They say everything is bigger in Texas. Apparently cosmetology is no exception.
Last month, well after many community colleges around the country had dropped such programs, Lone Star College’s North Harris campus bucked the trend and opened a school of cosmetology  with the help of Farouk Systems , a Houston-based manufacturer known for its CHI brand of hair care products. Officials from the college and the manufacturer argue that the new school gives students an entry way into a field they consider “recession-proof” and a competitive advantage over students who flock to cosmetology trade schools, many of which do not offer associate degrees and accompanying business training.
Steve Head, president of the North Harris campus, admitted that opening a cosmetology school “seemed to run counter to what a lot of colleges are doing right now.” After all, community colleges these days like to boast about their new offerings in robotics or health fields or green technologies. But he is not apologetic about it. Cosmetology was one of the college’s original offerings, has been around for 37 years, and consistently maintains a waiting list for entry.
If anything, Head thinks of the new school and its relationship with Farouk — which is training college instructors and giving the school products and equipment to use — as adding value to an already popular program at the college. Students can earn a one-year certificate or an associate of applied science in cosmetology, both of which now require classes on management and marketing. Additionally, students now learn about the chemistry and environmental aspects of cosmetology, including but not limited to the development and proliferation of ammonia-free hair care products.
“We’re trying to separate us from all of the other cosmetology schools out there,” Head said. “We’re trying to elevate the job for cosmetologists and turn it into a profession. It’s more than just cutting hair.”
Head also vehemently defends the viability of cosmetology as a profession, especially in today’s sour economy.
“Cosmetology is one of those programs that’s recession-proof,” Head said. “In every little shopping area around here, everyone has a hairstyling place. They’re all over the place. [A cosmetology credential] may be terminal in a sense, but we’re taking a much broader approach. For instance, if someone wants to come back and be a manager, he or she will be taking basic accounting with us, and we’re articulating that with a degree.”
This broad-based approach, Head argues, sets the college’s new school apart from myriad cosmetology trade schools in the area. Though no entry-level cosmetologist needs an associate degree to practice — just a state-issued license — Head believes the extra business training will help those with such a degree get a leg up. And then there is the matter of cost. Twelve credits at Lone Star costs a mere $640 — much less than the trade schools charge.
Still, Head said his college was not exactly taking aim at for-profit institutions by opening the new school of cosmetology. To him, the opening is just reflective of the program’s popularity and the college’s recent growth spurt; the enrollment at North Harris has ballooned by 37 percent in just two years to around 16,000 students.
“We have so many programs and students, if this program wasn’t healthy we would probably just move into another area, regardless of what the for-profits are doing,” Head said. “If we weren’t in this growth mode, we would not have done this. We would be worried about the money to sustain it.”
Head said he has not heard any resistance to the cosmetology expansion from faculty in the college’s more traditional disciplines. For one thing, the cosmetology school generates at least $85,000 more than it costs to run — around $237,000. Also, the school is receiving no special funds from Farouk, simply in-kind training and products.
As to whether graduates of the cosmetology school will have jobs upon completion, North Harris campus officials are optimistic. C.C. Sutphen, a campus spokeswoman, noted that, according to the latest data submitted to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, three-fourths of those earning a credential from North Harris’s cosmetology program in 2008 either were employed in the field or had gone on to further higher education. Sutphen and Head anticipate these figures will only improve with the expansion of the program to a full-fledged school. (Enrollment, too, is set to expand in time; currently, the school enrolls 45 students annually and maintains a waiting list.)
“I understand that Farouk is in this to make money,” said Head, noting that the company will benefit from product association and could potentially hire the new school's graduates to do corporate training for them. “For us, it’s about a higher purpose and providing our citizens with an education and a career. They didn’t have to give us a dime. We wanted to be associated with a very successful company in our service area.”
Farouk’s products, which include CHI and BioSilk, are well-known in the market. The company is also known, however, for its outspoken founder. Farouk Shami , head of the company that bears his name, made headlines earlier this year for a series of gaffes — including a controversial remark about race and work ethic , giving credence to some 9/11 conspiracy theories  and a campaign ad featuring a rap song  that was lampooned in political circles — in his failed campaign to win the Democratic nomination for Texas governor.
Farouk officials believe their new partnership with the North Harris campus could serve as a new nationwide model for cosmetology training, with business training and degree completion at its heart. Lisa Decker, Farouk’s director of education, said she thinks more community colleges will upgrade their cosmetology programs to include the awarding of an associate degree with business training; she also said that she hopes more institutions will consider partnering with Farouk.
Still, the world of cosmetology training is very much the domain of proprietary trade schools, and some on the for-profit side do not see their relevance fading or their share of the training market in danger of being taken over by community colleges any time soon.
Kalli Blackwell Peterman, chief operating officer of Beauty Basics, Inc. — a company that owns a string of Aveda Institutes , independently operated trade schools for cosmetics manufacturer the Aveda Corporation — noted that she has only seen one community college start cosmetology programs in the ten markets in which her company operates. In those markets, predominantly in the southeast, there is only one pre-existing cosmetology program.
“History has shown us that students will continue to enroll in our program due to the practical/real world experience that we provide,” Peterman wrote in an e-mail. “While the community college tuition may be less expensive, students are unable to practice and perfect their techniques due to the fact that community colleges do not simulate ‘salon-like’ environments. Our graduates spend their time developing not only their technical skills, but also refining their consultation and retail skills; this practical experience gives our graduates a distinct competitive advantage when entering the marketplace.”
Peterman added that offering associate degrees does not necessarily give community college cosmetology students an advantage.
“It's not necessary to have an associate degree in order to excel in this industry,” Peterman wrote. “Success in this industry is defined by a graduate's ability to connect with their guests, provide a technically sound service, focus on providing retail solutions that will meet the guest's needs, and create an environment that guests want to return to. All of these things are areas of focus for our students. … With all the regulatory changes that are happening in our industry, I'm surprised that community colleges are investing in new programs such as cosmetology. We've operated cosmetology schools for 14 years and in my experience, those schools with a single focus are the ones that excel."