On a rainy day last week, a few dozen students were working in the back wing of Hays High School, carefully crafting updos on mannequins in the school’s salon. They were among the more than 170 students participating in a concentrated, 1,000-hour cosmetology licensing program Hays offers as part of its career and technical education programming. This cosmetology program prepares students to start working in salons as hairstylists, manicurists and skin care specialists immediately after high school graduation.

It’s also one of over 200 cosmetology programs the Texas Education Agency is considering eliminating.

Rahslyn Stallings, 17, is a senior at Hays who hopes to become a licensed cosmetologist at the end of the school year. Then she plans to start working as a hairstylist to pay her way through college, where she wants to study business. When asked what she’d be doing now without the cosmetology program, she said, “Honestly I have no idea. I got lucky.”

For some students in the “Hair by Hays” program, as it is known, cosmetology is “just a back up plan for if college doesn’t work,” said their instructor, Aimee Foster.

But for other students, “this is their way out,” Foster said. Her program “attracts kids that aren’t going to go to college,” she said, and gives them the skill set to pursue a career after graduation.

On Aug. 23, the TEA presented a plan to cut high school career and technical education, or CTE, programs that do not meet new baselines during a webinar for the Human Services advisory committee. The committee, made up of teachers, academics and industry professionals, was formed to consult TEA staff on the review process of the programs. According to materials from the webinar, all of the CTE programs on the chopping block fell under the cosmetology banner, from barbering and hairdressing to skincare and makeup. The professions these programs prepare students for earn an average annual salary of between $21,507 and $30,056 according to the wage data presented — short of the new CTE target salary of $35,339.

In an email to The Texas Tribune, TEA spokesperson Lauren Callahan explained that the agency is in the process of “soliciting feedback and asking for additional data and supports to think through solutions, since cosmetology does not currently meet the definition of high-wage (as defined by the Texas Workforce Commission and as required in the Carl D. Perkins CTE Act) or a clear path to continued postsecondary education.” If the TEA decides to cut the program, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will make the final call in early 2019, according to the review process laid out in an Aug. 30 letter on TEA’s website.

“It is still very early on in the process,” said Callahan. “No decisions have been made whatsoever.”

But cosmetology teachers are skeptical of the process. They say the data presented by TEA doesn’t reflect the reality of the industry. Many cosmetologists treat the profession as a side job, using it to support a family or to pay for college tuition. Cosmetologists also earn tips that might not be fully declared and often do some of their work unofficially for friends and family.

“You can make as much as you want,” said Foster, the cosmetology instructor at Hays High School. “If someone’s not making that much money, they’re just not working enough. I know some who make six figures doing this job.”

And for those who go the entrepreneurial route — renting a chair at a salon, rather than working for a franchise like Great Clips — it takes time to build the kind of clientele base that can garner a decent income. Starting off without student debt, as CTE program grads do, makes those early years more financially feasible, teachers say.

Teachers also argue that a cosmetology license is more flexible than the data reflects. Beyond just working “behind the chair,” many licensed cosmetologists go on to work at hair shows, sell products for hair companies or teach, said Angela Henard, a cosmetology teacher at Weatherford High School.

“People choose the path they want to take with their license,” she said.

Melissa Tuentes, 19, graduated from Lehman High School’s cosmetology program in Kyle in the spring of 2017, and was licensed that June.

“In reality when I heard of the cosmetology program I wasn’t that interested,” she said. But after a couple courses, “I actually ended up loving it. I stuck with the program, and now I’m here working at a salon. I have a career.”

Tuentes works at Cost Cutters in Buda, making around $29,000 per year.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school,” said Tuentes. “My plan was to got to college and figure something out after.”

She started working part-time a few months out of high school while attending college courses at Austin Community College. But after a year at ACC, Tuentes decided to focus fully on her career as a stylist instead. Cost Cutters is planning to train her as a manager, and she hopes to go to barbering school to expand her skills in the field.

For a lot of kids who aren’t college bound or academically inclined, cosmetology programs can be the reason they show up for school at all, said Renda Songer, executive director at the Keller-based Foundation for Advancement of Career and Technical Education. And for those kids, said Songer, this program is the reason they have a high school diploma.

The research supports Songer’s arguments, especially for certain populations. Lower-income students in CTE programs are 25 percent more likely to graduate from high school compared to those who aren’t in a concentrated CTE program, according to research by Shaun Dougherty, now an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University.

But as far as how to decide which CTE programs are best serving students, that’s trickier. “I do think there’s a lot of merit to looking at demonstrated labor market demand and tailoring the size or existence of programs to kind of align in that sense,” Dougherty said. But he also said a wage cutoff might not be the best option for determining which CTE programs to offer.

“The answer is not obvious,” said Dan Kriesman, head of the CTEx laboratory at Georgia State University. But at the end of the day, cutting cosmetology CTE programs will “transfer the cost of becoming a cosmetologist to the students,” he said.

In Texas, private beauty schools cost an average of about $14,000, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s unrealistic for many students in cosmetology CTE programs, according to teachers. The argument to cut the cosmetology program is “not unreasonable,” said Kriesman. “But it doesn’t mean some people aren’t going to be made worse off by it.”

Many students struggle to even come up with the $400 in materials costs for their high school cosmetology courses.

“I have three students that are on scholarship,” said Kimberly Hill, the director of the cosmetology CTE program at Palestine High School in East Texas.

She’s sponsoring one of them herself — a local salon and an assistant principal at the school support the other two. Hill said that for many of her students, the licensing program is their only shot at a career. It gives them an alternative to working at the nearby Walmart distribution centers or at the 1,000-bed prison in town.

High school cosmetology teachers have reacted strongly to the news that their programs might be cut, calling members of the State Board of Education and sending letters to state education agencies. They’ve recently witnessed cosmetology programs be cut in other parts of the country, including neighboring Arkansas.

Some of Texas’ education board members have been receptive to the teachers’ cries for help.

“Unequivocally, I support this cosmetology program,” said Pat Hardy, who represents SBOE District 11. “It keeps kids in school. They get their high school diploma and then they have a skill.” And, Hardy pointed out, the median base salary that the TEA has named is “not that different from what first-year teachers make.”

The SBOE meets this week, and though cosmetology isn’t on the agenda, teachers are planning to attend in the hopes of winning more of the board over. The board would have to vote before the TEA could eliminate a course, according to SBOE spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe. But the programs of study, and whether they qualify for funding under the Perkins Act, do fall under TEA jurisdiction. According to Callahan, the TEA’s review timeline has Morath making a final decision on CTE program changes in early 2019. But just because the program doesn’t qualify for Perkins doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be eliminated, said Callahan.

“Want every child to have an open, viable career path, especially in high school, in the state of Texas,” said Callahan.

On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released a statement on the cosmetology programs, calling career and technical education a “top priority” for his office. “I was concerned to learn that a committee has recommended cutting cosmetology programs, which are extremely important to students and can lead to an independent income, as well as business ownership,” Patrick said.

In the meantime, the students in Buda — like those in cosmetology classrooms all across Texas — will continue to practice the braids, cuts and curls they’ll need to pass the licensing exam that will launch their careers. Whether that will be an option for this year’s freshman class, though, remains unclear.

“I can do different things with this license,” said Chloe Molina, a senior at Hays who’s planning on college, but is glad to have the cosmetology license as a potential side job and backup plan. “We’re going to be so ahead … I think it’s really cool.”