25 Best Associate in Cosmetology Programs 2021

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.

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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.


Question Answer
What is cosmetology? Cosmetology refers to the study of beauty treatments, such as nail treatments, facials, hairstyling, and hair removal.
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.
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.
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.

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.

Barbers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists
Bottom 10% Median Hourly Wage Top 10%
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

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European Wax Center Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Students who are currently enrolled in an accredited esthetics or cosmetology program in the United States can apply. Applicants must submit a before-and-after eyebrow transformation photo.

Amount: $2,000

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Health and Beauty Esthetics Scholarship

Who Can Apply: EstheticianEDU.org 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

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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

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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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