Degrees to Meet Demand

Brand Story – Oregon Institute of Technology’s ABA master’s program helps meet an important statewide need: increasing the number of health care providers who can serve kids diagnosed with autism.

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Oregon is experiencing a shortage of Board-Certified Behavior Analysts — practitioners who use the principles of learning to help individuals reach their goals for a more meaningful life — and nothing illustrates that and the great need for more BCBAs better than the numbers. 

According to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, in 2022 there were 235 job postings for BCBAs in Oregon. In 2023, there were 920 — an increase of nearly 300%. And yet, the same data show only 438 BCBAs were working in Oregon last year, meaning that for every one BCBA practicing in the state, there were essentially another two positions that needed to be filled. 

“It’s pretty stunning,” says Maria Lynn Kessler, Ph.D., a professor at Oregon Tech and the director of its Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis program. “And of course, you feel the crunch more in rural areas. In urban areas, there are more providers, but there are more people, so there’s still a mismatch of the provider to the needs.” 

Maria Lynn Kessler, Ph.D., is the director of Oregon Tech’s Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis program.

But Oregon Tech is working to bring some balance to the BCBA equation. The university offers the only synchronous program — meaning online instruction that is in real-time — for earning a master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis in Oregon. It also established an ABA clinic in Klamath Falls in 2018, and was the only provider of its kind within 100 miles when it opened. Today, the clinic remains the only one of its kind in a 75-mile radius. Known as the Behavior Improvement Group ABA Clinic, or the BIG ABA Clinic, the clinic offers not only ABA services for children and families in the Klamath Falls area, including in schools, but it also gives local Oregon Tech students in the BCBA program a chance to gain hands-on experience working directly with clients. 

BIG ABA Clinic Director Dawn Bailey, Ph.D., who is also a BCBA and an associate professor at Oregon Tech, says the intent is to increase the number of BCBAs in Oregon and, as a result, make life better for the children and families who benefit from their care.  

“Our goal is to improve the quality of life for the kids we serve and their families,” she says. “We’ve got a big need for practitioners here, and that is what we’re focusing on.” 

Diagnosing demand

Over the past decade in Oregon and elsewhere, ABA, autism diagnosis, and other factors have led to today’s imbalanced patient-to-provider ratio. For starters, Bailey describes ABA as a discipline of psychology that uses assessment and intervention methods to help individuals, often children who have been diagnosed with autism, gain the skills and behaviors they need to lead more independent lives. Examples include rewarding certain behaviors or exchanging pictures of objects as a way to communicate. 

While some states approved licensure for ABAs earlier, the Oregon Legislature didn’t do so until 2013. A year later, the Oregon Insurance Division mandated expanded coverage for autism disorders, including ABA. 

“People thought, ‘Oh great, that will be it. If you build it, they will come,’” Bailey says. “But that wasn’t the case. People didn’t move to Oregon to provide services.” 

Associate professor Dawn Bailey, Ph.D., is the clinical director of the BIG ABA Clinic.

What else changed was a significant increase in autism diagnosis. Bailey says that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that in 2006, 1 in 110 kids in the U.S. exhibited characteristics that could be diagnosed as certain levels of autism. The most recent stats put that ratio at 1 in 36. 

“So the job demand for BCBAs is directly linked to the increase in diagnosis,” Bailey says, “and with that diagnosis comes the insurance that will cover it.”  

Recognizing that rising demand is outpacing the number of providers, Oregon Tech set its plan for a master’s in ABA in motion. The university’s master’s program was approved in 2017, and the BIG ABA Clinic opened in 2018. Since then, 38 students have graduated from the program and 22 are working in Oregon. 

A different degree

What primarily sets the Oregon Tech master’s program apart from others in the state is its synchronicity. Most students who pursue the degree are already working professionals who would rather not move, but they also like having real-time discussions with professors and peers, even if it’s over Zoom. 

“They are forming relationships with each other and can then be resources for each other,” Kessler says. “They come in strangers and go out friends and colleagues.” 

The program at Oregon Tech is also two years, while others are one. Kessler says that’s because Oregon Tech built its program based on the education and skills BCBAs use and need in the real world. As a result, the program includes courses other programs don’t have, such as Human Growth and Development — which is not a requirement, but a “no brainer” for anyone in the field, Kessler says. Oregon Tech’s program also has a thesis requirement. 

“It may sound scary, but we built that in so that students have experience in thinking and conceptualizing behavior change,” she says. 

Students on campus in Klamath Falls also get the benefit of working and gaining real-world experience with clients in the BIG ABA Clinic, which was recently named a Fit Learning affiliate to help students make up some of the academic ground they may have lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I think our program is a really good fit for most people,” Kessler says. “This field still needs a lot of people, so I would encourage people to consider coming and helping meet the need whatever way works best for them. Of course, I think we’re the best program to do that.”

Brand stories are paid content articles that allow Oregon Business advertisers to share news about their organizations and engage with readers on business and public policy issues.  The stories are produced in house by the Oregon Business marketing department. For more information, contact associate publisher Courtney Kutzman.