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Completion rates are low at state beauty schools

Across the state fewer beauty school students are successfully completing their programs, leaving many with mountains of debt and few options.

Only 351 of the 800 students registered in 2005 at a West Virginia beauty school ever went on to obtain a license to practice, according to data from the state Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists.

That's a 44 percent completion rate.

Figures from the 2010 class are worse. Of the 917 students registered at schools that year, only 314 obtained a license to work.

"Whenever we have less than four out of every 10 individuals who starts beauty school failing to complete, we have a problem," said Adam Higginbotham, barber board executive director.

To work as a cosmetologist or in other professions for which these schools offer training, a person must receive a license, Higginbotham said. Students are struggling to pass the tests required to obtain those licenses. 

From August 2010 to July 2012, about 68 percent of students taking the licensure exam for the first time passed. Higginbotham said schools are expected to maintain a 70-percent passage rate: nine of the 16 schools examined were below that mark.

"What's the point of going into beauty school or barbering or nail technology if you don't get a license?" Higginbotham said.

Beauty school isn't cheap. Higginbotham said he thinks the average cost for a cosmetology program is $10,000, and he knows several schools in West Virginia that charge more than $20,000. To pay for that, many students borrow. .

The average beauty school student from 2005 to 2010 had about $7,000 worth of loans, he said. Multiply that figure by the number of students who did not complete their programs or return to a different school, and debt problems become obvious.

"We're looking at $17.5 million in five years that would have been loaned to these students," Higginbotham said, adding the number is a ballpark estimate based on board data.

Data recently released by the U.S. Department of Education shows the Charleston School of Beauty and Huntington School of Beauty Culture - two of the larger beauty schools in the state - have student loan default rates above 40 percent.

The board establishes a statewide curriculum for these programs, Higginbotham said. By tracking the number of students who go on to receive a license, the board can determine whether there are issues with that curriculum or the schools themselves.

He admits the length of time required to receive a cosmetology certificate might have been a problem.

In the past, state law said students were required to take 2,000 hours of course work; Higginbotham said that takes 15 to 17 months to complete. Last year the board managed to have state law changed to reduce the number of hours to 1,800. That's still more than many states, Higginbotham said.

The curriculum was also revised so that students could earn different certificates along the way: it takes less time to earn just the nail technology certificate, but it's part of the overall cosmetology curriculum, Higginbotham said. The board hopes the new, shorter program could address both completion rates and loan issues.

"They will come away with something they can make a living on, even if they don't complete the program," Higganbotham said.

Problems remain. He said the board has received a slew of complaints about schools across the state. It spent $40,000 reviewing those complaints in the last two years, even though schools account for less than 1 percent of all licenses in the state.

Most of the complaints are from students who believe they are receiving a poor education or a school isn't following its own policies.

The complaints and completion issues bother the board enough that it requested Higginbotham meet with representatives from the U.S. Department of Education. Higginbotham said the department had contacted him independently about issues at two schools, although he declined to provide details about the department's concerns.

He's meeting with representatives Friday in Philadelphia to discuss the problems and proposed curriculum solutions from the board. Regardless of the outcome of that meeting, Higginbotham knows something needs to change.

"You don't want to tell your students coming in the first day of school . . . 'Look at 10 of your other students. Six of you will fail and have thousands of dollars of debt and not have a career,' " Higginbotham said.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at ;


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