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The Ugly Truth: How Predatory Beauty Schools Are Driving the Need for Reform

Tales of exploitive beauty schools aren’t new, but they’re ignoring the bigger picture

Higher education is full of cautionary tales, especially as costs balloon. The same is true in the beauty industry, where stories about predatory schools have cast a long shadow for years. Coupled with the other negative mainstream attention that the industry faces, beauty can seem like an unsavory pursuit.

The reality is that there’s a substantial gap between perception and reality. Predatory beauty schools, like many of the industry’s other issues, exist, but they aren’t as common as they’re made out to be. In fact, most coverage of the beauty industry neglects the core issue that faces us today: Society regularly fails to treat beauty professionals with the respect they deserve. For things to change, we have to reform the industry from the ground up. And that means starting by bettering the lives of people putting in the work.

Predatory beauty schools exploit thousands of students

There are more than 1,237 beauty schools in the United States alone, each one helping to prop up the next generation of the beauty industry. While the majority of beauty schools equip students with the tools they need to become licensed professionals and get jobs, systemic issues have emerged that make it all too easy for predatory beauty schools to exploit students in the name of profit. Stories like the Marinello Schools of Beauty, which shut down its 56 locations after allegations that students had performed free labor, regularly went without mentors, and that the school had misappropriated aid funds, show how flawed the education system can be.

Wherever loopholes exist, someone will try to exploit them for their own gain. It’s no surprise that predatory beauty schools have popped up in an industry with systemic flaws. The issue is that the response to predatory beauty schools has largely been reactive, not proactive. Instead of dishing out punishments to beauty schools on a case-by-case basis, the underlying issues that make students vulnerable to exploitation need to be addressed. It’s here that we stumble into another problem: the beauty industry is so misrepresented in mainstream media that it’s impossible to draw adequate attention to those real issues.

The beauty industry, broadly

In mainstream circles, you’ll see a grim picture of modern cosmetics. Stories about deceptive labeling, carcinogenic ingredients, and Miranda Priestly-esque icons run rampant. Supposedly trustworthy sources have inaccurately depicted the earning potential for beauty professionals, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) asserting that the industry’s median income is $28,000, while a Qnity study found that it’s around $53,000. It’s impossible to see the real picture through all the noise.

Because the mainstream portrayal of beauty has drawn attention to the wrong issues and the response to systemic problems has been reactive, predatory beauty schools have been allowed to operate unchecked. They get a pass to exploit students for free labor, re-enroll them after setting them up for failure in their licensing exams, and benefit from poor license mobility across state lines. For things to change, beauty pros need to take control of the conversation, direct attention to the real issues, and put pressure on legislators to reform the beauty industry. Here’s where to start.

Beauty pros deserve better

Overall employment of barbers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists is projected to grow 11 percent from 2021 to 2031, which means there’s plenty of opportunity for up-and-comers. However, the predatory beauty school playbook highlights areas in need of reform.

Lower training hours

Each state has its own rules for the number of training hours students must complete before they’re eligible to be licensed, though it’s often around 1,600 hours total. This is too much. The extra hours inflate tuition costs and negatively impact debt-to-income tests. Luckily, some states (like California) are addressing the problem, shaving hundreds of hours off the necessary total for licensing.

Pre-graduate testing

Pre-graduate testing is critical to improving graduation rates, allowing institutions to monitor which students are doing well and which students need more mentoring. This helps reduce the number of training hours and tuition fees a student may be subjected to if they fail to earn their license on the first try.

License mobility

A beauty license should be valid across state lines, just like a driver's license is. Beauty pros have the benefit of license reciprocity, but the requirements can be excessive. Changing the system would reduce friction overall, making it easier to find new jobs. License mobility would also present fewer opportunities for predatory beauty schools to attract students that have to return to school in new states.

Income visibility

The BLS study has been damaging to perceptions of earning potential within the beauty industry, portraying income as vastly lower than it really is. One of the best things current beauty pros can do is share how much they earn each year from their own businesses, which comes out to about $53,000 for those working 27 hours a week according to Qnity’s research, but can increase to $100,000 for those that work an additional 13 hours a week. If you’ve been able to grow your business, share your story. You never know who you’ll inspire.

Introducing such changes to the beauty industry is the first step in fixing the problems that we see in the beauty industry today. We can never rid ourselves of bad actors entirely, but we can be better with each generation that enters our field. Anyone that wants to help directly can donate to or work with advocacy groups fighting to change the beauty industry for the better, such as the Professional Beauty Association, ISBN, and Independent Beauty Association. Together, we can strive to be transparent, accommodating, fierce, and, for lack of a better word, beautiful.

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