Cosmetology School vs. College: Which One Is Right for You?

In high school, all your friends asked you to fix their hair and wanted your advice about makeup. You weren't just good at it; you loved it. Going to beauty school seemed like the natural next step. But now people are asking if you're sure that's what you really want to do.

You also might be listening to friends talk about their plans for college, and now you're wondering if maybe you should rethink things. Maybe it would be smart to get a traditional degree instead?

The truth is, getting a degree might be the right thing for some people, but it might not be the right thing for you. People who follow their passion and do what they love are usually more successful and have happier lives. That said, it never hurts to explore your options. On this page, you'll find information that may be helpful as you weigh cosmetology school vs. college.

READ MORE: Tips for Choosing the Right School for You

What is Life Like at Different Types of Colleges?

Conventional colleges and universities often focus on academics over life and job skills, which means spending much of your time in a classroom, listening to an instructor, taking notes, and studying. There are books to read, papers to write, and exams to take.

Some people choose to attend community colleges because they're not sure what they want to study or because these institutions are usually less expensive than four-year options. The classes you'd take at a community college are similar to those required during the first two years at a university, so some learners choose to transfer those community college credits to four-year schools in pursuit of their bachelor's degrees.

Cosmetology school is different. While there will be time spent in lecture halls learning theory, science, and other topics related to the field, much more time is spent doing hands-on training. You'll be learning basics of the trade, like how to roll, blow dry, cut, and style hair, perform skin care techniques, and more.

Follow featured student, Ashley, around and learn what a day in cosmetology school is like.

What Degrees Can I Get at Different Colleges?

Community colleges offer associate degrees that usually take two years. They also have certificate programs that may take anywhere from a few months to a year or more to finish. You can choose to earn an Associate of Arts (A.A.) degree, which will involve more liberal arts courses; an Associate of Science (A.S.), which will include more math and science courses; or an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.), which, like a cosmetology degree, will emphasize practical skills to prepare you for the workforce. All of these will involve general education courses, which may not be directly related to your major.

Traditional colleges and universities offer bachelor's degree programs that typically take four years of full-time study to complete. Like associate degrees, you can earn an arts- or science-focused version, both of which will involve a good deal of general education classes in addition to your major-specific coursework. If you hope to earn an advanced degree, you will generally need a bachelor's to begin work on your master's or doctorate. These programs typically take two and four or more years to complete, respectively. Master's and doctoral programs focus almost exclusively on topics related to your chosen field and allow you to achieve mastery in the area.

Cosmetology programs allow you to earn certification and/or licensure in various areas of the field. A full cosmetology program, which will enable you to perform a variety of techniques and work in such places as spas and salons, will usually take less than two years to complete if attending full time. Other programs, such as nail technician or esthetician, often take less time to complete.

What are the Costs of Different Degrees?

The cost of going to school is an important consideration. There can be differences in the prices of different degrees and even for the same degree at various institutions.

If you think you can't afford to go to school, don't give up hope. You may be able to find a scholarship, but even if you can't, financial help is available. Student loans can help with more than tuition and fees. Most of the time, they can also be used to help with living expenses. Of course, you have to repay them (with interest), but considering the earning power gained and the value of being able to do what you really want to do, many people consider it a trade worth making.

The chart below provides an estimate of average costs and debt incurred. Cosmetology refers to a full cosmetology program. Specialty programs—nail technician, makeup artist, colorist, etc.—may cost less.  

  Time in School Average Tuition and Fees Average Debt
Cosmetology 1,500-1,600 hours (less than two years) $13,700 for the entire program < $10,000
Community College Two years $3,243/year (in-state) - $7,971/year (out-of-state)
(figures from 2017-2018)
<$10,000 (varies by type of institution) (2019)
Four Year Institution Four years $9,037/year (public, in-state) - $25,657/year (public, out-of-state)
$30,731/year (private)
(figures from 2017-2018)
$28,650 (2018)

You may be able to save money if you take an online program. Though it is not possible to earn a cosmetology degree entirely online, there are many options for online associate and bachelor’s degree programs.

If going to school full time isn't a decision you're able or ready to make, you don't have to give up the idea altogether. Many people continue their education on a part-time basis. This is true for students who attend a university, beauty school, or community college.

Life after Graduation

Most people find that continuing their education has a positive impact on their earnings, even when they have student loans to repay. However, the state of the economy affects salaries and the availability of jobs.

Poet Maya Angelou said, “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” It's good advice. Making money their primary motivation has led many people into unhappiness. However, the reality is that having enough money to pay the bills and live without high anxiety is also important. Here's some additional information from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to factor into your decision.

  Median Pay Career Outlook
Cosmetology $24,830 8% annual growth
Associate degree $52,830 11% from 2016 to 2026
Bachelor degree $72,830 10% growth 2016-2026 for 174 occupations that typically require a bachelor's degree
Master’s degree $68,000/year. 17% growth for 2016-2026 (fastest for any education level)
Doctoral degree $103,820 13% growth for 2016-2026

NOTE: For degree holders, both salary and career outlook vary significantly depending on the career field, geographic area, and level of education. Some fields require additional licensing. Additional information for specific careers can be found at

Some people begin their careers almost immediately upon graduation from their chosen programs, while others continue their education. Those who want to pursue additional education must factor in the income lost each year while they're in school as an additional cost for their education, assuming they attend full time. It is not unusual for even advanced degrees to be pursued online, in the evenings, or part-time. 

What Degree Should I Get?

Deciding to attend cosmetology school or choosing to pursue a degree at any level is a very personal decision. Only you know what interests you most, what commitments you're willing to make, and how your choice will satisfy your wants, needs, and goals.

If you aren't sure what you want to do, that's fine. It's a tough decision. Take some time to think about it. You can get a job and work while you do some research and weigh your options.

If you're leaning toward a career in cosmetology, but aren't interested in all aspects of it, you can specialize in the area(s) that interest you and that you enjoy most. The important thing is to do what you love.

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