Online Master's Programs in Family Counseling

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Updated on: 11/21/2018

Family and marriage therapists assist clients during challenging periods, helping them adjust to changing circumstances or make difficult decisions about their future and their most important relationships. Demand for behavioral health professionals is on the rise, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects a 23% job growth rate for marriage and family therapists in the coming decade. A master's degree provides the knowledge and skills needed to obtain state licensure and meet the clinical and emotional demands associated with the counseling profession.

In this guide, we introduce the country's top schools that offer a master's in family counseling online, as well as specialized career paths and course offerings, financial aid opportunities, and resources to help you succeed in any graduate program.

What Can I Learn in an Online Master's in Family Counseling Program?

A master's in family counseling online degree prepares candidates to serve clients in a variety of care settings, including private practices, mental health clinics, and group health facilities. Combining the latest theories in evidence-based treatment and hands-on learning opportunities, most programs take two or three years to complete and require 45 to 60 credit hours, including an internship. Most schools help distance learners arrange practicums and internships close to their home location. Accredited counseling programs typically align with state licensing requirements and adhere to the state's ethical and legal obligations for mental health professionals.

Master's candidates gain a thorough understanding of individual and group counseling methods used to serve diverse client bases. Counselors need empathy, understanding, and effective written and oral communication skills to treat all clients with compassion. They must also develop and hone their observational skills to accurately assess patient needs.

What Common Courses are Offered in a Master's in Family Counseling Program?

Curricula often vary widely from school to school, and course offerings depend largely on your chosen concentration and available electives. However, some classes introduce fundamental concepts that are considered integral to any master's in family counseling curriculum. Regardless of which school you attend, you're likely to encounter one or more of the following courses.

Introduction to Marriage, Couple and Family Counseling

Students explore family roles and dynamics in various cultural and social contexts. Coursework also examines counseling history and philosophy, current trends in marriage and family counseling, and occupational challenges. Readings may include case studies with group discussions and assessments.

Ethics and Legal Issues in Counseling

Students survey counselors' ethical and professional obligations as well as legal requirements related to confidentiality and mandatory reporting. Using the American Counseling Association's code of ethics, coursework helps students master the decision-making process for addressing ethical concerns as they develop their professional values and goals.

Child and Adolescent Counseling

Children and adolescents often require specialized therapeutic interventions as they undergo the counseling process. This course introduces case-specific methods and encourages students to examine the role children and teens play within family structures. Coursework delves into developmental issues as well as behavioral and educational concerns.

Techniques in Counseling

Counselors employ numerous therapeutic methods to assist clients, and choosing the appropriate technique is crucial to successful patient outcomes. In this course, students develop the communication and observational skills needed to accurately assess clients and select the most beneficial counseling techniques. Students may work in groups, practicing their interviewing skills through role-playing exercises.

Lifespan Development

Client needs differ considerably according to their life stage. This course looks at human brain development and the social, emotional, and cognitive changes often observed in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and senior adults. Readings examine recent breakthroughs in brain theory, as well as neurodiversity issues.

What Exams or Projects Should I Expect?

While coursework introduces critical counseling principles and theories, hands-on client experience is crucial to professional skill development. Most programs include a supervised internship component, in which candidates work alongside licensed counselors in a clinical setting. Usually consisting of 250 to 500 hours, internships are typically a full-time commitment. Along with fulfilling the supervised practice requirements needed to obtain state licensure, internships present professional networking opportunities that often prove beneficial after graduation.

Most counseling programs do not require students to compose a thesis. However, many candidates who intend to pursue doctoral studies choose to demonstrate their research and writing abilities by completing an optional thesis.

What Specializations are Available in a Master's in Family Counseling Program?

Candidates pursuing a master's in family counseling learn to help clients cope with changing family and marital relationships, overcome stress, and handle traumatic situations. Many students choose to complement their general counseling skills by specializing in treatment areas or client bases like the examples below.

Addiction Counseling

Addiction specialists help clients overcome physical and psychological dependence. Substance abuse impacts patients as well as their friends and family members, and many counselors also help clients' loved ones cope with the emotional turmoil that surrounds the recovery process. Therapeutic approaches may include setting boundaries, stopping enabling behaviors, and regaining trust.

