate is pretty much guaranteed a job) or with implications that being a nail tech is not a true profession.

Required hours are sometimes to blame for the lack of funding. “There is no financial aid for manicuring students because of the amount of hours required to complete the course. If no one signs up, I don’t have a class and am on unemployment until there is a class,” says Ann-Marie Reaves, a manicuring instructor at Henries School of Hair Design in Ashby, Mass.

With some instructors simply teaching to the test, the disparity between what’s covered on the state board exam, versus what’s needed in the real world, also causes problems in the classroom. New technologies such as brush-on gel-polish, which is done at 79% of nail salons, are commonly not covered, but older technologies such as wraps, which are done at only 31% of nail salons, are. King says, “In our state our students are required to do one odorless acrylic sculpture and one tip overlay with a wrap. Most of the schools, salons, and product lines are low-odor, not odorless, so why not test with what they practice with?  Also the wrap is not as popular, I’m sure somewhere in America it is, but not generally, so again why test on the one thing they are probably not going to do in the salon?”

In addition, the application method expected on the exam sometimes differs from the application method preferred in real salons. “I teach students the state board way, then I teach them the ‘make-money way,’” Johnson says. For instance, Johnson says, the state board way has nail techs apply the wrap directly to the nail tip, then cover the entire nail including the tip with the wrap. Then the tech just applies two coats of resin. “The ‘make-money way’ is to apply two coats of resin, then apply the tip, followed by two coats of resin, the wrap, then two more coats of resin, followed by a coat of gel. It is a stronger application that protects the entire nail plate from the product, makes a prettier nail, and gives you more satisfied clients.”

Many state board tests tend to focus on sanitation and safety practices (closing product lids, storing tools properly, disinfecting implements), as opposed to proper application technique and form. From a public health standpoint, sanitation is the more important concern; however, not testing on proper form means many students are clueless on how to apply an acrylic nail to a client’s satisfaction when they get into the real world, especially if their teacher’s only goal was to teach them to pass the state board exam.

Christie Tran, president of the California State Board of Barbering & Cosmetology (BBC) and a licensed nail tech, says the state board’s main focus is to ensure the licensee has the skills and knowledge to perform safely on consumers. “Therefore,” Tran says, “the licensing exam is meant to test that minimum level of competency across a general scope of practice.  The goal of our exam is not necessarily to keep up with all industry trends and technological advances, but to make sure all licensees understand the basics to keep their clients safe.” Tran adds that is costly to the BBC and cumbersome for licensees each time it alters the regulated scope of practice or various mandated protocols, “so we are hesitant to alter our regulations unless something new becomes widely utilized and incorrectly applied to consumers.” The BBC’s 20 field inspectors and four members who are industry appointees keep the BBC up with industry evolutions and product and equipment advances as relevant, she says.

Inconsistency from state to state on hours required to sit for the test and what is tested and what’s not is another obstacle. Alabama requires the most hours at 750, while Alaska requires the least at 12 (and Connecticut doesn’t even require licensing to do manicures and pedicures). Some states approve apprenticeships and many don’t.

In recent years, a number of states have standardized their exams by using a national test created by the National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC). As of 2011, there are 29 states that use the NIC written exam in nail technology and 21 that use the NIC practical. A national test is likely a step in the right direction, though schools, graduates, and salon owners do voice concerns about which topics should be covered on the test and if the test is challenging enough to techs who hope to immediately begin servicing clients.

Mary Manna, a member of the NIC’s National Examination Committee and a licensed nail tech, says the NIC does listen to and regularly address those concerns. “We update our exams every five years to make them current. We’ve just finished the five-year job analysis on esthetics, which included a booth at a major beauty show, from where we reached out to licensed professionals. We asked them to go through a survey, which listed all of the procedures that could possibly be covered in an exam and had them rate the procedures in order of importance,” Manna says. “So it really is licensed professionals and the industry itself that tells us what we should be testing entry-level graduates on.” The next five-year job analysis on nails and the subsequent exam updates is scheduled to start in 2013.

