Business Management

What’s Wrong With Our Schools?

Unqualified instructors, unmotivated students, outdated curricula, impractical testing, and student loan abuse are only some of the problems with cosmetology school education.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.

There is a worm in the apple. Salon owners, distributors, and manufacturer’s complain that all a student learns in cosmetology school is how to pass the state board exam, not the skills required of today’s professional. Experts say schools require too few hours of training for a nail technician to earn her license, and the hours that are required often cover a curriculum that is impractical and outdated. NAILS talked to school administrators, teachers, salon owners, manufacturers, distributors, technicians, and students to find out what’s wrong with our schools and what’s needed to make them right.

The challenges facing cosmetology schools can’t be considered unusual in an industry as young as the nail industry, especially considering that licensing nail technicians is still a relatively new practice. After all, U.S. public education has plenty problems of its own and it’s been around for hundreds of years. However, even making allowances for the industry’s youth, most professionals agree that cosmetology school education needs an overhaul if it is going to be able to produce the highly qualified nail technicians of the future.

Whose responsibility is it to reform cosmetology education? Ron Smith, director of the Association of Accredited Cosmetology Schools (AACS), says there is enough responsibility to go around: “Schools are accountable to the state board of cosmetology and the board of education. But salons, schools, the government, and the associations all have responsibility to improve the system.”

Some industry leaders say that although the system could stand improvement, on-the-job training will always be necessary for technicians just out of school. Says Smith, “You can’t expect them to come out of school completely ready. There is a certain amount of training that has to continue, as in any vocation. What I would like to see is a matching of the expectations of the salons and of the schools as to where the graduate should be at graduation. Granted, right now there is a gap.”

However, ask a salon owner who does invest time in new-hire training if expectations of new graduates are too high and you’re likely to hear that students don’t even know the basics.

Carole Hook, owner of the Nail Gallery in Overland Park, Kan., says, “In the five years that I’ve had this salon, I have never had one technician who came in here who knew enough about nails. They may know how to do a decent manicure, but they don’t know acrylics, gels, fiberglass. They’re tested on acrylics, but there is no way they could pass a salon test just because they pass a board test. It’s one thing to teach students from books and theories, but that doesn’t mean they can do nails.”

Hook’s training program for new graduates can take anywhere from three to six months, depending on the student’s level.

In order to ensure consistency within the salon, most owners and managers expect to do some in-house training of all technicians. However, salon owners say that isn’t the point. They don’t mind teaching “salon style” but too often they find they have to teach the basics. Says one exasperated salon manager, “It’s ridiculous to have to teach someone how to hold a sculpting brush or how to disinfect nippers. I don’t have time to reinvent the wheel.”

Davidson Beauty Supply in Beltsville, Md., had so many technicians with remedial skills in its continuing education classes that the company decided to start its own nail school. School director Anne Cutino explains, “I was teaching part-time and finding that we had to backtrack to show students the basics. Either they hadn’t ever learned or they had forgotten everything. Many people in the classes said they hadn’t learned this stuff in school.”


Improving the quality of education doesn’t mean educators have to reinvent the wheel, but they may have to update its design. Cutino says state board requirements are ridiculously outdated: “In Maryland, a nail student has to do three state board nails: regular polish (like most people wear), then a polish technique where the moons show and one where the free edge shows. I’ve never polished with the moon or free edge showing. And, nail technicians are being tested only verbally on acrylic nails. There’s no practical! All you have to do is recite the procedure for acrylic nails, not actually do one. The only practical test required is a water manicure. There are ridiculous requirements in the curriculum, and it’s almost impossible to get something changed when it comes to testing.”

Cutino says those kinds of impractical requirements contribute to the decline of cosmetology school education.

Jan Bragulla, president of Creative Nail Design and a supporter of updating state board tests to reflect 1990s salon techniques, says, “It kills me that students are still being taught to nip acrylics. That’s a 1970s technique. But things are changing, and they’ll continue changing.”


Although most U.S. states require manicuring licenses, the range of educational hours and training required to get that license varies widely. For example, Louisianna requires 500 hours of classroom training, while Massachusetts requires only 100. Surely what can be expected from a graduate with 500 classroom hours is not what can be expected of someone with 100. Concerned industry professionals wonder if even 500 hours are enough to teach a future nail technician all she needs to know about nail care, salon business, financial management, chemical safety, and nail anatomy.

“They don’t have to go to school long enough. They know what they are supposed to do, but they can’t do it because they don’t have the training, says Galaxy Nail Products owner Kym Lee. This opinion is echoed by many we spoke to.

There have been movements to develop a uniform national standard for cosmetology curriculum and hours, but getting 50 state boards of cosmetology to agree on the principle, let alone on the requirements, has kept that notion merely a dream. The All Industry Summit, a collection of representatives from several industry associations, has been meeting recently and will recommend national standards for beauty education. Some industry experts are skeptical about the reality of nationalization: Says Robert Oppenheim in his July 1992 issue of Salon Update, “There’s a strong movement for starting – again – for nationwide standardized curricula, licensing and testing. Good idea? Absolutely. Will it happen in our lifetimes? Doubtful.”


Many technicians and salon owners single out teachers for the failure of the schools, citing their lack of specialized training and salon experience.

“My perspective, as a nail technician and as a salon owner, is that many cosmetology instructors do not have any hands-on experience in the salon. Many of them train to be a cosmetologist, then get their instructor’s license without ever working in a salon. So the students don’t get the benefit of that salon experience.” Sys Kathy Haller, owner of two nails-only salons in Arlington, Texas.

Hooks indicts her own state’s instructors: “I think the reason is that the only qualified teacher in Kansas is a cosmetology instructor, but cosmetologists don’t spend that much time learning nails. They’re really not qualified to teach nails.”

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