Trauma and Crisis Counseling

Individuals who experience trauma or crisis may need help exploring their feelings and developing healthy coping strategies. Counselors with expertise in this area often assist communities affected by large-scale tragedies, such as terrorist attacks, mass shootings, or devastation following natural disasters. They may also assist victims of crime, especially abuse, assault, or sexual violence.

Military Families and Culture

From financial stress to trust issues, military families face many of the same challenges as civilian families However, military families must also cope with long deployments and separations, frequent relocation, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Military counseling specialists are often employed at military institutions, with Veterans Affairs, or with nonprofit organizations.

What Can I Do With a Master's in Family Counseling Degree?

A master's in family counseling can lead to a rewarding career assisting families, children, and couples. However, many positions require more than just a degree. All counselors who diagnose and treat clients must obtain a state license. While licensure requirements vary from state to state, candidates are usually expected to complete one to two years of full-time practice under the supervision of a licensed therapist. Some professions, such as substance abuse counseling, may require additional education or specialty certifications. The following roles are just a few of the most popular careers among program graduates.

Marriage and Family Therapists

These therapists address issues related to family and marital relationships. They help clients discuss and reflect on the experiences and emotions surrounding life changes, such as marriage and divorce, as well as later life issues involving changing parental roles, retirement, and career changes. Counseling may occur one-on-one or in groups. At minimum, most states require marriage and family therapists to hold a master's degree in counseling and complete 1-2 years of supervised clinical training after graduation.

Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors treat a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral illnesses and disorders. They may work in private practices or at healthcare or mental health facilities to providing individual or group therapy. Many counselors specialize in certain treatment areas, such as addiction, and they often work as part of a larger healthcare team that includes psychologists, social workers, and physicians. While some counseling positions require only a bachelor's degree, most need a counseling license to perform clinical work. A master's degree is typically the minimum educational requirement.

Rehabilitation Counselor

These specialists help individuals with cognitive, developmental, emotional, or physical disabilities lead independent and fulfilling lives. In addition to providing counseling services, they often connect clients with job training opportunities or resources to help them adjust to their limitations. While candidates with a bachelor's degree in rehabilitation or disability studies may gain entry to the field, many positions are reserved for licensed counselors who hold at least a master's degree. Some employers prefer to hire applicants who have obtained the certified rehabilitation counselor professional designation.

Psychologist

Psychologists focus on clinical practice, counseling, and research. They administer diagnostic tests to assess mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders and pursue appropriate treatments. Most psychologists must hold a doctoral degree and meet specific state licensing requirements to diagnose and treat patients. Psychologists often supervise counselors or graduate students. They may work in private practices, hospitals, schools, and government agencies.

Social and Human Services Assistants

Working under the direction of counselors, social workers, or psychologists, these professionals coordinate follow-up services, connect clients to resources, and help patients complete paperwork needed to enroll in social support programs. Assistants work in a variety of settings and with diverse populations. While some jobs may only require a high school diploma, relevant work experience or an undergraduate degree increases employment opportunities and earning power. Advanced positions may require additional education and training.

Students pursuing a master's of family counseling online can benefit greatly from joining and becoming active in a professional organization. These associations provide members with access to educational resources and the latest news on advancements in the field. Many organizations offer networking opportunities such as conferences and regular meetings, and some sponsor mentorship and internship programs, as well as exclusive grants and scholarships.

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy

In addition to setting professional standards for the industry, AAMFT serves as a legislative advocate for issues related to family and marriage therapy and provides continuing education programs. The association's research and education division gathers and analyzes data to improve client outcomes and promote evidence-based therapeutic interventions.

Chi Sigma Iota

This international honor society promotes excellence in counseling education and maintains a recognition program for students who demonstrate excellence in clinical and academic research. The organization launched in 1985 at Ohio University and currently serves more than 125,000 members through more than 400 chapters. Both professional counselors and students may join.

American Counseling Association

This organization serves mental health professionals working in a variety of specialties, practices, and settings. Members gain access to free continuing education courses and journals exploring the latest developments in counseling.

International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors

Founded in 1989, IAMFC got its start as a division of the American Counseling Association. IAMFC's annual conferences feature expert speakers and specialists, and those who attend may obtain continuing education credits. Members can take advantage of networking and mentoring opportunities and participate in the Emerging Leaders Program.