A final obstacle to teachers is that non-traditional students are frequently attracted to nail schools, allured by a career that gives them the opportunity to create a flexible schedule or to pursue a lifelong passion stoked by drugstore nail polish as a child. That said, these students may be older and have other priorities and commitments, such as children and full-time employment. Indeed, a recent web poll found that 44% of licensed nail techs started their nail education when they were age 25 or older.

Next page: Elevating Schools


Color My Nails School of Nail Technology brings in guest speakers, such as this woman who is sharing information on body language and how to build your nail business, and invites both current students and alumni to these continuing education classes.

Color My Nails School of Nail Technology brings in guest speakers, such as this woman who is sharing information on body language and how to build your nail business, and invites both current students and alumni to these continuing education classes.

Elevating Schools

That’s not to say that schools haven’t seen improvements in the past few decades. They have. Paul Barry, president of Barristar Student Services, a beauty school student resources organization in its 25th year, says, “Schools have gotten much better. They have better instructors and have become more sophisticated. Chains came in and purchased a big chunk of mid-level schools and set them up. Big names, such as Paul Mitchell, Tigi, and Aveda, have stepped up the bar in schools. Schools in general have a much cleaner look. Accreditation has become bigger. Funding has changed dramatically.”

Nail manufacturers have helped schools step up too. Through its School Partner Program, CND elevates nail programs that meet certain criteria (including being accredited, having on-site instructors present for all trainings, and displaying superior instruction and sanitation standards). Jan Zanettini, CND’s national sales manager schools/spas and a licensed nail tech, says, “We have had wonderful feedback from Partner School alumni, who return to schools to participate in advanced education and aspire to become CND education ambassadors, assisting with trade shows and events.” Benefits current students at CND Partner Schools get include mentoring from existing CND education ambassadors, with possible referral and placement into spas and salons. Zanettini says, “Schools should make decisions to partner with vendors that will benefit the growth in admissions, education, clinic service, promos, and retail opportunities.”

Backscratchers Salon Systems Inc. also focuses on helping nail schools and students, a topic close to the heart of company CEO Michael Megna, whose father once owned a beauty school. The manufacturer regularly sends its educators to schools to teach students nail theory and do hands-on demos. During its visits, the manufacturer educators are encouraged to impart real-life tips. “Some of my independent product demonstrators are salon owners. They share information on what has worked in their salon. I encourage my educators to give classes their experiences, to let students know the ups and downs of being an owner,” Megna says. In addition, Backscratchers’ website includes a “student portal,” which includes special promotions, student contests, state board links, and a place for students to publicize their nail pictures.

And schools that make improvements can expect to reap the rewards down the road. At Royal Beauty School, Johnson reports, “Nail program enrollment has gone up tremendously because word has gotten out. When I started, the program had six students, and now at times we have as many 21.” Nail school experts including Johnson help us identify nine ways we can improve nail schools across the board for enrollment increases, more satisfied graduates, and more success in the real world.

Next page: 9 ways to improve our nail schools


“Your education is just as important as a Harvard education, because you, as beauty professionals, are critical to helping other people feel good about themselves,” said Frank Schoeneman, chairman and CEO of Empire Education Group at the school’s eighth annual Future Professionals Expo.

 “Your education is just as important as a Harvard education, because you, as beauty professionals, are critical to helping other people feel good about themselves,” said Frank Schoeneman, chairman and CEO of Empire Education Group at the school’s eighth annual Future Professionals Expo.

1. Have a dedicated nail instructor.  Employ instructors who have worked as nail techs and who are passionate about nails specifically. “Forcing the cosmetology instructor to teach the nail curriculum when they do not have the knowledge or desire is detrimental to the school’s reputation and program,” Zanettini says. “I believe that an instructor can make or break a school’s program.” Schools should also require that instructors continue to train and update in technique and along with changes in innovation, Zanettini posits.

It’s also generally good practice to hire instructors who are also educators for a specific nail product line, as it usually means they are constantly being trained, are up to date on trends, are well networked, and attend major beauty shows.

