Barber school leaves many loaded with debt. Some Tennessee institutions are trying to change that.

For years, barbers and cosmetologists have not only created a safe place for Black people to gather, but have also used the profession to forge a path to entrepreneurship and financial independence. 

But Tennessee regulations require 1,500 hours of training — about three times longer than required for police officers. That, coupled with high tuition at local barber and cosmetology schools and inadequate public funding and financial aid, has turned that career path into a high-debt obstacle course that too often ends in financial ruin.

The majority of students attending for-profit barber and cosmetology schools — often their only choice because of a long waiting list at the city’s only public program — end up borrowing from the federal government to pay tuition. 

A disproportionate share of those borrowers struggles to pay back their loans. In fact, for-profit barber and cosmetology schools make up eight of the 10 schools nationwide with the highest student loan default rates, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Even among this troubled group, Memphis stands out. One Memphis school, Vibe Barber College, ranks fifth-worst in the nation with 61% of its students defaulting within three years of leaving school. 

Defaulting on a federal student loan, defined as failing to make a payment in nine months, is financially ruinous. Borrowers are hounded by collectors, who can worsen the debt load by adding fees. Collectors can garnish wages and even withhold tax refunds. Default ruins a borrower’s credit score, making it difficult or expensive to get home or car loans in the future.

Of course, solving the shortage of affordable and effective career training will take a long time and a huge investment. But as the economy emerges from the pandemic shutdown, and President Joe Biden’s administration attempts to address the issue of oppressive student debt, there are growing efforts to help Memphians achieve their dream of becoming a barber or cosmetologist without burdening them with unaffordable debts. 

Barbers University School in Memphis purposefully offers cheaper training and does not accept federal loans so that students can avoid debt traps. One of the instructors, 

Courtney Triggs, said having about $10,000 in student loan debt when he got his barbers license caused him and his wife to cut back on expenses and has kept him from pursuing a business loan to open up his own shop. 

“It’s all about the loans,” he said. “The loans are what are holding a lot of barbers back from being able to own their own shops and see the money that’s available to us to support our family comfortably.”

The dream

Soon after Emancipation, hair care became a source of financial independence for Black people.

“Self-sufficiency has been a key component of the meanings of Black freedom since slavery,” writes Quincy T. Mills, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, in his 2013 book “Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America.” “Barbershops have historically been one of the most accessible paths to business ownership and economic independence.”

For example, Madam C.J. Walker famously made hair products and became the nation’s first woman millionaire while employing an army of saleswomen. Alonzo Herndon became Atlanta’s first Black millionaire through a chain of barbershops across the city. 

Today, Black people are overrepresented in the barbering field. Though Black people make up about 12% of the U.S. population, the profession is about 25% Black

And local demand for trained hair stylists is above the national average. The U.S. Department of Labor expects a 7% increase in barber and cosmetologist jobs in the state by 2028, compared to a 2% decrease nationwide. The average barber in the U.S. makes just over $38,000 per year, or roughly $18 per hour full time, which is similar to Tennessee’s average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but that doesn’t include cash tips.

The barriers are high

To become a barber in Tennessee, students must complete 1,500 hours of training, which can take anywhere from 14 to 24 months. By comparison, police officers typically receive just under 500 hours of training, which in Tennessee is completed in about three months.

For barbers, a long training period means higher costs. The for-profit schools in Memphis charge up to $18,000 for tuition. 

The cost of attending barber schools
in Memphis

Prices, provided by the schools, includes tuition, supplies and books.

Note: All schools listed are for-profit colleges except Tennessee College of Applied Technology. Scholarships may be available. 

** School accepts federal financial aid

At Memphis’ only public program, Tennessee College of Applied Technology, or TCAT, the annual price for tuition, fees and books is about $5,400.

But the state has only provided enough funding to allow TCAT to serve 40 aspiring barbers per year. There are 80 people on the waiting list, a TCAT counselor said, which means students may have to delay their education for at least two years. 

As a result, eager students have little choice but to enroll in expensive for-profit schools, which have plenty of room, explained Bob Obrohta, who leads the Tennessee College Access and Success Network in Nashville.

“The student is sitting here saying, ‘I don’t want to wait for another year or two years trying to get into this TCAT program, I want to go to work now in this profession that I want to do,’” Obrohta said. 

Most students at for-profit colleges have little choice but to take out federal loans to pay the bulk of their tuition. These students are more likely to be people of color with low incomes. Three-quarters of for-profit college students take out loans, compared to one-fifth of community college students and just under half of students at four-year public colleges. 

Aspiring barbers and cosmetologists are at a high risk of not being able to pay back those loans, which come due six months after the student leaves school. The U.S. Department of Education estimated that the average 2019 graduate from Memphis barber and cosmetology schools that accept federal loans pay between $80 and $170 per month on a standard repayment plan. 

“You combine abysmal earnings with really high debt loads and you have a recipe for disaster.”

Amy Laitinen, director of higher education for New America

But it typically takes several years for barbers or cosmetologists to build up a profitable business or clientele. In the first two years after graduation, the typical graduate of a Memphis barber or cosmetology program makes about $16,000 a year, according to federal data on five area schools. (This likely doesn’t include unreported cash tips.) That translates to about $7.70 per hour working full time or $10.25 an hour working 30 hours per week. 

Whatever the actual earnings, it’s clear that for many students, they simply aren’t enough to cover the student loan payments. 

“It’s sort of a perverse outcome that federal financial aid, including loans, is supposed to help provide access to education to help increase their economic mobility,” said Amy Laitinen, the director of higher education for the liberal think tank New America. “And sometimes those loans end up doing the exact opposite.” 

