Find A Cosmetology School In Your State
Cosmetology Degree vs. Diploma: How to Chose
Not all beauty programs offer the same level of schooling, and it’s important that you know what your career objectives might be before you search for and compare beauty schools. All 50 states plus Washington D.C. require you to meet a minimum number of training hours at a cosmetology school in order to take the licensing exam and get your license. The number of training hours required varies by state, ranging from about 1,500 to 2,000 hours, according to the American Academy of Cosmetology Schools (AACS).
Cosmetology programs offer two different paths to complete your training program: a certificate or diploma program, and an associate degree. Diploma or certificate programs base their curriculum on the number of training hours the state requires for licensure. So, for example, if your state requires 1,600 training hours to become licensed, then your certificate program will also require 1,600 hours of instruction and training for you to graduate.
Associate degree programs, on the other hand, usually convert the state’s training hour requirements into credit hours. So, for example, in Colorado you are required to complete 1,800 training hours in a diploma or certificate program, which translates to 60 credit hours in an associate degree program.
Both types of programs take about two years to complete. The main difference between associate degree programs and certificate programs is that associate degree programs include classes in variety of subjects outside of cosmetology.
For any associate degree, you’ll be taking general education courses such as math, English, science, or history. You will take electives that may include, for example, business or communication courses. Though much of your time will be in classes not directly related to the beauty business, the purpose of an associate degree is to better equip you for management jobs, entrepreneurship, or other career paths that you could eventually pursue that may call for a more well-rounded skillset. There are currently no states that require you to earn an associate degree in order to practice as a cosmetologist.
Make sure any program you choose attend is registered with your state’s department of education. Being registered indicates the program meets the minimum state requirements for you to obtain your cosmetology license. If you plan to apply for federal financial aid it is also important that the program you select is accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, which is different from being registered with the state department of education.
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Alternatives to Full Cosmetology Programs
When beauty schools say they offer a full cosmetology program, this generally refers to the study of hair styling, skin care, nail care, and makeup in one comprehensive program. There are related courses of study—some that can be completed more quickly and perhaps more inexpensively—that may be enough for the job you want.
An esthetician license usually requires fewer hours of training than a cosmetology license. Whether you should pursue an esthetician program or a cosmetology program depends on what you would like to be able to do after you graduate.
Esthetician training programs focus on the treatment and beautification of skin. You may have the option of specializing in certain areas of esthetics, such as microdermabrasion, deep exfoliation, chemical peels, and extractions.
Makeup artistry, including eyelash tinting, eyebrow tinting, and eyelash extensions, is usually included in an esthetics curriculum, making esthetician programs a popular choice with aspiring makeup artists.
Learn more about esthetics programs here.
Nail Tech Programs
If you love doing nails and know that's the area of cosmetology you want to focus on, you may want to consider a specialized nail tech school. In order to become a nail technician, you must complete a certain number of hours of classroom and practical instruction by an approved program. State regulatory boards set the requirements for each state. Most programs can be completed in three to nine months.
In your nail technology courses generally cover how to give manicures, pedicures and artificial nail treatments. You'll also take courses in sanitation and hygiene, nail disorders and diseases, nail tips, nail wraps, and nail art. Many programs also offer classes geared toward salon ownership.
Once you complete your program, most states require you to pass a state board exam or NIC (National Institute of Cosmetology) exam. Once you've passed the exam, you can apply for a nail technician license. Fees vary by state.
Some states require you to renew your license. Time frames for renewal vary from one to three years. If you forget to renew, most states will require you to take the exam again.
Hair Design Focus
In some states, the Board of Cosmetology offers standalone hair design licensure. The benefit of earning your license in only hair care is that you can focus on hair and will therefore most likely have fewer requirements for obtaining your license. On the other hand, if you enroll in a full cosmetology program, you will learn skin, nail, and makeup skills as well, which might make you more qualified for jobs that require a broader set of cosmetology training.