2. Offer support to the nail instructor. We have all seen day spas in which the nail services felt like an afterthought, with no marketing to speak of and no technical or networking help. Sadly, this same problem happens in beauty schools, in which cosmetology or esthetics instructors get preferential treatment over manicuring instructors. Make sure nail instructors are afforded continuing education opportunities, have well laid-out classrooms and prep areas, and promote their services at the school’s salon. Essentially whatever support you offer to the other program instructors should be offered to the manicuring instructors as well.

3. Teach beyond the state board to real-world strategies, including money-making lessons. So many new nail technologies and trends have appeared in recent years, and they must be added to curricula. The list includes brush-on gel-polish, full-coverage nail coatings like Minx, waterless pedicures, stamping nail art, water marbleizing, 3-D gel and acrylic art, magnetic polish, and a variety of polish textures from matte to crackle. “I’ve tweaked the curriculum to reflect new techniques/trends and of course the additional safety measures involved with new techniques,” King says. “I think it’s important to have more salon style classes/training so everyone across the board can value this career,” she continues. “Too many new nail techs sell themselves short and work for very little money.”

Johnson encourages her students to bring in YouTube videos of aspirational nail designs. After completing the official hands-on lesson of the day, Johnson allows for “play time” where they try to recreate the design from the video. “Most of the time I know how to do what the student found on YouTube or I’ll figure it out. Then it becomes a class for me and for them. My students know once they complete their assignment it’s play time. Plus it keeps my class from getting boring.”

Once students gain confidence in technical skills, it’s time to move on to business building. This includes a basic bookkeeping class. If none of the current nail instructors have worked in a salon recently, then bring in a guest speaker, such as a reputable salon owner, to give this lecture, suggests Lenhart.

4. Increase nail programs nationally to at least 600 hours. It’s near impossible to add things to the curriculum such as full-coverage nail coatings or bookkeeping if the course is only 100 hours. In the U.S., only 10 states — Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington  — require 600 or more hours of school to get licensed, with the rest all requiring less.

There is no magic number of hours that a program needs to be successful, but 600 is a good benchmark because it’s generally the bare minimum to be considered for certain types of national and state funding.

King suggests, “Require more extensive commitments from the students and staff. If the state requires less hours, then offer a grad program or an advanced techniques seminar.”

At Royal Beauty School, students enrolled in the nail program learn 3-D nail art and even participate in in-house competitions to improve their skills. This is the winning design from the school’s Fourth of July Nail Art Competition.

At Royal Beauty School, students enrolled in the nail program learn 3-D nail art and even participate in in-house competitions to improve their skills. This is the winning design from the school’s Fourth of July Nail Art Competition.

5. Offer student competitions. Vanessa Sifuentes, a June 2012 graduate of Beyond 21st Century Academy, Santa Fe Springs, Calif., said school lived up to her expectations because “it gave me the experience of entering in student competitions along with in-house school competitions that help prepare each student in building up skills and speed.”

Empire Education Group’s Future Professionals Expo is the largest student competition and tradeshow in the beauty industry. “We often hear feedback after the show from vendors who were thrilled with the students, their professionalism, and their eagerness to learn new tips and techniques,” says Angela Watson, director, public and media relations for Empire. “Fortunately, the biggest challenge for us is not participation, rather accommodation. As you can imagine, getting 2,000 students to Hershey, Pa., for the weekend is quite an undertaking.” The school keeps the competition fresh by adding a new category almost every year that speaks to industry trends. For the 2012 show, the school added “Styling for the Red Carpet.”

For schools that can’t handle the logistical challenge of an in-house competition, another option is to take students to a competition organized by another group. At the Barristar Student Forum in Anaheim, the Long Beach Hairdressers Guild runs hair, nail, and make-up competitions just for students. Barry says, “For students, it is really valuable. The prize is the journey not the destination.” He says they purposely do real-life-style competitions (not fantasy nails, make-up, or hairstyles), so students get useful experience. “We give lots of trophies away, including to the teachers who helped them,” Barry says.