“You combine abysmal earnings with really high debt loads and you have a recipe for disaster,” said Laitinen.

To prevent the problem from getting worse, local, state, and national leaders are working on student loan debt forgiveness, lower training costs and income-based loan repayment programs. 

Reducing loan burdens

An image of Barbers University School's front entrance.Barbers University School in Memphis’ Raleigh neighborhood opened in 2017. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50.

All federal student loan borrowers can apply for an income-driven repayment plan that will adjust monthly payments to typically 10% of a borrower’s discretionary income, which is income above a basic living budget. Borrowers who sign up for these plans and make their payments on time every month usually can have the remainder of their debt forgiven after 20 years.

But the program is notoriously difficult to navigate. Borrowers must reapply every year or get dropped from the program. And the federal government’s bureaucracy has been slow to approve forgiveness applications.

As a part of its pandemic response, the federal government suspended loan payments for all federal student and parent loans at least through Sept. 30. And Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has hinted that the pause may be extended further

But long-term relief may be on the horizon if Biden makes good on his campaign promise to back federal student loan forgiveness of $10,000. 

While he has yet to act on that promise, many advocates and elected officials are continuing to push for forgiveness. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, recently stalledconfirmation of Biden’s nominees for the U.S. Department of Education until his administration implements some student loan reform. 

Judith Scott-Clayton, a Columbia University associate professor, says forgiving a little would go a long way because the majority of people who fall behind on their loan payments owe less than $10,000

“It’s not necessarily about the amount that’s being borrowed,” said Scott-Clayton. “It’s about whether you have the capacity to repay even a small amount of debt.”

Free community college

Another popular option to reduce student debt has been the state’s free community college program, Tennessee Promise

In 2015, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to pay tuition costs for thousands of students headed to community college and public technical schools. After students exhausted other forms of scholarships and grants, the state kicks in the rest, or about $2,000 for the average student. Recent research shows that the program has dramatically reduced student debt. 

Since the state launched Tennessee Promise, the number of students taking out loans at community colleges decreased by about 40%. The average student’s debt load also decreased by about 32%, according to a study that the Journal of Higher Education published in April.

A row of Styrofoam mannequin headsMannequin heads are lined up at Barbers University. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

But the rising affordability of the public schools has attracted more applicants, leading to capacity issues and waitlists for job certification programs at the state’s technical schools, said Emily House, the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

“The capacity constraints are real in TCAT,” House explained. “A lot of that has to do with equipment. You can’t learn how to do automotive technology if you don’t have a car to work on.”

So, Tennessee plans to spend $80 million on equipment and building renovations for technical schools across the state to accommodate more students. The effect won’t be immediate as projects start in phases, but the hope is to significantly increase the number of students attending publicly funded trade schools. 

Cheaper training

Entrepreneurs are also trying to fill the vacuum. Jwan “Buck” Buckhalter founded Barbers University School in Memphis in 2017 so he could continue the tradition and train future business leaders.  

“I wanted people to understand it could be done. You can run a business. You can earn a living,” he said. “Let’s keep the barbering industry as strong as we possibly can.” 

Buckhalter has the cheapest regular tuition for barber training in Memphis, at $4,800, payable in monthly installments. (Bluff City Barber College recently halved their tuition to $3,000 to attract more students during the pandemic but will eventually raise the price again.) Students typically attend morning or evening classes as they work other jobs. 

Buckhalter, who has been a barber for 20 years, purposefully decided not to participate in federal student aid programs because he didn’t want to encourage students to borrow. He saw the toll that debt took on his colleagues. Buckhalter attended a school that offered low-cost tuition in New Orleans and wanted to offer the same opportunity in Memphis.

One student, Jerry Johnson, enrolled last year to fulfill the dream he’s had since he was 15 years old when he picked up his first set of clippers in high school cosmetology class. He says he lives for the moment his clients smile as they turn to the mirror and see their finished haircut. He even started a TikTok account to promote his work.

Student Jerry Johnson stands by the door of Barbers University School. Jerry Johnson is a former certified nurse assistant who switched to barbering as the pandemic made the medical field less attractive to him. He started at Barbers University School last summer. Photo by Brad Vest for MLK50

Johnson, 22, was previously a certified nurse assistant at an urgent care clinic but craved a career change as the pandemic began to take its toll on medical workers. If national salary averages hold true for him, he’ll make more money as a barber. He researched and called several area barber schools and started applying for scholarships. Taking out a loan was a possibility, but he hoped to avoid it. The decision was easy after he called Buckhalter during his work break and heard the cost. 

Compared to other area barber schools he had researched, “we’re learning the same material at a lower cost,” Johnson said. And for him, that leaves more money for helping take care of his girlfriend and her child as well as investing in his own career as he starts.

“I expect to make a good living once I receive my license. That’s the whole purpose of school: to better your future,” he said. 

Part of what has made the school affordable is its small size, Buckhalter said. The school currently has three instructors and 12 students. Another 12 have graduated and most of them passed their license exam. 

Buckhalter hopes to expand, but he worries that he won’t be able to without participating in federal student aid programs. He loses dozens of potential students every year who call and ask if the school accepts federal loans. But with federal loans come federal rules, including one that prohibits operation of a barbershop and a barber school in the same building, as Buckhalter does now. Getting a separate building would force him to raise tuition. 

“So now you ask yourself: Do I go for the money?” he said. “Or do I go for the cause and what I’m trying to accomplish?”

Written by Laura Faith Kebede. She is a Memphis freelance journalist and emerging public historian managing communications at the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Most recently, she was a reporter for Chalkbeat covering inequities in Memphis schools. 

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.


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