The best MFT programs

Education - Grad HatHow to choose the best MFT programs (master’s and doctoral) for your needs. Originally published August 2009; updated January 2013 and September 2014.

Aspiring MFTs have lots of options — there are more than 100 COAMFTE-accredited programs around the US, and about 80 license-eligible MFT programs (accredited and not) in California — for graduate school. How should you go about choosing the school that is right for you?

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MFT licensure: California

Ah, the Golden State. Home to me and half the licensed Marriage and Family Therapists in the country. And, in the eyes of the rest of the country, some pretty weird practices within the profession.

MFT licensure in California looks a lot different here than it does everywhere else. And it shouldn’t have to, seeing as the profession itself — that is, our scope of practice and competence — is pretty much the same here as it is everywhere else.

What the heck is so different here, and why?

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Proposed new MFT accreditation standards eliminate vague religious exemption

If adopted, the draft COAMFTE standards would require all programs to teach LGBTQ-affirmative practices.

W-classroomThe public comment period closes Wednesday on the draft version of new accreditation standards for graduate programs in marriage and family therapy. The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) is proposing some major changes from current standards:

  • The draft standards would restore the 500-client-contact-hour requirement for practicum. Under the current, version 11.0 standards, programs can require fewer hours as long as they have evidence to show that their practicum results in students being competent to practice at the master’s level. This vague standard has left different accredited programs using different experience requirements, which can be confusing to state licensing boards who want to know how much practical experience they can reasonably expect to be included in graduate degrees.

  • The draft standards separate accreditation requirements into “eligibility standards” and “accreditation standards.” As it is now, the Commission makes its decisions based on the full scope of information presented to them. Programs that meet most but not all standards may still be granted accreditation, with stipulations — requirements that the program comes into full compliance with the standards within a year. This proposed split into eligibility and accreditation standards arguably makes the accreditation bar a bit higher: Programs that fail to meet even one of the eligibility standards would not be eligible for accreditation, regardless of their performance on the other standards.

  • The draft standards would go back to a singular, mandatory core curriculum for all accredited programs. Of course, programs would remain free to add on to this core curriculum as they see fit, but all accredited programs would be required to have the same core set of coursework.

  • Perhaps what is most notable in the draft standards is what is missing: The draft standards remove COAMFTE’s current vague, blanket exemption for religious programs. The exemption, present in the current COAMFTE standards (p. 3), says

    Religiously affiliated institutions that have core beliefs directed toward conduct within their communities are entitled to protect those beliefs.

    It has never been clear to me what that is supposed to mean in practice, but the way I read it, any religious-based program that wants COAMFTE accreditation but isn’t in tune with any part of the standards was free to ignore that part of the standards, as long as they could tie their objection to their religious beliefs. Under the proposed new standards, not only would that clause go away, but the required curriculum would include at least three semester units on

    diversity, power, privilege and oppression as they relate to race, age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, disability, health status, religious and spiritual practices, nation of origin or other relevant social categories throughout the curriculum. It includes practice with diverse, international, multicultural, marginalized, and/or underserved communities, including LGTBQ affirmative practices. [emphasis in original]

    It is much clearer what the new standards would mean: Every COAMFTE-accredited program would need to teach its students how to work with LGBTQ clients in a positive, affirming way, and an appreciation for the harm such clients suffer from living in a heterosexist society.

To me, these are all good and necessary changes. First, as to the hours and curriculum changes: I hear chatter among MFTs around the country that licensing boards haven’t known what to do with the current COAMFTE standards. Those current standards are so flexible that licensing boards don’t necessarily know what they’re getting when someone comes to them with a COAMFTE-accredited degree. The draft standards, if adopted, would bring back greater consistency in content across programs and could restore state boards’ confidence in maintaining COAMFTE accreditation as the standard educational requirement for licensure.

Second, as to the removal of the religious exception: I’ve written previously about the struggles some religious therapists face when trying to work with LGBT clients, and the debate there is far from settled. But accredited programs can and should teach affirmative practices. The debate here should be restricted to how a therapist balances their values with client needs in the therapy room, not about whether the therapist can be exempted from exposure to affirmative techniques or to the suffering LGBTQ clients genuinely experience.

There’s only one thing COAMFTE didn’t included that I wish they would: Require MFT programs to be more transparent about cost.

COAMFTE will be reviewing comments on the proposed changes this fall. If adopted, the new standards would likely take effect in 2014 for new accreditations and be phased in for those programs already accredited.

Northcentral University becomes first mostly-online program to earn COAMFTE accreditation

Their masters program uses practicum site supervisors as co-instructors, meeting COAMFTE’s requirement for in-person education.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Books-aj.svg aj ashton 01The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education announced just before the holiday that Northcentral University, one of five online programs (or in their case, mostly-online programs) I discussed in this recent post, has become the first such program to earn COAMFTE accreditation. (Here’s why COAMFTE accreditation matters to students.)

As I mentioned previously, they appear to use practicum site supervisors as co-instructors for the practicum class, thus meeting the COAMFTE requirement (page 8) that at least some instruction in any accredited program be provided in person.

