what's next concept

U.S. massage schools are facing challenges—diminished enrollments among them; however, commitment to creating top-notch school curricula, first-rate educators and well-trained new therapists is unwavering among the profession’s leaders. This was evidenced at a recent gathering of 215 massage school owners, educators, school directors and representatives from massage organizations and businesses, who met to discuss, and create plans for, massage education.

The Alliance for Massage Therapy Education (AFMTE) and Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation co-hosted the 2015 Educational Congress July 23–25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (MASSAGE Magazine was one of many congress sponsors.) Organizations represented at the congress, some which held their board meetings on-site, included the Massage Therapy Foundation, Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards, National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, Society for Oncology Massage, Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals, American Massage Therapy Association and American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia.

Declining Enrollment

A prominent topic of conversation at the congress, among panel members and in informal conversations between school representatives, was declining enrollment figures throughout the nation—and the resulting drop in the number of new therapists entering the field.

Although the reality of dropping enrollments is clear, the reasons for it are not. Possible reasons for declining interest in massage education that were discussed included that the number of baby boomers’ children getting to college age has spiked; more people are choosing a four-year degree rather than entering trade schools; and potential students are told by admissions officers that the job prospects for new graduates reflect the new reality of franchise employment, where they will make $15-or-so an hour, plus gratuities. This is in stark contrast to making $80 per session right out of school, which was a concept—although not always borne out in the real world—many massage-school enrollees believed in, in the years before the advent of the franchise.

Attendees’ opinions on franchises were divided, with some school owners sharing that when they give potential students franchise-employment information, interest in enrolling in massage school dissolves. Some other attendees said franchise employment provides a launching pad into a massage career.

“Entry level massage practice has changed,” noted AFMTE Congress attendee and Health Enrichment Center massage school owner and director Sandy Cochran Fritz, in her blog post recapping the congress, which she gave MASSAGE Magazine permission to quote here. “The main entry into the profession is employment and the collective group of franchise [or] spa organizations is the main employer.

“Those of us who have been in practice as a self-employed massage therapist prior to 2002 need to realize that entry level employment with wages is the way it is now,” Fritz added. “It does not matter if we agree or not. A satisfying career in massage therapy can occur as an employee where the employer has the risk, pays the overhead, wrangles the taxes and creates the environment.”

Those aspects of practice management shouldered by franchise employers, AFMTE President Cherie Sohnen-Moe told MASSAGE Magazine, must be considered by anyone who thinks franchise wages are too low. “People complain about the money, but do the math—you would have rent and marketing and supplies working on your own,” she said.

Cherie and Donna

AFMTE President Cherie Sohnen-Moe and NCBTMB Vice President of Educational Support Donna Sarvello, B.C.T.M.B. (from left to right), at the AFMTE/COMTA 2015 Educational Congress. Photo by Ariana Vincent—Ariana Images

“I think franchises have done an incredible benefit to this profession,” Sohnen-Moe added. “People who never would have gotten a massage before, have done so.”

Also discussed as a conceivable chilling factor on massage education enrollments is the publicity of U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) regulations, which went into effect over the past few years and have illuminated questionable marketing practices at some for-profit career colleges, leading some of those institutions to close their doors. Additional rules, called gainful employment regulations, related to for-profit career colleges went into effect July 1, and mandate that for-profit schools that qualify to offer federal student aid must “provide key information on program costs, whether students graduate, how much they earn, and how much debt they may accumulate,” according to a fact sheet on the regulations published by the USDOE. That bit about how much they will earn is what necessitates those franchise conversations between admissions officers and potential students.

According to AFMTE Immediate Past President Pete Whitridge, AFMTE member massage schools share information

Osborne, Curties, Lauterstein

Continuing education provider Carole Osborne, C.M.T., B.C.T.M.B., educator Debra Curties R.M.T., and massage school owner David Lauterstein (from left to right) at the AFMTE/COMTA 2015 Educational Congress. Photo by Ariana Vincent—Ariana Images

about new rules and regulations, as well as the actions massage schools need to take to remain in compliance with them.

“They are mentoring each other,” Whitridge said. “We are very aware of a variety of schools that have closed down—some that were taking federal funds and not meeting the reserves requirement, and others that shut down because of the gainful employment and recruitment issues.”

He added that small, sole-proprietor schools, which the majority of massage schools are, have not tended to be those forced to close.

In a breakout session, school representatives gathered to brainstorm ideas on increasing enrollments. These ranged from cooperative advertising in mainstream publications and calling on national associations to pay for ads targeting the general public, to holding health fairs at school facilities and networking with allied health professions, such as nursing, to encourage people to enter massage school.


