DUBUQUE, Iowa — Cosmetology schools in Iowa have been in the crosshairs in recent years, as some state lawmakers question their education requirements.
Two bills in the Legislature would have reduced the minimum number of hours of education required to become a certified cosmetologist. Both failed to pass out of committees after heated pushback from nonprofits and lobbying groups representing the schools and Iowa cosmetologists.
Proponents of reducing the education requirement from 2,100 hours to about 1,500 — more in line with the requirements in most states — argue it is too costly and takes too long for Iowa students to get certified.
Capri College is one of the institutions training the state's cosmetologists. The school has locations in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Dubuque and Waterloo.
In Dubuque, eight instructors — soon to be 10 — currently teach 40 students. The college's leaders are among those vouching for the current state standards.
"Legislators, when they're making decisions, don't understand our business," said Admissions Director Erin Fiegen, whose father founded Capri. "They don't understand our industry. They're not looking at the details."
Marilee Mai heads the cosmetology department at Northeast Iowa Community College's campus in Calmar.
She also told the Telegraph Herald that the current hours requirement provides Iowa graduates with extra experience that makes them workforce ready.
"With those 2,100 hours of training, I was able to start my own salon and felt comfortable," she said.
Critics argue that more hours equals higher costs to become certified.
Capri's website features a cost calculator for potential students. For example, a 22-year-old single parent can expect to pay $17,280 in tuition and fees. Books and supplies should run another $2,100 or so.
The calculator also anticipates that same student should qualify for more than $12,000 in grants and financial aid.
Capri's Chris Fiegen, Erin's brother, referenced that aid when discussing the impacts of reducing the number of hours. Capri students typically fulfill their hours requirement in about 15 or 16 months.
"A 1,500-hour program has less federal financial aid eligibility than a 2,100-hour (one)," he said. "In the (U.S. Department of Education's) mind, an academic year has a certain amount of length. We don't make those rules."
The department's communications services director, April Jordan, said there is some truth to that, but that schools define their academic years, which impacts grant possibilities.
"The student can receive a Pell Grant for the first 900 hours as a year," she said. "If a school says the program is 1,500 hours, then the second (grant) a student could get at that school would only be for two-thirds. It wouldn't be fair for them to get two full if they didn't need them."
On the floor of Capri's clinical salon in Dubuque, students said the college's staff strives to highlight those options.
"They try to give you as much help as they can," said Christina Robey, who has completed 1,700 of her hours so far at Capri. "They're always coming to us with ideas."
At NICC, tuition and fees for the cosmetology program total about $13,700. Students potentially are eligible for federal and state financial assistance.
In Fennimore, Wisconsin, Southwest Wisconsin Technical College offers a 1,500-hour program — that state's standard — at a cost of $6,920.
Just like at other higher-education institutions, costs have climbed over time.
Verla Tegeler, a cosmetologist at The Head Shed Salon in Dyersville, Iowa, recalled her tuition totaling about $825 at Capri when she graduated in 1976.
Nearby, Jill Scherbing was cutting and dyeing her mother's hair. Scherbing believed her tuition was $5,000 in 1988.
Federal government databases estimate a cosmetologist's annual salary at between $27,000 and $35,000. Proponents of cutting Iowa's minimum hourly requirement question whether that is enough for the cost of getting certified at the current threshold.
Staff from tri-state-area schools, however, said those average salary estimates are low.
"Within the first couple of years, it is reasonable to say that's the salary," Erin Fiegen said. "But we know we have graduates making $400 in two hours. Maybe they specialize and they're eyelash extension artists or hair extension queens."
Iowa professional cosmetology organizations have conducted studies that point closer to $50,000 as an average in the state.
"That's not bad for not having a two- or four-year degree," Fiegen said.
Mai, of NICC, agreed.
"There is a huge range of opportunities in the cosmetology field," she said. "You can go work for someone, be your own employer (or) there are chair rentals. That is just a ballpark number that comes off the government website."
Amy Chamberlin heads the cosmetology program at Highland Community College, which has its main campus in Freeport, Illinois. She works there full time but runs a salon out of her home on the side.
"I do hair three days a week out of my house," she said. "I easily brought in $20,000 by myself. You can bring in $40,000 to $60,000 easily. If you make it bigger, there's more."
Jordyn Sarbacker is studying at Capri in Dubuque, commuting from her home in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, after first attending business school at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. She said she was particularly confident that she can have a lucrative career if she uses the full set of tools that Capri teaches students.
"I have always seen my salon as a salon and a spa, using everything I have learned," she said. "The more services you offer, the more money there is."
This is one of the hooks Iowa schools hang their aprons on — that without the 600 more hours of instruction, students would miss out on skills far beyond just cutting and dyeing hair.
"The average graduate needs to have a broader pallet of services," said Chris Fiegen. "They can't make it just doing hair. They have to do skin care, and they have to do nails."
Tegeler said that, while she doesn't do much beyond hair at The Head Shed, other cosmetologists at the business do and everyone benefits from that knowledge.
