From the time you were in graduate school, your instructors and supervisors have likely emphasized the importance of self-care. Burnout is a real risk in the world of counseling and psychotherapy, and you have to be able to take care of yourself in order to avoid it.
These messages come from a good place. But they ignore reality for many therapists, especially those early in their careers. And those messages often come with dangerous assumptions and a dark undercurrent: If you’re having a hard time, it’s your own fault.
There’s an interesting alternative to the student loan model of financing education floating around: In essence, sell stock in yourself.
On Wednesday, Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Tom Petri introduced legislation defining “income share agreements” (ISAs), which are basically contracts where investors could fund your education in exchange for a percentage of your future earnings. Under such agreements, which are expressly not loans, an investor could lay claim to a limit of 15 percent of your future income under a contract that could last no more than 30 years. (Those are just upper limits. Presumably most contracts would be shorter and have lower percentages of income involved.)
The idea is interesting, and worthy of consideration insofar as it transfers the risk associated with education funding away from the student and their family. One of the worst possible outcomes of taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans is then not being able to pay it back, either because you failed to finish your degree or, once you did, there simply weren’t enough well-paying jobs in your field. Changes in bankruptcy law have made it much more difficult to get out of student loan debt even in difficult circumstances. Under the proposed ISA rules, on the other hand, it would be the investor who would be out of luck, not the student.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that selling stock in yourself is a good idea for a prospective student in the mental health professions of psychology, counseling, clinical social work, and family therapy. For one thing, private investors may simply not be willing to fund education that is long and expensive when they look at salary data in mental health. It seems much more likely that such investors would flock to students in more lucrative fields like business, engineering, technology, and medicine.
And even if some enterprising therapy students could attract investors willing to fund their education, the kind of system envisioned with ISAs holds the potential to be rather exploitive. Let’s say, for example, that you are unable to secure enough in student loans, so you turn to a private investor to fund your education. And — lucky you! — you find one willing to take on the risk. In exchange for $50,000 to fund your education, they ask for 10% of your income per year for the next 25 years.
To a hopeful student with no other options to fund schooling, that may be an attractive offer. From the outside, though, it just looks like a classier form of indentured servitude. It’s true that if you don’t complete your degree, you would not need to pay the money back. However, because these agreements define the investment as being in the individual, and not the specific career for which you received education funding, you would still owe a portion of what you make for the term of the agreement no matter what kind of work you wind up doing. Worse, if you do complete your degree, and you do find a well-paying job after graduation, you could easily wind up paying back four or five times the amount of the initial investment. Investors, after all, would understandably want their good investments to pay off bigger if they are taking all the risk for the bad investments.
If nothing else, I admire the creative thinking on Rubio’s and Petri’s part. (In fairness, it isn’t their original idea; startups like Upstart and Pave have been working on this model for some time.) There is certainly some merit in having the most successful students end up paying the most for their education, rather than further financially punishing those who struggle the most to find work or finish their degrees. However, as it applies in mental health, this kind of a funding vehicle seems like a band-aid at best. It would keep a supply of students coming in to overly long and expensive training programs, with primarily investors and universities profiting. We still need a viable long-term solution that makes graduate training in mental health accessible and affordable for those who prove they are capable of doing the work.
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Your comments here are welcome. You can post them in the comments below, or email me at ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com.
Stipend and loan reimbursement programs for family therapists, updated for 2012 with current links, updated amounts, and additional programs.
A number of state and federal programs offer tens of thousands of dollars in stipends and loan reimbursements for marriage and family therapists to advance their careers. Generally, these programs aim to help bring mental health services to underserved areas and to reward therapists who dedicate themselves to such communities. Here are just a few of the programs MFTs may find enriching.
The federal National Health Service Corps program offers a whopping $60,000 in loan reimbursement, on top of the salary one would already make in an eligible position, for two years of service. Continue working in an NHSC-eligible position over time, and you can get as much as $360,000 in loan reimbursement for 16 years of full-time service. NHSC-eligible jobs can be found at the NHSC Jobs web site.
Also on the federal level, the Indian Health Service (IHS; www.ihs.gov) offers a similar program, awarding $20,000 per year for two years of service at an IHS site. (A cautionary note: MFTs are legally recognized for employment within IHS, but appear to fall within “other professions as determined by need” in the loan repayment program.)
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) / US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Minority Fellowship Program awards stipends to cover education, plus funding to conduct research and travel to conferences and trainings, to doctoral students in MFT programs. These awards can be worth tens of thousands of dollars and are renewable for multiple years.
In California, there are additional state-based stipend and loan reimbursement programs. The awards offered by each of these programs are in addition to the salary one would already earn in an eligible position.
The California State MFT Stipend Program provides awards of $18,500 per year to MFT Interns who agree to work in public mental health positions in underserved areas for at least one year. In 2010 and again in 2011, 60 of these stipends were awarded through the statewide MFT Consortium, which covers most of the state; Loma Linda University and CSU-Chico each administered a handful of additional stipends through the same state fund. For 2012, Alliant International University (where I teach) also is administering its own stipend program, awarding 15 stipends per year of $18,500 each, distributed across our four CFT campuses.
Finally, the state offers MFTs and MFT Interns its Mental Health Services Provider Education Program, which awards up to $15,000 in loan reimbursement for two years of service in an underserved area, and its Mental Health Loan Assumption Program, which offers $10,000 in loan reimbursement for a one-year commitment. Though these programs are both run by the same state agency, their separate amounts and selection processes are because their funding comes through two distinct streams (license renewal fees, and the Mental Health Services Act). They have different application forms and run on different deadline cycles. The next MHLAP deadline is in August; the next MHSPEP deadline is in September.
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To put in a plug for my program: Alliant students are eligible for our own stipend program, the county programs in San Diego and Los Angeles, and the state and federal programs. Some campuses are still accepting applications for fall 2012; more information is available here: Alliant Couple and Family Therapy programs.
Are you aware of other federal or state-based programs that should be added to this list? Email me at ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com and let me know, and I’ll be happy to expand this post.
The San Diego MFT Consortium has been awarded a $350,000 grant to launch a stipend program for marriage and family therapy interns working in public mental health. The program will largely mirror the highly successful Los Angeles County MFT stipend program, which awards $18,500 stipends to MFT Interns who agree to work for at least one year in public mental health in an underserved area. More than half of the awardees in the LA program have been bilingual, helping meet a major need in the county’s mental health workforce.
I’ll add detail about the San Diego County program as it becomes available.