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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists working in the United States in 2019 exceeded 722,000. These careers require only a postsecondary certificate. However, candidates for cosmetology positions can increase their hireability by obtaining additional education, such as an associate degree in cosmetology.

Cosmetology programs prepare students for careers as nail technicians, makeup artists, estheticians, and hairstylists. Individuals who enjoy working one-on-one with clients and who are passionate about helping others feel good often thrive in these roles. Cosmetology professionals often work on weekends and evenings, but they typically set their own schedules.

This guide lists the best cosmetology associate programs, explores common program requirements, and describes financial aid options for cosmetology students.


Q. What is cosmetology?

Cosmetology refers to the study of beauty treatments, such as nail treatments, facials, hairstyling, and hair removal.

Q. How long does it take to earn an associate degree in cosmetology?

Most full-time students earn their associate degree in cosmetology in two years. However, the time frame depends on the program format and credit requirements.

Q. What is the difference between a cosmetologist and an esthetician?

Cosmetologists can provide a variety of services, including makeup application, nail painting, and hairstyling and cutting. Estheticians focus on the skin's beauty and health.

Q. What is the difference between a cosmetologist and a barber?

Cosmetologists work on hair, skin, and nails. These professionals usually style and cut hair, most often women's hair. Barbers only cut hair and often work only with men's hair.

25 Best Associate in Cosmetology Programs 2021

Learners pursuing an associate degree in cosmetology should devote time and research to finding the right program. This list of the best and most affordable cosmetology associate programs can help students narrow their search. Prospective students can use this list as a starting point but should contact their school's admissions department for more detailed information.

  1. Central New Mexico Community College

    Albuquerque, NM



    Central New Mexico Community College is the largest two-year college in the state. The associate of applied science in cosmetology , delivered primarily on the Joseph Montoya campus, prepares students for state cosmetology licensure. Students can complete the degree's theoretical courses and labs in 4-5 terms. The program requires 62-63 credits and uses the Pivot Point curriculum, a leader in beauty education.

    Students complete limited general education courses in areas such as math and reading. Major courses cover cosmetology fundamentals, salon theory, skin/nail procedures, and hair services. Enrollees also learn about state cosmetology laws and regulations. All participants complete a practicum that pairs them with a licensed salon owner. The practicum exceeds the minimum 1,600 clock hours required for certification by the New Mexico Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists.

    Learners with a current New Mexico master barber or cosmetologist license receive credit for prior learning, which speeds up degree completion. Admission requires a high school diploma or the equivalent and SAT or ACT scores.

  2. Isothermal Community College

    Spindale, NC



    Isothermal Community College, part of the North Carolina Community College system, primarily serves residents in Rutherford and Polk counties. Learners pursuing the associate degree in cosmetology complete 75-76 credits using the Pivot Point cosmetology curriculum. An introductory course gives learners the study skills necessary for college success. Students take a limited number of general education courses, such as writing and inquiry and biology.

    The major examines topics like hair care, esthetics, manicure/nail technology, and contemporary hair design. Students also learn about hygiene, first aid, chemistry, and state laws and regulations. Learners take a series of courses covering the subjects on the state cosmetology licensing examination.

    Students learn in a simulated salon environment that gives them hands-on experience working with the public. One of the nation's best cosmetology associate programs, the program requires a high school or GED diploma and a placement test.

  3. Western Piedmont Community College

    Morganton, NC



    Part of the North Carolina Community College System, Western Piedmont Community College offers programs on a 300-acre campus in Morgantown. The associate in applied science in cosmetology prepares learners to sit for the State Board of Cosmetic Arts examination. The 67-credit program includes general education courses in subjects such as psychology and communication.

    Cosmetology courses cover topics such as hair coloring; manicure and nail technology; and hair, nail, and makeup design. Participants also learn how to run a business with coursework focused on small business management and personal finance. One course focuses on the efficient and competent delivery of salon services in preparation for the licensing examination and employment.

