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Massage Today
July, 2013, Vol. 13, Issue 07

It's Time to Start Bursting the Education Bubbles

By Ralph Stephens, BS, LMT, NCBTMB

Changes are upon the education community in the U.S.A. Massage education is no exception. In the mid-1980's, we had relatively few massage schools, best guesses are around 100 total. Massage schools peaked in 2009 at about 1,600.

Now, the number is down to about 1,300. We have gone from about 74,000 students enrolled in massage therapy programs in 2005, to just over 40,000 in 2013. Talk about a bubble bursting - the trend is down with only 26.2% of massage schools reporting growth in enrollment since 2010. It is still amazing how we train more than 40,000 people a year, yet our profession has only grown 181,600 therapists in the past 14 years.

Something is very wrong with our educational system to produce that degree of dropout and failure. Are we as a profession in decline? (These numbers are from the recently released ABMP biennial massage therapy school enrollment census for 2013 and previous therapist surveys. Thanks to ABMP for this incredible work and for permission to share it here.)

There is also a lawyer bubble. Law schools became huge profit centers for colleges and the number of law schools increased from 175 in the 1980's, to 201 in 2013; however, the number of law school applicants is down 38% in three years. Reasons given are interesting. Seems law school deans are less than honest about the legal profession when recruiting. Seems most law students arrive at school misguided about the nature of legal practice. There are twice the graduates as there are jobs. Anything here look familiar? Both professions need a bit more honesty in advertising and recruiting.

books - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark The higher education bubble has also burst. The Wall Street Journal reported in May that the average "tuition discount rate" offered incoming freshmen last fall by private colleges and universities has reached an all-time high of 45%. At the same time, the "sticker price" tuitions at both private and public colleges increased by the smallest amount in 2012-13 than any of the last dozen years. Is higher education a worthwhile investment if it entails five, even six-figure college loan debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy?

Educational institutions have been awash with federal cash for decades. Federal Title IV funding has driven massage school expansion and enrollment, especially in for-profit corporate and chain schools. Now Americans owe more in student loan debt than we collectively owe on credit cards. What have students been getting for the money they owe, as well as the money the Feds are paying their schools on students' behalf? More administrators and more bureaucracy. "The scariest number I've seen is that in the Cal State system between 1970 and 2008 ... the number of faculty only went up 3%, but the number of administrators went up 237%," said Sean Flynn, a Scripps Economics professor. "The entire educational system has had massive amounts of money thrown at it and most of it has gone to things that have not improved the actual educational outcomes."

If the profession of massage is going to thrive and be an active participant in the healthcare community, either allopathic/traditional, alternative or hopefully both, some serious changes must be made in our educational system and they must be things that improve educational outcomes. Otherwise, we will be in a continuous down trending decline.

We need better screening of students, more honesty in marketing and trained, professional educators in the classrooms. This must start with the adoption into state laws or rules of teacher training standards for massage school instructors, phased in of course, but as quickly as possible. We need comprehensive teacher training programs and to bring them about we need the commitment and financial support of the major membership associations.

The beginnings of such programs have been created and published by the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education (AFMTE) as the Teacher Education Standards Project (TESP). Phase One of the TESP is now published and the development of the other phases is beginning.

Educators – Get Involved

The Alliance is the only stakeholder organization in the massage/bodywork profession that represents and advocates for our educators – schools, school instructors and CE Providers. If you care about the future of massage education, you need to belong to and participate in The Alliance. There is so much to be done. It needs to be done by our own educators.

The Alliance is hosting its annual conference this month, July 18 – 20, 2013, in St, Charles, Mo. (St. Louis). It is not too late to register and attend. If you want to join and be part of the greatest "brain trust" in massage education, if you care about the future of this profession, if you care about the direction of massage education and if you want to help raise the quality and abilities of massage teachers, you need to attend. Register now at and help create a "Culture of Teaching Excellence."

The Bigger Picture

Setting standards is a great first step. Next we have to develop curriculum to train teachers to teach the lineage of our profession with both heart and mind. The dirty little secret here is that we need to develop the standards to create a group of teacher trainers – a group qualified to teach teachers how to teach. So it is a three-tiered process: training trainers, who train teachers, who teach students.

It is time our massage educators become active, yes vocal, in supporting The Alliance, creating the TESP and implementing changes in our massage educational system that brings about improved educational outcomes.

Until we can consistently turn out well-trained, skilled therapists, we will never be able to deliver the full potential of massage to the public. If we want to take our rightful place in the forthcoming integrative medicine system or even be accepted by the public as a reliable therapy for relaxation (or more), we must expedite the development of teacher standards. To my fellow educators at all levels - get involved and be a part of bringing our profession to its next level. It is educators that must lead the way.

Background Checks? Just say "NO!"

The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) is trying to impose background checks on therapists and even on continuing education providers. Somebody over there own an interest in a background check company? The problem with continuing education in the massage profession is not that criminals have become CE providers and are perpetrating crimes on CE course attendees. It is insulting and degrading that one of our stakeholder organizations thinks so little of us. Many of us fought for years to get out from under discriminative, degrading local ordinances requiring police inspections, STD tests, chest X-rays and generally treating us like prostitutes until proven otherwise. Now our own stakeholder is throwing us back into that era. Shame on you NCBTMB. I support your Board Certification Program, but not if it requires us being treated as criminal suspects. Background checks have no place in an advanced credential for a healthcare/wellness profession.

Click here for more information about Ralph Stephens, BS, LMT, NCBTMB.


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