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?

Unfortunately, objective information about graduate schools in MFT is hard to come by. Programs will naturally put their best foot forward on their own web sites and promotional materials, highlighting those traits that make the program look best while downplaying those that make it look less appealing. This information is valuable, but difficult to objectively compare. What else should you consider when choosing your MFT program?

I am happy to report that COAMFTE — the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education — is requiring its accredited programs to gather much more data than in the past about how their graduates have performed in terms of licensure and the job market. You may want to consider asking programs for that data, to whatever degree they make it public (and in my mind, they should make it public). Even with objective data, though, the selection of a graduate program is a deeply personal choice. No one else can tell you what the best program for you will be. Outlined here are a number of factors to consider. They are not listed in any particular order, as individual circumstances will dictate what becomes the highest priority. For some students, quality of education outweighs all else. For others, geography and cost will be more important.

  • Performance. I called this “quality” before, but I think that’s too vague and subjective of a term. Programs should be able to actually demonstrate their quality in measurable achievements, including achievements by the program itself (like accreditation), achievements by the faculty (like publications or leadership roles in the field), and achievements by students (like licensing exam pass rates and employment rates).
  • Accreditation. As I’ve previously documented, MFT accreditation matters. Around most of the country, MFT students generally know this; in California, MFT students generally do not know this. Most states specifically require that your degree come from a COAMFTE-accredited program. (More than 30 states use COAMFTE as the educational standard for MFT licensure.) Some will allow you to demonstrate “equivalency” with COAMFTE standards, but that is often no easy task. If you want to work as an MFT with the Department of Veterans Affairs, or if you want to be eligible as an MFT for student loan reimbursement through the National Health Service Corps, you must have a COAMFTE-accredited degree; equivalency is not accepted.
  • Location. Generally speaking, you should attend a program in the same state where you intend to eventually become licensed. This is important because states have varying requirements for the education and supervised experience MFTs must have prior to licensure; schools in any given state are most likely to teach to the standards of that state, and classes in areas like law and ethics will prepare you for licensure exams in that state.
  • Cost. When it comes to graduate school, cost questions are complex. It is not a simple matter of asking, “How much is the tuition?” Other factors, like scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and other financial aid must be considered, and can vary considerably from one school to the next. In addition, some areas (including California) now have loan reimbursement programs for MFTs who commit to working in public mental health or underserved areas. The next two factors also relate fairly directly to the cost of graduate education.
  • Time to degree. Some programs are very intensive, to get you through your master’s degree in the minimum time possible. Shorter programs mean you will be working as an MFT Intern sooner, and also are likely to be licensed sooner. This is significant for those who have finances as a concern. However, shorter is not always better. If you want to continue working full-time while you earn your master’s degree, talk with potential programs about whether this is an option there, and how you may structure classes differently so you are not overwhelmed with the workload.
  • Time to licensure. Outside of California, most programs require 500 hours of face-to-face client contact with clients in order to graduate. Within California, however, many programs require far less — as little as 225 hours (technically just 150, for reasons more complex than are worth explaining here). While this at first may appear to be a plus (it tends to decrease the time to degree), it also means you will spend much, much more time working as an MFT Intern prior to being eligible to sit for the licensing exams. Students in California may graduate with as few as about 270, or as many as 1,300, hours of experience toward the license already completed. That’s a huge range, and can mean a year or more of time lost or gained prior to licensure. (You may also want to review my earlier post on how long it takes to get an MFT license.)
  • Personal fit. The values and philosophies of MFT programs vary widely, with some taking a strong social activism approach, and others abiding by a particular treatment model. It is important that your own personal views of family not be in conflict with your degree program. Personal fit is also particularly important if you are interested in doing research — you will want to find faculty members whose research interests match your own, so they can most effectively serve as a mentor to you.

Other factors may come into play as well, and it is important to find the program best suited to your priorities, whatever they may be. If I’ve left out anything here that you think is extremely important in choosing an MFT program, please let me know in the comments.

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Comments or recommendations on the decision-making process for prospective students? Feel free to post them in the comments, send to my Twitter feed, or email me at ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com.

I regret that I can’t tell you which of the programs you’re considering you should choose; that is a subjective decision you should base on the factors above, and anything else important to you personally.