Pencils, notebooks and rulers top the supply list for most students heading back to school this week. But for an estimated 4,700 L.A. students, the classroom essentials are clippers, straight razors and brushes.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the county now has 26 dedicated beauty schools, tops in the nation.

And despite the waves of graduates churned out, Tanya Rhiner, co-owner of American Beauty College in Bellflower, said there are more local salon jobs open than there are registered professionals to fill them.

She's convinced that Los Angeles is the world's hair and makeup capitol.

"New York and Paris have fashion, but hair and makeup are ours," she said.

Image-conscious Angelenos have for decades patronized a plethora of salons and spas, from Rodeo Drive to suburban strip malls. But it is the TV and film industry with its lucrative hair stylist, makeup artist and aesthetician jobs that separates L.A. from the crowd in terms of cosmetology jobs.

The beauty schools themselves can be a goldmine for the entrepreneurs willing to make the investment, Rhiner said.

Rhiner and her partner, Carole Stephenson, bought her school a year ago. She estimated that would-be school owners could spend anywhere between $200,000 and $500,000 for a school with 50 to 100 students, today. Her school currently counts 85 students enrolled, not including 27 high-school vocational students.

Tuition at Rhiner's school runs between $8,000 for the 1,600-hour program, which most students complete in about 18 months. Some of the high-end schools, such as Paul Mitchell and Aveda, can go as high as $20,000. Still, that's a relatively low price tag for a program that virtually assures graduates, many of whom are 19 or 20 years old, an income of about $35,000 a year.

"I've been doing hair since I was in middle school and I've been doing makeup since high school, so I thought I'd go to beauty school," said Beauty College student Ashley Watley, 19. She applied for and received financial aid for her schooling and one day hopes to own a hair salon. But she'd like to work on movies someday, too. She plans to graduate in March of next year.

Rhiner and Stephenson, who met teaching for vocational programs, were inspired by a mutual friend's success.

"She kept saying we should do it," Rhiner recalled. "And we kept thinking 'Oh, no way.' But suddenly she had three schools and was doing so well that we thought, 'why not'?"

Their research took them to the American Beauty College, which has been operating since 1947. When the women bought the program, they inherited the student body, which has many Latinos. Rhiner said that the majority of her instructors are bilingual, which she believes gives her an advantage over schools that cater to students who speak English or Spanish exclusively.

"We're keeping our heads above water," Rhiner said. She and Stephenson expect to pay back the loans they took out to buy the school within the next two years.

It hasn't been easy transitioning into a new role. Rhiner's got her accreditation to maintain with the American Association of Cosmetology Schools and the school also has to pass muster with the State Board of Cosmetology and Barbering, the Bureau of Private Post-Secondary Education and the Department of Education.

In addition to the students' tuition, there are a number of Pell grants in place that Rhiner describes as "really key." She and Stephenson have incorporated as the CERT Institute of Cosmetology and brought in L'Oreal SA's Redken as their line of professional hair care products.

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