    Students learn in a simulated salon environment that gives them hands-on experience. Admission requires a high school or GED diploma and a placement test.

  4. Hutchinson Community College

    Hutchinson, KS



    Hutchinson Community College serves almost 5,000 students annually on a main campus in Hutchinson, Kansas. The school also operates off-campus sites. The 64-credit associate in applied science in cosmetology includes general education courses such as math and microcomputer applications. Major courses examine topics like basic haircutting, hair coloring, and trichology and shampoo techniques.

    Students learn about men's and women's hair design, wigs and long hair design, and chemistry and chemical texturizing. All students complete clinicals that give them hands-on experience providing various salon services. Learners also study Kansas laws, licensing, and ethics pertaining to cosmetology. The school's student success center offers complementary services such as tutoring and personal counseling.

    HutchCC offers a vibrant college life with more than 80 organizations on campus. Admission to the associate in cosmetology program requires a high school or GED diploma and a placement test, if applicable.

  5. San Juan College

    Farmington, NM



    San Juan College is one of New Mexico's largest community colleges. Students in the 64-68-credit associate of applied science in cosmetology - makeup/hair artist program learn how to provide salon services and use professional products and equipment in a functional salon environment. The degree prepares learners for New Mexico cosmetology licensure and entry-level employment.

    Students complete general education courses that apply to the cosmetology field. For instance, they learn how to communicate effectively and take a math course with principles relevant to health careers. The 48-credit major focuses on concepts such as makeup fundamentals, nail theory, manicuring/pedicuring, and hair design.

    During practicums, students provide services in a lab setting. Admission requires a high school or GED diploma and placement testing. The program admits students in the fall, spring, and summer.

  6. McDowell Technical Community College

    Marion, NC



    McDowell Technical Community College offers programs on a campus located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Marion, North Carolina. The 65-credit associate degree in cosmetology prepares learners for certification by the State Board of Cosmetic Arts. Students receive hands-on training in a simulated salon environment. A freshman course empowers students with the study skills necessary for college success.

    Participants learn how to provide an assortment of salon services, such as haircare, esthetics, nail care, and chemical processes. Students in one of North Carolina's best cosmetology associate programs also learn about specialized services such as electricity/light therapy and hair removal. Enrollees receive an overview of state and federal laws and regulations pertaining to their field. One course focuses on the concepts covered on the state licensing exam.

    Students in North Carolina pay the lowest tuition in the Southeast region. Admission requires a high school or GED diploma and placement testing.

  7. Rowan-Cabarrus Community College

    Salisbury, NC



    Rowan-Cabarrus Community College enrolls about 14,000 students annually. The 67-credit associate of applied science in cosmetology provides learners with the education and training necessary for certification by the State Board of Cosmetic Arts. Students can complete the degree in 4-5 semesters of full-time enrollment.

    Students complete general education courses in areas such as English and computers. From the first semester, faculty teach students how to provide basic salon services, such as shampooing, hair coloring, and haircutting. Advanced courses cover skincare, nail care, chemical restructuring, and contemporary designs. A social media marketing course gives students experience implementing social media marketing strategies for their business.

    In their final year, learners review the topics covered on the state's cosmetology licensing examination. Admission requires a high school or GED diploma and placement testing.

  8. Vincennes University

    Vincennes, IN



    The first college established in Indiana, Vincennes University is a comprehensive four-year college with 180 degrees delivered on two campuses. Students complete the associate of science career/tech on the Vincennes campus. The 60-credit program covers basic cosmetology skills such as shampooing, hair coloring, facials, and manicuring.

    Participants spend hundreds of hours developing their talents in the school's cosmetology studio. One course focuses exclusively on how to create a small business, exploring topics such as business feasibility, obtaining capital, franchising location, and insurance and owner liability. Students can complete the associate in cosmetology program in two years of full-time enrollment.

