Cosmetology schools and crushing student loans

I’m sure some of you are asking yourself “what does cosmetology schools have to do with crushing student loans?”. The preeminent story––which we are told over and over again by the media and way too many of our business and political leaders––about student loans is that it is students who get four-year degrees in non STEM fields who are being crushed by student loans. Consigned to a lifetime of economic struggle, unable to afford the American Dream of home ownership, and other economic hardships. Think again!

The reality is that the student loan crisis is concentrated in students who attend for-profit schools and/or either don’t earn a degree or get a credential in a low-paying occupation like cosmetology. In a highly recommended article entitled A $21,000 Cosmetology School Debt, and a $9-an-Hour Job the New York Times details the consequences of attending a for-profit school that combines high tuition and low-paid work. (The median wage for Hairdressers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists in Michigan is $25,020.)

My former colleague Patrick Cooney detailed the student loan realities in two previous posts which you can find here and here. Patrick’s big picture conclusion:

  1. Stay away from for-profit colleges. The number of students who take out loans at these institutions and eventually default is incredibly high, even if they earn a degree.
  2. And second, loan default rates are incredibly low for students who never attended a for-profit college, and earn a bachelor’s degree.

The Times, using Iowa as the example, describes a system that sure seems designed to meet the profit-making interests of cosmetology schools far more than the interest of students to learn a trade and earn a good income.  And the power of those for-profit schools to beat back attempts to make the system work better for students.

In addition to high tuition and low-paid jobs, cosmetology school students are ill served by the business model of the for-profit schools they attend and state requirements that force students to pay tuition while working in a school-operated salon for up to a year. This is another cautionary tale about the current in-favor model of career education. One with lots of work-base learning. Cosmetology schools provide on-the-job learning. But, as the Times describes, the quality of the work-based experience is uneven at best, with students spending lots of time not working as cosmetologists, and there is strong evidence that the hours required are far more than needed to be qualified for employment in the field.

Work-based learning even when it is paid work, or unpaid but with no tuition, is not the magic elixir to the middle class if the occupation you are preparing for is low-paid. The design of the work-based learning matters too: too often it involves at best preparing only for first job skills in fields where the second and third jobs are where one gets to good-paying work.

So the answer to our opening question––”what does cosmetology schools have to do with crushing student loans?”––is a lot. If there is a student loan crisis the reason has far more to do with schooling like that offered by cosmetology schools than it does with those who get four-year degrees in non STEM fields.

We need to stop telling other people kids’ that they would be better off foregoing getting a bachelors degree because they can do just as well, if not better, without debt by getting a credential that leads to employment in a non professional or managerial occupation. Yes that path leads to good-paying jobs and careers for some, but far fewer than conventional wisdom has it. Having said that the data are clear that the most reliable path––not a guarantee––to a good-paying job and career is getting a four-year degree no matter the major.

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