Committed to Massage

Sohnen-Moe took office as AFMTE president on July 26. She said her focus will be creating more cooperation between organizations, and facilitating growth among AFMTE committees.

“I’m hoping my enthusiasm, commitment and longevity in this profession—since 1978—will count for something,” she said. “I’m very committed to this profession, and I do believe that massage therapists are the ones who make this planet more peaceful, so that’s why I keep doing this work … I’m looking forward to being a catalyst to moving this field forward.”

Referring to the AFMTE’s National Teacher Education Standards Project, which proposes core competencies for massage educators, Sohnen-Moe said schools need to invest in teachers and pay attention to teachers’ competency, so that both students and schools succeed.

“So many people have come into this field as teachers who have no teacher training,” she explained. “They are content experts—the best students in anatomy, for example—but that doesn’t mean they know how to teach it.”

The AFMTE’s core competencies are: learner development and well-being; learning differences and integrative approaches; learning environments; content knowledge; application of content; planning for instruction; instructional strategies and delivery; observation and assessment; professional development and ethical conduct; and collaboration.

Massage educator Ariana Vincent, L.M.T., M.T.I., B.C.T.M.B., was presented the 2015 Educator of the Year award, sponsored by the AFMTE, Biofreeze and Bon Vital’, in the continuing education provider category, after self-assessing her proficiency in at least four of the above-noted competencies. She said raising the quality of massage education is crucial.

“Students can be willing to learn, but they can only reflect the quality of education that they are given,” Vincent said. “So, as educators, we must emit the highest standard of education we provide, if we are to see that same standard reflected in our students.”

Organizations’ Updates

Organizations’ representatives shared updates on projects affecting the massage profession, which MASSAGE Magazine will report on as they develop. Among them:

  • Alliance for Massage Therapy Accreditation (AFMTE): The AFMTE presented the current iteration of its National Teacher Education Standards Project. The concept of regulating massage teachers was suggested, although, currently, using the projects’ competencies is voluntary.
  • American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia (AOBTA): The AOBTA held its board of directors meeting during the congress and offered a session on creating Asian bodywork therapy curriculum competencies.
  • Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation (COMTA): COMTA held its commissioner meeting during the congress. A COMTA spokesperson reiterated that COMTA is creating an endorsed curriculum program for schools that do not want to, or cannot, meet accreditation requirements, a project that was first announced in May.
  • Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB): FSMTB President Karen Armstrong said the FSMTB is
    Salvo, Vincent, Werner

    Educator Susan Salvo, L.M.T., continuing education provider Ariana Vincent, L.M.T., M.T.I., B.C.T.M.B., and continuing education provider Ruth Werner, B.C.T.M.B. (from left to right), at the AFMTE/COMTA 2015 Educational Congress. Photo by Ariana Vincent—Ariana Images

     developing a database to track disciplinary action, as well as an MBLEx study tool. The FSMTB is also working on a continuing education approval program. (Earlier this year, FSMTB Executive Director Debra Persinger told MASSAGE Magazine the FSMTB will offer courses online as part of the license renewal program. Those classes will focus on public safety. The FSMTB’s timeline, she said, involves launching some continuing education courses first, then launching the provider-and-content approval portion.)
  • Massage Therapy Foundation (MTF): A study the MTF has co-conducted with the Samueli Institute on massage for pain is in draft form and is going to be published in a “major medical journal,” according to former MTF President Ruth Werner, B.C.T.M.B. She said she believes the study could effect positive change in physicians’ attitudes about massage.

The MTF has also applied to the National Institutes of Health for funding of its conferences.

  • National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB): NCBTMB Chair Leena Guptha said the NCBTMB is beginning to develop specialty certifications.
  • The Society for Oncology Massage: The Society for Oncology Massage is considering developing competencies for touching cancer patients.

Toward the Future

Massage education is evolving to meet the needs of educators, students and clients, and this biennial gathering supports that growth, according to Whitridge.

The next congress will again be a place for leaders from various organizations to meet and share information about developments in their respective areas.

“[The congress shows] we’re doing our work and modeling for the profession that we’re actually connected,” he said.

The AFMTE’s next congress will be held in Tucson, Arizona, in July 2017. To view videos of several meetings held at the 2015 congress, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rosT4pNd8Xg.


Karen MenehanKaren Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. She has edited and written for additional publications and organizations, including Imagine Magazine, the Sacramento Bee newspaper and the LIVESTRONG Foundation.