"Doing is learning," she said. "The more you do, the more you know. You don't know that you're going to always be here. What if you get to another salon and have to do nails?"
Venus Vendoures Walsh, executive for the Iowa Board of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences, confirmed that in Iowa, to be certified for a full cosmetology license, a graduate must have studied and passed boards for many skills across hair, skin, nails and more.
Capri also stresses professional development.
Students are scheduled for 29 to 30 hours per week for the first nine weeks of "basic training." After that, students are scheduled 37.5 hours per week. There is one day per week of advanced classroom instruction and four days per week of clinical, hands-on instruction.
"When they're on the clinic floor, they're practicing not only their technical skills, but their business and communication skills," Erin Fiegen said.
Before returning to her family business, Fiegen earned a bachelor's degree in special education and compares the clinical portion of Capri schooling to the many practicums, student teaching and child observations she did in her past studies in her earlier field.
Chamberlin, though, insists those other skills also are covered in Highland's program — and in 600 fewer hours.
Illinois and Wisconsin were two of the 35 states that required 1,500 to 1,700 hours for a cosmetology certificate as of January 2018. That total has since climbed. The new states include Nebraska, which dropped from 2,100 to 1,500, and South Dakota, which dropped from 2,100 to 1,800.
Just Iowa and Idaho require more than 1,800 hours.
Chamberlin wondered if students in Iowa might grow impatient and unhappy logging 2,100 hours.
"Are the students finishing the 2,100 hours?" she asked. "Are they in school too long? I have students itching to get out of here at 1,500. My students are usually all done in 1,500. Just a few have to stick around a little longer for a few more of one skill or another."
Some of Capri's current students widened their eyes when asked if they felt ready now, shy of their 2,100 hours.
"The biggest reason I came here was there was more hours," said Leslie Bollant, who commutes from Montfort, Wisconsin. "It would have been cheaper (in Wisconsin), but it would be like half the curriculum. They offer more business classes, more experience on the floor. ... Here, you've had plenty of practice."
Bollant is one of many Capri students that commute across state lines.
School officials reported that 22 percent of its students in Dubuque live in Illinois or Wisconsin. At its Davenport, Iowa, campus, 40 percent of students are from Illinois.
Vendoures Walsh posits that some of that could be to escape postgraduate apprenticeships required outside of Iowa.
"Some of the states that have those 1,500 hours or less require graduates to work under someone for a period of time, sometimes up to two years," she said. "They can't own their own salon. Our graduates can go and own their own place immediately."
Bollant talked about those requirements.
"There, I would have to do a six-month internship with a company, so I still wouldn't be making the money," she said of Wisconsin. "And I wouldn't know as much what a client would want me to do."
Students who graduate from an Iowa program can go to most other states with lower hours requirements and test for their certificate.
New graduates of Illinois or Wisconsin programs need to accumulate enough hours to meet the 2,100 threshold to be certified in Iowa. However, those new grads from Illinois and Wisconsin are able to go to many other states with similar requirements to work.
Chamberlin said the hours requirement stops many of her students from considering Iowa for work. She also reported having students from Iowa who came to her program because of the lower hours required.
In addition to his work at Capri, Chris Fiegen is a legislative liaison for Cosmetologists and Barbers of Iowa, a nonprofit lobbying group.
He said his group disagrees with the need for a change in Iowa's requirement, but he acknowledged the idea likely would be proposed again.
So, the group is trying to be pragmatic. Fiegen said members are drafting a bill that would — instead of cutting the hours for a cosmetology certification — create a hairstylist certification that could be attained in 1,500 hours.
Iowa Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said in a message that cosmetology programs in the state take pride in teaching their students a thorough and comprehensive catalog of skills and that, in taking their time to do so, they ensure the quality of that education.
Iowa Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point, didn't disagree with the quality of the education provided by Iowa's schools. But he has sought to limit regulation of similar trades in the past.
In 2015, Breitbach introduced a successful bill that cut the amount of biannual continuing education of barbers from eight hours to three.
"I would encourage people to look at what the states around us do — not that we have to be a follower," he said. "I am sure the schools don't want to cut hours because that's how they stay open, by charging for hours. But if most other states find 1,500 hours adequate, I don't see why there would be a problem with that."
In Dyersville, the professionals at The Head Shed aren't buying it.
"Then they should go to barber school," Scherbing said. "There's something to just knowing, furthering your education."
Added Tegeler, "I don't think it's a good idea. I think 2,100 is fine. It's always worked. It always will work."
Erin Fiegen said that even if the state lowers its minimum hourly requirement, she wouldn't be surprised if Capri continues to teach the 2,100-hour curriculum it has built its reputation on.
And she said she doesn't think the school will lose out on students.
"It's because the process of educating someone to be a successful stylist, a successful professional, takes more than teaching them skills really fast," she said. "We have to watch them go from this shy little person and develop them into a professional who is ready to get out there and work with anybody in the industry."
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Telegraph Herald.