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Mileena Moss

Mileena Moss spent $15,000 for an esthetician program at a for-profit college that she said promised intensive instruction from experts. Instead, she mostly had one instructor and a thick workbook to fill out. She graduated this February and had no job lined up in her new field.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang/WBEZ

For-profit cosmetology graduates rarely earn more than high school grads

In Illinois, 80% of beauty and cosmetology programs are run by for-profit companies, which have a monopoly on training students for the state’s required licensing exams.

When Mileena Moss was laid off from a manufacturing company in 2023, she had two goals: learn how to perform eyelash extensions and eventually run her own spa.

“I was getting my lashes done by a girl, and she was telling me how well it was going for her,” Moss said. After learning she needed an esthetician license, she found a Tricoci University of Beauty Culture location close to her southwest suburban Chicago Ridge apartment.

Pretty soon, Moss, 29, received multiple follow-up calls and emails from a Tricoci representative.

Moss moved quickly. She took out $3,200 from her retirement account, and her mother took out a $10,000 federal loan.

About $15,000 and 750 hours later, Moss graduated this February without the chance to get the lash application certification she wanted, and no job lined up in her new field of work.

“It’s a lot to invest in a trade school and to come back with nothing out of it,” Moss said.

In 2022, more than 10,000 students like Moss — mostly women of color — were enrolled in Illinois cosmetology, esthetician, barber and nail tech programs, drawn in by promises of a flexible and lucrative beauty career. However, most students 10 years after starting earn less than someone with just a high school diploma who is at least 25 years old, according to a WBEZ analysis of data for institutions that receive federal grants and loans, which can be a critical source of revenue for schools.

Illinois for-profit cosmetology, esthetician, nail tech and barber schools reported median earnings for their students 10 years after enrolling ranging from $15,420 to $34,368, according to data reported in 2021 dollars. The median earnings of a high school graduate in Illinois was $34,591, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 five-year American Community Survey. And Illinois cosmetology students are typically spending an average of $14,700 a year to attend.

Meanwhile, the quality of education at these unregulated for-profit institutions is uneven at best, WBEZ learned in interviews with former and current students who were among the more than 250 who responded to a WBEZ survey. The winners in this system are Illinois’ beauty schools — more than 80% run by for-profit companies — that have a monopoly on training students for the state’s required licensing exams.

Former and current beauty school students told WBEZ they were misled by recruiters and marketing tactics. They said the first thing an admissions representative asks is to hear their goals.

“What you speak to the advisor about, they hone in on that,” Moss said. “They focus a lot of their selling pitch on anything that you showed an interest in.” Moss said the Tricoci recruiter told her the program included a lash kit and application courses. After enrolling, she learned she had to pay extra for the kit, and that she’d have to miss other classes to get lash training. This didn’t work for her schedule or pocketbook.

She also said she was promised intensive instruction from various experts in their fields. But instead, she mostly had one instructor and a thick workbook to fill out.

“The teaching is D.I.Y. [do it yourself],” Moss said.

WBEZ reached out to Tricoci for an interview but the school did not respond.

20240507_For_Profit_Universities_mm0082.jpg

Mileena Moss was an esthetician student at a Tricoci University of Beauty Culture campus in the southwest suburbs. Moss said she was misled by a recruiter about what the program offered.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

For 31-year-old aspiring nail tech Olivia Hester, it was the low $350 program fee advertised by Trenz Beauty Academy on Chicago’s South Side. She said the school did not explain early on that she’d be on the hook for $2,000 more to get the 350 hours she needed. Still, with no other options near her home in nearby Englewood, she started the nail program in 2023.

Since then, Hester said she has not had a qualified instructor most days. She spends most of the hours at school practicing on mannequin hands, wishing she could go back in time.

“I would make a huge sign and stand in front of that school and be like, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” she said.

Trenz did not respond to WBEZ’s request for comment.

“I would make a huge sign and stand in front of that school and be like, ‘Don’'t do it. ”
– Olivia Hester about her experience at Trenz Beauty Academy on Chicago’s South Side.

At the Oak Brook location of G Skin & Beauty Institute, which operates four Chicago area sites, Emily Contine said she spent much of her time in front of a screen, watching and playing instructional videos and games for her esthetician program.

She and her mother took out more than $10,000 in loans — she also got nearly $5,000 through a Pell federal grant for low-income students — so she could pass the time many days just racking up the required number of hours. She said it was “a free-for-all … just a classroom full of girls just chatting with each other.”

With no job currently lined up, Contine said, “I’m terrified. I don’t know how I’m supposed to pay off all this money.”

Representatives for G Skin did not respond to WBEZ’s requests for comment.

An attempt at accountability

Many programs in Illinois and across the country are at risk of losing federal funding due to their poor student outcomes. A regulation, known as the “gainful employment rule” and going into effect July 1, evaluates schools on two metrics: whether their graduates leave with manageable debt, and whether they earn more than a high-school graduate between 25 and 34 years old. If a school fails to pass either metric for two out of every three years, they lose access to federal grants and loans.

Had the rule been in effect in 2019 — the year with the most up-to-date federal data — as many as 32 cosmetology, esthetician, nail tech and barber programs in Illinois would have failed. That’s every single program in Illinois with graduating classes large enough to be subject to the gainful employment rule.

Carolyn Fast, with the nonpartisan think-tank The Century Foundation, said the rule could ensure that “billions of [federal] dollars going to cosmetology programs [are] actually going to programs that are leading to good results.”

The industry has vehemently opposed the regulation, even suing the federal government, saying it does not factor in unreported income, in the form of cash payments and tips common in the beauty industry, as well as the part-time schedules of the industry’s workers. But Fast said that even accounting for those numbers would not help the cosmetology schools’ failure rate.

The Illinois Association of Cosmetology Schools, which represents many beauty programs, did not respond to requests for comment.

Education advocates have recommended lowering the number of required hours for licensing and even funding cosmetology schools through federal workforce programs, effectively making training free or low-cost. Others have suggested expanding less expensive community and city college programs to more locations.

Fast said nearly 90% of cosmetology students are women, and most are disproportionately people of color and low-income.

IMG_7987.jpg

Mileena Moss wishes she hadn’t gone to a for-profit school at all and had just looked for another job when she was laid off last year.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang/WBEZ

This rings true for Mileena Moss. She is relieved to have found a new job at a bank in April, and hopes to someday take the license exam to do lashes from her home on evenings and weekends. But she worries for her classmates, many of them young Black and brown single mothers.

She calls her time at Tricoci “a big scam — a huge scam.”

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities Desk. Amy Qin is a data reporter at WBEZ.

WBEZ engagement editor Al Keefe and engagement producer Steven Arroyo contributed to this report.

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