American Institute of Health Care Professionals

This organization grants mental health providers with professional designations in grief counseling, anger management, stress management, and crisis intervention counseling. After obtaining initial certification, the institute provides ongoing professional training to ensure that providers remain on the cutting edge of specialty psychological care.

How Much Can I Make with a Career in Family Counseling?

After completing a master's in family counseling, graduates who wish to provide clinical mental health services must obtain a state license. While some entry-level roles require only a master's degree, licensed counselors enjoy greater employment opportunities and higher salaries. Although many of the following positions call for additional education or licensure, they are also lucrative, high-demand roles.

Job Title Lowest 10% Earned Annually Median Annual Salary Highest 10% Earned Annually Job Growth 2016-2026
Marriage and Family Therapists Less than $31,390 $48,790 More than $81,760 23%
Mental Health Counselors Less than $27,310 $43,300 More than $70,840 23%
Rehabilitation Counselors Less than $22,040 $34,860 More than $62,780 13%
Psychologists Less than $42,330 $77,030 More than $124,520 14%
Socal and Human Services Assistants Less than $21,480 $33,120 More than $53,380 16%

Source: BLS 2018

Job growth among counseling professions remains strong thanks to increased focus on individual mental health care and integrated healthcare services, in which multiple specialists work together to improve overall patient well-being. While most counseling professions employ general mental health diagnostic and treatment options, many counselors find greater opportunities working with specific client populations, including families, children, older individuals, or patients struggling with substance abuse or addiction.

Bachelor's degree graduates who take on entry-level counseling positions often find limited opportunities and career growth without continued education and training. A master's degree serves as the minimum educational requirement to gain state licensure and provide clinical services to the public. According to the Center on Education and the Workforce, individuals with a bachelor's degree earn a median salary of $49,000, while master's degree-holders earn a median salary of $65,000.

Online Master's in Family Counseling Program Accreditation

Earning a master's in family counseling online from an accredited institution and program is vital to your future academic and career success. In most states, counseling or therapist license applicants must hold a master's degree from a university accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Education (COAMFTE), or the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC). Each accrediting agency sets the standards it measures, which are often developed in cooperation with professional counselors and educators. Accreditation provides independent quality assurance that a school's curriculum is both relevant and rigorous.

In addition to specialized counseling accreditation, schools should also hold regional or national institutional accreditation. Institutional accrediting agencies review a school's degree offerings, resources, and teaching standards. Regional accrediting agencies, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools or the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, work with schools within their geographic region. Most regional accrediting agencies pre-date national organizations, and schools are more likely to grant transfer credit earned at regionally accredited universities.

How to Pay for a Master's in Family Counseling Degree

Enrolling in a master's program requires a substantial financial commitment. One added advantage to earning a master's in family counseling online is that many students can continue working while they are in school. Distance learners also avoid costs associated with campus housing, transportation, and facility fees. However, you should still consider the cost of tuition, books, and technology fees as you develop a budget. Many students also choose to apply for financial aid. Read on to learn more about some common ways graduate students fund their degrees.

  • Federal Financial Aid

    The U.S. Department of Education is the country's largest provider of need-based student loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. To determine their eligibility, students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Some learners may qualify for low-interest, subsidized federal student loans, in which the department pays the interest on the loan while the student remains enrolled in school. Although unsubsidized loans accrue interest while you are in school, they do not require repayment until after graduation.

  • Professional Association Scholarships

    Professional associations offer competitive scholarships to help defray education costs. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, for example, awards a scholarship to encourage minority students to enter the field, as well as a $2,000 scholarship for master's-level students.

  • Fellowships

    Like scholarships, many organizations sponsor fellowships for students pursuing a graduate degree. Fellowships provide financial awards to deserving candidates who agree to fulfill a related commitment, such as an internship, research, or period of service. The National Board for Certified Counselors offers a minority fellowship program for students seeking a master's in mental health.

  • Loan Forgiveness

    Some behavioral health professionals may qualify for loan repayment programs through the National Health Service Corps. Under this program, trained and licensed mental health clinicians commit to working a specified number of years in areas undergoing healthcare provider shortages. In return, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pays a certain amount of the individual's student debt.