Financial Aid for Beauty School
A common challenge among cosmetology students is figuring out how to pay for schooling. There are several ways to fund your program:
Student loans. For you to apply for federal financial aid, the cosmetology school must be an accredited institution through a U.S. Department of Education-approved accreditation agency. Regardless of a school’s accreditation, students have the option to apply for private loans, though fewer borrower protections exist for those who take out private loans and the terms may not be as favorable.
Grants and scholarships. These forms of financial aid are the most desirable because they do not have to be repaid. Look for scholarships for prospective beauty students (such as Beauty School Directory’s own scholarship), but don’t stop there—there are many scholarships available that are unrelated to your chosen field of study. You may qualify based on your personal circumstance or your community affiliations.
Employer sponsorship. In some instances, employers in the beauty industry will be willing to help pay for beauty school in exchange for the graduate working with that employer for a certain length of time after graduating and getting licensed.
Questions to Ask When Researching Programs
When choosing a cosmetology school, there is certain information you should gather in order to make an educated decision. Here are just a few questions we recommend that you ask each school you contact before making a decision:
- Do you offer a comprehensive cosmetology program?
- How long does it take to complete the cosmetology program?
- Do you offer full-time or part-time cosmetology classes?
- Can you start in a diploma or certificate program and move into an associate-degree program?
- Do you offer any accelerated programs to reduce the time students are in school?
- Where do your students go on to work after graduation? Do most of them get jobs right away?
- How large are most classes?
Check out our How to Choose a Beauty School guide for a complete list of questions to ask cosmetology admissions representatives.
Collecting all the cosmetology school information you can up front will help you make an educated decision about which school is right for you. It may seem overwhelming at first, but ask all the admission people all the questions you need to so that you feel confident and comfortable choosing the right school for you, and be sure you understand what is required of you to get your license of choice.
Frequently Asked Questions about Cosmetology Programs
About Cosmetology as a Profession
What is Cosmetology?
Cosmetology is a field in the beauty industry that encompasses a wide range of hair, skin, and cosmetic services. Traditionally, cosmetologists are thought of as hair stylists, makeup artists, or nail technicians. However, other growing areas such as laser hair removal and permanent makeup are part of cosmetology too.
What Does A Cosmetologist Do?
A cosmetologist is a licensed beauty professional who works in one or more fields related to hair, skin, and cosmetic services.
Cosmetologist Job Description
Average Cosmetologist Salaries
Cosmetology Career Options
Cosmetologists perform several services throughout their day, depending on their role. If your focus is hairstyling and cutting, you may juggle clients that require the latest coloring, cuts and styles, as well as curling, weaves, extensions, or other hair services.
What It's Like to Attend Cosmetology School
What do You Learn in Cosmetology School?
The main components of cosmetology and beauty programs include:
- Cosmetology (hair, skin, nails, makeup)
- Hair design
- Nail technician
- Permanent makeup
- Hair braiding
Earning a cosmetology diploma or degree will generally qualify you for foundational skills in all these areas. Cosmetology students learn how to choose and apply these services for clients through a variety of learning styles, including in-class lectures, textbooks, hands-on training in student salons, and in some schools, online portals for knowledge-based courses.
In hair-focused courses, cosmetology students learn the basics and eventually proceed to advanced cutting and styling techniques. You should seek programs that will help you understand the latest trends, coloring, and other services clients ask for but also fundamental skills that will never go out of style. You’ll also learn about salon products, because part of being a cosmetologist entails understanding the retail aspect of the job and contributing to additional salon or spa revenue.
Makeup classes typically teach you common techniques for most occasions, including bridal and special event makeup. You might learn some basic theatrical or special effects makeup, though if your career goal is to be a theatrical makeup artist or work in special effects for film or television, you should seek additional training.
Nail tech classes include instruction on how to provide manicures, pedicures, and other nail services. While you can find standalone nail tech programs, cosmetology programs include these courses too.
The official cosmetology curriculum varies from state to state, but a beauty school student should graduate with a thorough knowledge of all aspects of the beauty industry. Most students are also permitted to specialize in a specific area or service.
To work in more specialized fields such as electrolysis or certain types of makeup artistry, you will need to take that specific type of training program. Some beauty schools offer additional programs in related areas, such as:
- Massage therapy
- Laser training
- Salon management
- Teacher training
- Fashion design
How Long is Cosmetologist Training?
