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Salt Lake Community College students rally to save cosmetology

Published May 16, 2012 11:50 pm

Job training • Hair cutting is expected to fall to cost cutting at Utah Regents meeting Friday.
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Taylorsville • Administrators at Salt Lake Community College decided to ax cosmetology without adequately considering public sentiment and honestly assessing the move's impact, according to students, instructors and others who rallied Wednesday to save the popular, long-standing program.

"Sixty-two salons depend on this school. We can't afford to close this department," Richard Ajer, a Great Clips franchisee with 14 stores, told a crowd of 50 gathered at SLCC's main campus. "I depend on students who have math and English. These are areas I depend on for managers."

Cosmetology student Mercedes Sellis, who expects to graduate soon with an associate's degree, praised the program as a vital pathway to a rewarding career. "I have lots of friends and family graduating from high school and want to come here," said Sellis, who is assistant manager of a group home and cuts the hair of its autistic residents. "What hurts me the most is we never got a chance to say what I wanted to say. If it's costing money, why didn't they raise tuition or the price of haircuts?"

SLCC trustees voted last month to cut the program, citing cost concerns and the broad availability of alternatives for learning the art of styling hair. The program operates at a $700,000 loss and is slated to lose its home when the Taylorsville campus administrative building is razed this year. Retrofitting a new space would cost a minimum of $1.2 million, officials said.

The trustees' April 11 vote came two weeks after administrators announced the phase out, leaving many with the impression that the decision had been made long before the program's supporters had any input. Trustees allowed only a few people to speak for a few minutes each.

It is doubtful the state Board of Regents will consider overriding the decision when they meet Friday at Snow College in Ephraim.

While Utah schools' requests to launch new programs undergo careful scrutiny by the Commissioner of Higher Education, the Regents defer to institutional trustees' judgment in ending them, according to Dave Buhler, associate commissioner for public affairs.

"We handled it like every proposal to eliminate a program," Buhler said. "A number of years ago, the Regents looked to things to delegate to the boards of trustees. This is one of those things."

The program elimination appears on the Regents' consent calendar, indicating it will likely be approved Friday without discussion, along with a slate of campus requests.

"This really is a local decision and that decision has been made," Buhler said. "It is understandable that people would be concerned. Any student who is enrolled will have an opportunity to complete their program. But no new students will be admitted while it winds down."

Cosmetology/barbering was SLCC's fifth most popular major last academic year, graduating 91 students at its recent commencement with varying levels of certification. The highest degree is the two-year associate's of applied science, but SLCC also confers certificates of completion and diplomas.

Despite the program's popularity, SLCC administrators contend starting pay is little more than $8 an hour and too many graduates aren't employed in cosmetology.

Ajer disputed the notion that hair-styling is a low-paying, dead-end career choice.

He said he starts graduates with associate's degrees at between $8 and $11, and tips can boost pay by $10 with bonuses adding another $2 to $3. Experienced hairdressers in business for themselves can pull down as much as $60,000 a year.

Four full-time faculty positions will be cut and many more adjunct instructors, such as salon-owners Ann Welker and Shauna Peterson, will lose their part-time teaching contracts.

"These students are amazing. They all have a story and want to be successful," Petersen said. "I didn't get into this to just be an instructor. I wanted to make a difference in their lives."

Private beauty schools may abound in Salt Lake County, but many SLCC students can't afford their tuition and none offer an associate's degree, said Connie McGinn, who graduated from the program 40 years ago.

bmaffly@sltrib.com