    Learners with a valid Indiana cosmetology license receive credit toward this associate in cosmetology degree. Admission requires a high school or GED diploma.

  9. Wake Technical Community College

    Raleigh, NC



    With six campuses, Wake Technical Community College maintains a significant footprint in North Carolina. The school's associate of applied science in cosmetology requires 64 credits that students complete on the Southern Wake campus in Raleigh. The program prepares students to sit for the State Board of Cosmetic Arts exam. Faculty introduce students to basic cosmetology concepts such as safety, first aid, hygiene, and sanitation.

    The more advanced curriculum teaches students about haircutting and design, skincare, manicuring, and electricity/light therapy. One course focuses exclusively on the methods and techniques used in contemporary design. Learners get comprehensive haircare and skincare experience in a simulated salon setting.

    In preparation for licensure, participants review cosmetology concepts covered on the state licensing examination. Admission to one of North Carolina's best cosmetology associate programs requires a high school or GED diploma and placement testing.

  10. Rend Lake College

    Ina, IL



    Rend Lake College consistently ranks among the nation's top 150 community colleges. The school's 100 programs include an associate of applied science in cosmetology . The 65-credit degree prepares learners to sit for the Illinois cosmetologist licensure exam.

    The program covers topics like hair design, shampooing, and hair styling. Students learn how to provide manicures, pedicures, facials and facial makeup, and hair removal. They spend a significant portion of their studies practicing services and post-service procedures in the school's studio. Participants also demonstrate their talents during a supervised internship at a professional salon.

    Students in this associate in cosmetology program attend class eight hours a day, five days a week. Admission requires a high school or GED diploma and placement testing.

What Do Cosmetologists Do?

Cosmetologists can perform a variety of tasks, including styling and cutting, giving facials, applying makeup, and doing manicures. Some cosmetology programs cover more of these skills than others.

Many professionals in the field specialize in 1-2 areas. For example, a cosmetologist may style and cut hair and offer hair-removal services. Another cosmetologist may focus on nail services.

Many cosmetologists are self-employed, while others work as employees at spas, salons, and resorts. Makeup artists may even work on studio sets or at photoshoots.

Cosmetology professionals need technical skills, such as haircutting techniques and safe application methods for hot wax. However, they must also possess strong interpersonal communication skills to build a loyal client base. Self-employed cosmetologists often need marketing and accounting skills to run their small business.

Cosmetologists must stay current on beauty trends. For this reason, many of these professionals read beauty magazines and blogs. They often follow industry influencers on social media to stay apprised of styles clients may request.

Career and Salary Outlook for Cosmetologists

The table below highlights the median salary for barbers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists. However, factors such as location, experience, and specialization can impact a professional's earning potential. For example, hairstylists generally earn different salaries than cosmetologists, and professionals with significant experience typically earn higher salaries.

Additionally, earning potential depends on the individual's place of employment. Hairstylists who work in salons may earn less than self-employed stylists who set their own rates. Similarly, makeup artists located on the East Coast may charge more than those in the Midwest. Learners can research current job listings to become familiar with typical salaries in their region.

Career Salary Potential
Career Bottom 10% Median Annual Salary Top 10%
Barbers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists Less than $9.76 $14.50 More than $27.23

Source: BLS

Accreditation for Cosmetology Programs

Students researching schools should pay attention to accreditation status. Accreditation indicates that a school or program regularly passes quality assessments from a third-party organization. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation oversee these third-party accrediting agencies.

Institutions can receive regional or national accreditation. National accreditation agencies typically evaluate trade schools , including cosmetology schools. The National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences (NACCAS) is one of the leading accrediting agencies for cosmetology schools and programs. More than 1,000 schools in the United States hold NACCAS accreditation.

Many employers and bachelor's programs only recognize degrees earned from accredited institutions. To check a school or program's accreditation status, learners can use the ED's searchable database .