State beauty license requirements vary by state, so the length of the training program may also vary slightly by state. On average, it takes students 9 to 15 months to graduate from a cosmetology program. Many schools offer flexible scheduling that allows you to take night or weekend classes to accommodate work and family life, so part-time students may take longer to graduate than full-time students would. Other programs are integrating some online courses into their curriculum to provide even more schedule flexibility.
Our 2012 survey of all the licensing boards across the U.S. shows that most states require 1,600 training hours on average to get licensed, but some states require as few as 1,000 hours and other require as many as 2,300 training hours. Take a look at our state cosmetology license requirements page to find out more recent licensing information, or contact the licensing department in your state to check for up-to-date requirements.
General Licensing Requirements for the Beauty Industry
Is There a Difference Between Beauty School and Cosmetology School?
The terms "beauty school" and "cosmetology school" are often used in the same context and essentially mean the same thing regarding cosmetology education. Similarly, some institutions are called "cosmetology schools,” while others may be referred to as "cosmetology colleges" or "cosmetology academies," but there is no difference between these designations.
How Can I Find and Compare Cosmetology Schools?
There are many things you need to consider when choosing the best beauty school program for you. When researching schools, you may want to ask:
- Does this cosmetology program meet your state’s license requirements for your preferred career? Is the curriculum aligned with your desired profession?
- Is the program approved by your state’s Board of Cosmetology?
- Do the financial aid options meet your needs?
- Does the class schedule fit your current personal and work schedule?
- How does the program facilitate training hours?
- What kinds of career services does the school offer?
Take a peek at our comprehensive “How to Choose a Beauty School” checklist.
We recommend speaking with three or four cosmetology schools to make sure you choose the right one for you.
Applying to and Attending Cosmetology School
What are the Requirements to Enroll in Cosmetology School?
Most beauty and cosmetology schools require a high school diploma or a GED equivalent to enroll, but check with the state in which you plan to enroll to be sure, and always contact the school directly to find out their unique regulations. The minimum age required to enroll in school varies from state to state.
How Much do Cosmetologist Training Programs Cost?
Each cosmetology school is now required to offer a net price calculator somewhere on their website that helps you calculate the estimated total costs of your diploma. This is very helpful, as cosmetology school tuition costs vary depending on the types of courses, hours of instruction needed, location of the school, as well as their facilities and equipment. For example, the Carsten Institute in New York City estimates your total fees for attending their program will be around $16,475, including textbooks and supplies. On the higher end, the Glen Burnie-Baltimore school in Maryland estimates your total fees for tuition and school supplies to be around $28,416.
Be sure to check with your school and use their net price calculator to determine your probable costs.
Online Cosmetology Programs
Can I Attend Beauty School all Online, Without Going to a Campus?
No, not currently. Although many knowledge-based subjects can be successfully translated into an online delivery format, there are many skills that require hands-on practice and repeat practical training in order to pass the practical portion of the board exams. All states currently require the majority or all beauty training hours to occur in the classroom, not online. Because of this, much of cosmetology school must still occur on campus.
Are Online Cosmetology Programs as Good as In-Person Programs?
There’s no such thing as a 100% online cosmetology program that qualifies you for a license. That said, there’s a substantial portion of any cosmetology curriculum that doesn’t require in-person training. More schools these days are moving toward offering portions of their training online, particularly theory and “book work.” The trend of increasing online learning in cosmetology education follows the lead of many medical and healthcare degrees offering distance learning courses in knowledge-based subjects, such as anatomy and chemistry.
In fact, NACCAS (one of the accrediting bodies for cosmetology schools) bylaws allows up to half of an accredited program to be delivered in an online format.
Beauty schools that have invested in the online course delivery infrastructure for some portion of its curriculum may offer greater flexibility for many beauty students who are juggling busy lives and existing jobs. However, some states’ boards of cosmetology do not allow for online curricula as part of approved cosmetology programs, so be sure to ask the school or check directly with your state board about the rules.