6. Offer free continuing education classes for the lifetime of the professionals’ career. Color My Nails School of Nail Technology in Midvale, Utah, offers continuing education to its alumni. Owner Jamie Comstock explains, “I think it’s important to do continuing education. I invite current students and alumni. Let’s say we’re doing nail art tomorrow. All of my past students know that they can come in for free to take a refresher course. We figure those alumni will refer us more people.” She adds that for students who postpone taking their state board exam, it’s also a great way for them to get a refresher.

Also provide your students with lists of outside continuing education classes they can take, whether your state requires it or not (only 13 do), and a list of places where they can find this information in the future. “It seems that nail professionals are not as quick to invest in the future of their career, such as hairstylists,” says CND’s Zanettini. “CND is changing this thought pattern with all of our Master Certification Classes and online consumer referral programs.”

7. Update the kit to include the newest technologies and real-world quality products. The kit should include products like colored acrylics, gel-polish, hard gels, embellishments, and quality brands that the students can continue to use on their first job. If you’re concerned that upping the quantity and quality of products in the kit will raise the cost of tuition, then just think about it being an up-front cost, instead of a cost several months down the road when the student spends her own money to buy better polish, base coat, nippers, clippers, etc., anyway.

Reaves says, “I purchase sample kits with my own money, and I ask for free products from manufacturers so my students will know there is more than just the product line they have in their kits. To get free samples, I call, get samples at networking events, beauty shows, send e-mails, and I will beg if I have too!” Reaves also gives students a list of all the manufacturers and their websites so students can also go online themselves and search for samples.

8. Use modern technology to students’ advantage. Johnson is excited because the school she works for is getting ready to launch a YouTube channel. She sees this as a great opportunity both for recruitment and for students who miss a lecture to easily make it up. In addition to YouTube, schools should have presences on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to establish connections with potential students before enrollment, to assist them during school, and after graduation to help with job placement.

9. Enforce stringent standards for applicants to ensure they are ready and willing to learn nails. Harvard Law School doesn’t let in just anyone, and neither should nail schools. Require a real application that includes questions about applicants’ motivation and have them take a test to show their knowledge and interest. We need to ensure that entering students are enthusiastic about learning, responsible enough to repay their loans, and will contribute to the field once they’ve graduated. Be frank with students during orientation, and let the uncommitted ones go for now, to potentially come back when they are truly ready.

To reform our nail schools, we need commitments from everyone — the schools themselves, of course, but also the students, nail manufacturers, licensed nail techs, state boards, salon owners, and federal and state-level governments. But these commitments should be easy for those of us who truly love the nail industry as both a career and a passion.

Or, as Barristar’s Barry says, “We have a great industry with great people who are smart and talented and caring. Go to beauty school. Go to nail school. You get out of it what you put into it. It’s so rewarding.

Next page: How to Find a Great Nail School, plus sign up for the Nail School News e-newsletter


Karyn Lenhart had such a great experience at Citrus Heights Beauty College (where she earned her esthetics degree) that she went back to the same school for nails several years later.

Karyn Lenhart had such a great experience at Citrus Heights Beauty College (where she earned her esthetics degree) that she went back to the same school for nails several years later.

Sidebar 1: How to Find a Great Nail School

> Look at the pass/fail rate. State boards typically publish these results (the number and/or percentage of students at each school who pass and who fail each state board exam). Look on the state board’s website and call the board if it’s not published online.
> Make sure the school has a designated nail instructor with experience doing nails professionally.
> Ask what the school will be teaching you specifically. Will it teach you how to sculpt? What about how to apply gel-polish?
> Find out what the student kit will contain and what products you will be taught on.
> What textbook does the school use? Many use textbooks by Milady. Others use their own proprietary books. Find out what topics the book covers.
> Ask how long it will be before you work on real clients.

Sidebar 2: Sign Up for Nail School News

We at NAILS Magazine want to be part of the positive change in nail schools. To that end, we have just launched a new e-newsletter specifically geared toward improving nail schools from inside the classroom and out. Dubbed Nail School News, it will give nail instructors, school owners, and other beauty school employees the edge to attract the best students, educate students for the real world, and increase your job placement rate. Sign up to receive Nail School News at

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