Courses in a Cosmetology Program

Associate in cosmetology programs usually require about 60 credits, or 20 courses. Some cosmetology programs allow learners to tailor the curriculum to their career goals. For example, cosmetology students may select from emphasis options in hair styling, nail grooming, and makeup application.

Before choosing an associate in cosmetology program, prospective students should make sure the program's content matches their career goals. Reading through the program's course descriptions can help learners determine whether the curriculum meets their academic needs. Students in cosmetology associate programs commonly take the courses below. However, course availability and content vary by program.

  • Safety and Hygiene

    Enrollees learn how to apply safety and hygiene precautions. Learners discover best practices for cleaning equipment and detecting contagious nail and skin conditions. This course also covers basic first aid procedures to treat small wounds that may occur during cosmetology treatments.
  • Foundations for Nail Technicians

    This foundational course focuses on nail services. Students learn basic techniques for giving pedicures, manicures, and hand and foot massages. This course covers different types of painting techniques, such as dip and gel application. Students also practice applying acrylic nails to models.
  • Makeup Application

    Learners practice applying cosmetics, and they explore color theory to help them make educated color choices for clients. Students gain experience applying foundation, blush, lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara. Students also learn how to properly clean reusable brushes and makeup pallets.
  • Facial Basics

    This class teaches students how to apply facial steams and masks. Learners also practice performing facial massages and extractions. Coursework covers common skin ailments, such as acne, and students learn which products can help achieve certain results. The class also covers which skincare ingredients interact well and poorly with others.
  • Cutting, Styling, and Coloring Hair

    Many cosmetology programs include multiple classes on techniques for cutting, styling, and coloring hair. Learners explore which haircuts flatter each face shape. Students practice mixing hair dye, properly using shears and scissors, and cutting a variety of hair textures.

Financial Aid for Cosmetology Programs

Cosmetology students attending an accredited school can qualify for various types of financial aid. Learners should begin by completing the FAFSA to determine their eligibility for federal financial aid, including grants and loans. The FAFSA form takes about 40 minutes to complete and requires students to provide their financial information or that of their guardian.

Students may qualify for need-based grants or subsidized loans from the federal government. Grants do not require repayment, and subsidized loans do not begin accruing interest while the recipient is in school. While unsubsidized loans begin accruing interest immediately, recipients do not need to make payments until six months after graduation.

Students can review this guide for more detailed information about financial aid opportunities for distance learners.

Scholarships for Cosmetology

The cost of earning an associate in cosmetology varies by school. However, students can often minimize their debt by applying for scholarships. Learners should allow adequate time for completing scholarship applications, since application requirements often include essays and recommendation letters. The five scholarships below are available exclusively to cosmetology students.

Beauty Schools Directory Beauty & Wellness Professionals Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Twice a year, Beauty Schools Directory offers this scholarship to one student attending an eligible cosmetology or esthetician school. Applicants must submit an essay about their inspiration for pursuing a career in beauty and wellness.

Amount: $2,500

European Wax Center Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Twice a year, Beauty Schools Directory offers this scholarship to one student attending an eligible cosmetology or esthetician school. Applicants must submit an essay about their inspiration for pursuing a career in beauty and wellness.

Amount: $2,500

Health and Beauty Esthetics Scholarship

Who Can Apply: offers this scholarship to learners studying esthetics. Applicants must be enrolled in a degree or certificate program and need a minimum 3.5 GPA.

Amount: $500

Rosy Rewards Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Students enrolled in a cosmetology, barber, or esthetics program in the U.S. or Canada can apply. Applicants must submit a recommendation letter, a resume, and two photos that display their talent.

Amount: $12,000

The Great Scholarship Program

Who Can Apply: Great Clips funds this scholarship to support cosmetology students. Applicants must answer essay questions about why they wish to become a cosmetologist and which services they plan to offer.

Amount: $250-$1,500

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