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The Human Cost of Cosmetology Licensing

Updated: Apr 2

It should come to no surprise to the readers of TAP that sometimes people use the political system to rig the game in their favor. While these interested parties often promote their policy preferences behind the rationale of the public good, in reality they are seeking policies that enrich themselves at the expense of the public.

A recent article by the New York Times shows this exact thing happening in the field of occupational licensing for cosmetologists. It examines the case of for-profit cosmetology schools in Iowa; how their operators make money using subsidized student loans; and the state’s absurdly high requirement that cosmetologists must complete 2,100 school hours before obtaining a state license. As you read the article, you meet the real people being victimized by this government policy.

This article may discuss Iowa, but it is pertinent to Arkansas. To become a licensed cosmetologist in Arkansas, one must complete 1,500 hours – fewer than in Iowa but almost certainly far higher than necessary to protect the public. And, just as in Iowa, there are people in Arkansas being victimized by a licensing policy that protects a few people at the expense of the wider public.

In Iowa, as the Times article shows, the state mandating these hours for a cosmetology license imposes a steep cost in both time and money for those seeking to enter the profession. The Times reports, “the companies charge steep prices — nearly $20,000 on average for a cosmetology certificate, equivalent to the cost of a two-year community-college degree twice over — and they have fought to keep the required number of school hours higher than anywhere else in the country.”

Of course, the schools’ owners say they are fighting to preserve the strict state mandate not to enrich themselves, but to help students and protect the public. That just isn’t so, writes the Times: “There’s little evidence that spending more hours in school leads to higher wages. Nor is there proof that extra hours result in improved public safety. But one relationship is clear: The more hours that students are forced to be in school, the more debt they accrue.”

As the article shows, this debt can be crippling for many people.

The idea that cosmetologists must complete thousands of hours in in school to protect public safety is undercut by the fact that students receive credit for hours in which they do no work at all. To complete their practice hours, students must attend school and serve any customers who visit. But if no customers show up, the students must still be present even though no work is being done. Those hours in which they have done no work still count towards the state’s mandatory hour requirement.

According to one student, “I would say probably 60 percent of our time was sitting around waiting for people. There were times where I personally had met all my goals that I needed to meet. I was literally just waiting. I had to finish my clock hours.”

If students are spending these hours sitting around and not learning anything, are these hours really necessary to protect the public? Of course not.

In addition, different states have different standards for both mandatory hours as well as mandatory course topics. If safety really were the primary objective behind these standards, then we would see a relationship between cosmetology accidents and states where students complete fewer hours. I can find no evidence that such association exists, however.Occupational licensing rules may seem designed to protect the public, but on the whole they serve another purpose – protecting the industries that lobby for the rules. Other states have tried to reduce the burdensome cosmetology requirements with mixed results. Governor Asa Hutchinson has appointed a task force to examine the state’s various occupational licensing requirements, and it would do well to review the necessity of the occupational licensing 1500-hour standard. Relaxing this mandate would save cosmetology students money, open up an occupation for more individuals, and reduce student debt. Reducing cosmetology requirements would yield a true public benefit.

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