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Daryl James: Report shows debt trap for Utah beauty workers

Utah requirements for cosmetology license are much more burdensome than for EMTs.

(Charles Krupa | AP photo) In this Aug. 23, 2016, photo, Christine Perkins, right, who owns Pyara Spa and Salons at two locations in the Boston area, applies nail polish for a client at her salon in Burlington, Mass.

Seconds count when emergency medical technicians arrive at an accident scene. They work in life-or-death situations, so Utah regulators make sure that every team member is prepared with adequate levels of education.

The rules work differently for cosmetologists. The state mandates training, but significantly more than necessary to protect public health and safety. While entry-level EMTs can start earning paychecks after 120 hours in the classroom, beauty workers must complete 300 hours of training to paint fingernails.

If they want to do eyelash extensions, they need 600 hours of training. If they want to do facial peels, they need 1,200 hours of training. And if they want to cut and dye hair, they need 1,600 hours of training — more than 13 times the amount required to care for patients bleeding on the pavement.

Meanwhile, Utah requires almost no schooling for contractors, unarmed security guards and bartenders. Others who work with dangerous chemicals or operate heavy equipment just have to pass state exams. The list includes pest controllers, vegetation pesticide applicators, crane operators and school bus drivers.

The oversight is sufficient, yet the government demands more from beauty workers. Many cosmetology students spend their days working for free in training salons, waiting for government permission to earn income for themselves.

The scheme creates a double revenue stream for beauty school owners, who collect tuition from their workers rather than paying them. A new report from the Institute for Justice shows the harm. “Beauty School Debt and Dropouts: How State Cosmetology Licensing Fails Aspiring Beauty Workers,” published July 22, finds a raw deal for students based on program costs, loan amounts, graduation rates and salaries.

The first-of-its-kind analysis, an extension of a Utah report published in June, uses federal data on cosmetology schools and students during six academic years covering 2011 to 2017. Nationwide, cosmetology students were more likely to take loans than the average student across all federal aid-eligible U.S. universities, colleges and vocational schools. They also borrowed more per year than the national average, and they were more likely to receive need-based grants.

Utah beauty schools performed poorly on several metrics. Only 56% of cosmetology students in the state finished their programs on time during the study period, while the average salary after graduation was just $26,570 — less than that of many other professionals who face no state-mandated training.

Essentially, the result is a debt trap. Occupational licensing requirements give aspiring cosmetologists few alternatives. They must pay more and wait longer to start their careers than other lower-income workers, and then they must budget for monthly loan installments while struggling to make ends meet.

Utah relieved some of the burden in 2021 with passage of Senate Bill 87, which allows people to shampoo and style hair without an occupational license. The state also modestly reduced the training hours needed for a cosmetology license in 2013. And a federal judge freed Utah hair braiders to work without attending beauty school in 2012, following an Institute for Justice lawsuit.

All of these measures represent steps in the right direction, but Utah can do better. If the state requires education at all, it should only be to learn about sanitation and safety. Customers can regulate everything else themselves. If they get bad service at a salon, they can tell their friends and post negative reviews on sites like Yelp.

The high-accountability system rewards excellence, which would prompt many beauty workers to take classes even without government mandates. Other Utah vocational schools show how the model works. Nobody forces auto mechanics to go to Mountainland Technical College in Lehi. Aspiring chefs need no coercion to attend the Park City Culinary Institute. And music students voluntarily sign up at the Utah Conservatory.

Beauty schools should have to compete on merit the same way. Business owners like having a captive audience, but forcing lower-income workers into debt at the start of their careers is an ugly look for a state that prides itself on industry.

Daryl James | Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

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