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My View From Here

By Ralph Stephens, BS, LMT, NCTMB

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For-Profit Chain Schools Find Themselves Under the Gun

Corinthian Colleges, Inc., and Anthem Education Group have been major players in the massage education sector over the past decade. Operating under the Everest brand, 50 of Corinthian's 120 campuses offered entry-level programs and were enrolling 5000 massage students a year at its peak.

Previously, 19 of Anthem's 34 campuses ran massage programs. Both corporations are now facing bankruptcy because of questionable business practices and failure to comply with the regulations of the U.S. Department of Education (USDE).

The demise of these two entities may help clean up the landscape, but what will happen to the students who invested their time and money to receive training at these career colleges? Some may be able to transfer to other schools to complete their training under approved "teach-out" plans, while others may be left holding student loans with no diploma to show for their investment. The other pressing question is what effect these career colleges have had on the massage therapy profession. To date, there has been no critical analysis of this issue. Given the constraints of this column, I will give you a little background and highlight some key points.

In a 15-year span beginning around 1995, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of states with laws for the regulation of massage therapy. Enacted by legislatures to "protect the public health, safety and welfare," these statutes caused a three-fold increase to the number of institutions offering entry-level massage training programs. It's the Law of Supply and Demand. As each state gained licensure, new players entered the massage education landscape to take advantage of the opportunities. The two largest of these groups were publicly-funded community colleges and for-profit career colleges owned by publicly-traded corporations (such as Corinthian and Anthem).

education - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Even though community colleges operate as non-profit entities, they share one important characteristic with for-profit career colleges: a relentless need to put butts in seats. In this world, massage is no different from welding or computer repair. It doesn't matter to these institutions what kind of program gets students through the front door, as long as there are warm gluteals in place when the bell rings. State funding for community colleges is based on student enrollment, and the corporations that own the chains of career colleges are constantly under pressure to deliver maximum profits for executives and shareholders.

Nearly 90% of the revenue stream for career colleges comes from Federal Student Aid, which means it is taxpayer money that has fueled the rapid growth of this sector. Much like the subprime mortgage mess, the massive amount of federal funds going to career colleges has led to chronic and widespread abuses of the financial aid system. If you've been following the news over the past several years, you'll know that these unethical business practices have been under intense scrutiny from the USDE, along with both houses of Congress and state governments.

As a result of these abuses, lawsuits have been filed against a number of these corporations by state Attorney Generals and the USDE made sweeping changes to its regulations governing all for-profit schools that administer Federal Student Aid. These new regs, which went into effect midway through 2011, have radically altered the landscape. In addition to the pending failure of Corinthian and Anthem, there has been an overall reduction in the number of massage programs at career colleges, with some companies choosing to get out of massage education altogether. This is a much-needed correction that will benefit our field.

Instead of asking, "What have career colleges done for the massage therapy profession?" a more appropriate question is, "What have career colleges done TO our profession?" In my August 2012 Massage Today column, I put forth The Seven Deadly Sins of Massage Education, which are commonly found at both career colleges and community colleges. From admitting unqualified students, to employing under-resourced and untrained teachers, delivering a disjointed modular curriculum and graduating people who can't give a decent massage – the net effect of career colleges has been a substantial decline in the quality and integrity of massage education and practice.

If this is the case, then where is the outcry? Our major stakeholder organizations have stood by the gates, smiling and welcoming in these new institutions over the past 15 years because they meant more members... more certificants... more licensees. These increased numbers also meant more revenue and more power, particularly for ABMP, AMTA and FSMTB. All the while, the baseline level of massage services delivered daily to the public has eroded, and what once was considered a sacred healing art is now just another consumer commodity – to be counted like widgets.

Instead of addressing these problems head-on, these organizations have banded together to pursue standard-setting projects that sound good, but fail to remedy the chronic and ongoing shortcomings that keep massage a low-wage, low-esteem occupation. The Massage Therapy Body of Knowledge, and the recent Entry-Level Analysis Project cannot be implemented in the face of the existing hodgepodge of massage schools and inconsistent state regulations. The forthcoming Model Practice Act, courtesy of FSMTB, will not put a dent in this. Without a central organization to hold and enforce entry-level massage education standards, we'll keep getting more of the same random outcomes.

That's why I've focused on the potential role of COMTA to serve the profession in a more expanded way. This option was explored in detail in my Massage Today columns published in November 2013, February 2014 and April 2014. As the only accreditation agency dedicated to massage education, COMTA is well-positioned to carry out these essential functions and help bring greater consistency to massage training and practice.

In many ways, we've lost control of our own field. Instead of being able to count on our professional associations to take the high road and set policy that will lead us to a brighter future, they have allowed outside influences to come in and compromise what is most important to us. Remember, they are in the membership business, not the massage business. They only make money from dues, well, except when they are competing with their own members by providing massage and education. We, as practicing massage professionals must keep our eyes and ears open to what is happening around us and advocate for our individual and professional interests. Doing so is the best way to protect and serve the public that needs the full potential massage therapy has to offer.

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