Choosing the MFT program that’s right for you

By Ben Caldwell, PsyD
Dr. Benjamin Caldwell

Aspiring Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) have lots of options--there are more than 100 AAMFT Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)-accredited graduate programs around the US, and about 80 license-eligible MFT programs (accredited and not) just in my home state of California. How should you go about choosing the school that is right for you?

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.

Quality

There are lots of ways to assess whether a program is successful in educating its graduate students. One is to look at the achievements of the program's graduates, in measurable (licensing exam pass rates, hiring rates) and nonmeasurable (faculty reputation, graduates' status and achievement in the local community) terms. You can also, of course, look at accreditation, which guarantees that a program has put itself through a rigorous quality-assurance process.

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. 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. 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.

Personal fit

The 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.

Copyright (c) 2012 Benjamin Caldwell. This post initially appeared on the MFT Progress Notes blog at www.MFTprogress.com and is reprinted by permission. Benjamin Caldwell, PsyD, is an Associate Professor in the Couple and Family Therapy graduate programs at Alliant International University http://cft.alliant.edu  in Los Angeles, CA.