This is a milestone for graduate education in MFT, though I will confess I am not quite sure what meaning to put to it. That’s a longer discussion I’ll put in another post. For now, my hearty congratulations to the faculty, staff and students at Northcentral for a significant achievement!

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In the interest of full disclosure, I have served in the past as a COAMFTE Site Visitor, but I had no involvement with the accreditation process for Northcentral and have no affiliation with that university.

Your comments are welcome. You can email me at ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com, post a comment below, or find me on Twitter @benjamincaldwel.

Online MFT programs

Are you interested in getting your marriage and family therapy degree through an online program? Here are five MFT programs that are mostly or fully online.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Computer and screenOnline education holds the promise of extending the reach of marriage and family therapy training. Champions of these programs argue that they make advanced education available to those who otherwise might not have access to it, due to scheduling, geographic, or other barriers. It is possible that the growth of online MFT programs will particularly help bring cultural diversity and rural practitioners into our community of licensees.

Of course, there are also general concerns about online education, including dropout rates, profit motives (as many online schools are for-profit), and overall effectiveness.

In the MFT field, online education seems to be an especially challenging proposition: We need to train practitioners in the art and science of relating, face-to-face, in a way that will heal clients and their family relationships. That is a skill set, and one that would seem to require a fair amount of face-to-face interaction to be best developed, shaped, and observed.

Online graduate programs in MFT are experimenting with a number of creative ways to resolve this dilemma — and also keep themselves eligible for COAMFTE accreditation. COAMFTE has tried to walk a difficult middle ground in its educational standards, saying that MFT programs can employ some distance education but not be fully online; since “fully” means “fully,” it would seem a program could get around the letter of this requirement simply by requiring a one-hour meeting on campus at some point during the educational process. But many of the online MFT programs appear to be genuinely interested in maximizing the potential benefits of online education alongside a recognition of the need for in-person work to develop relational skills. As such, many have integrated in-person events and coursework into their online curricula.

Below you will find a list of five MFT programs that are mostly or fully online. Some things to know about all of these programs: 1, As of early December 2012, none of them have yet earned COAMFTE accreditation. (Here’s why COAMFTE accreditation matters to you.) That is only one consideration in choosing the right MFT program, but it is worth considering. [Update 2013: Northcentral is now COAMFTE-accredited.] 2, The information here is drawn from the universities’ web sites. Information can change quickly. 3, Any cost statements do not include books, supplies, living expenses, or the cost of travel or lodging for any required in-person events. 4, It is always the responsibility of the student to ensure their academic program will meet the requirements for licensure in the state where they wish to be licensed; check with your state’s licensing board before choosing a program and remain up-to-date as state requirements change. 5, States typically require hours of supervised experience in a clinic setting as part of the graduate degree; the schools also have this requirement, and offer varying levels of assistance in locating placements. 6, And of course, requirements and costs can change quickly; the information here is as of December 2012, and you should check with the schools for current information.

  • Touro University Worldwide is based in Woodland Hills, CA and has been rapidly growing their Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy program. Part of this is due to cost; at $500 per unit, Touro’s program is less expensive than some of their competitors. Their 60-semester-unit program is delivered in eight-week terms (six of them per year). This program is fully online.

  • Northcentral University is widely considered a pioneer in online MFT education. Members of their faculty have spoken at past AAMFT Annual Conferences about their efforts to comply with COAMFTE standards [Update 2013: Northcentral is now COAMFTE-accredited]; it looks to me like they do so by utilizing site supervisors as co-instructors with university mentors for the practicum courses, which would then be considered in-person instruction. The Northcentral MA in MFT program is a 45-semester-unit program that can be bumped to 48 or 60 units for those living in states requiring more units for licensure. They also offer a PhD in MFT that requires an additional 72 semester units.

  • Capella University offers a Master of Science degree in Marriage and Family Counseling/Therapy. They have quickly grown this program to national prominence and notably earned CACREP accreditation. To their credit, they list cost information plainly and prominently on their site: Their 92-quarter-unit degree, at $458 per credit, will run about $40,000 in total tuition. The program requires two six-day colloquia in to accompany the online instruction. Like many online schools, Capella is for-profit, which may or may not matter to you. (I’ll do a separate post in the next few months on non-profit versus for-profit schools.)

  • Liberty University promises an affordable online MFT masters degree with a Christian perspective. They advertise themselves as the nation’s largest private, nonprofit online university. Their MFT program requires four one-week intensives to accompany the online instruction. Unfortunately, the information on their web site is surprisingly thin — I could not locate a program plan (curriculum) or specific cost information anywhere on their site.

  • Cal Southern University offers a Marriage and Family Therapy concentration within its Master of Arts in Psychology program. This 63-semester-unit program is entirely online.

There are other online programs out there as well, I’m sure. Feel free to share info on them in the comments, and I’ll update this post every once in a while with more recent additions.

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Your comments are welcomed; you can email me at ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com, post a comment below, or find me on Twitter @bcmft. I regret that I cannot answer every comment personally, but I do chime in on the comments when I can!