Online Master's Programs in Family Counseling

Updated on: 12/12/18

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the marriage and family therapy field to grow by 23% through 2026. As such, students considering earning an online master's degree in marriage and family therapy should consider enrolling in a program in the immediate future. The field offers a median annual salary of $48,790 and rapid growth in figures over the next couple of years.

Marriage and family therapy master's programs online provide a strong alternative to in-person programs for several types of students. These students include professionals who work full time but hold degrees in different fields, high school graduates who know they want to study marriage and family therapy, and professionals already working in marriage and family therapy who want to advance in their careers or earn more money. The following guide provides a comprehensive overview of earning a master's degree in marriage and family therapy online, covering topics such as typical courses, financial aid, career paths, and related professional organizations.

What to Know About Online Master's in Family Counseling Coursework

In addition to learning practical counseling skills and the theory behind marital and familial problems, students in marriage and family therapy master's programs online gain a comprehensive set of soft skills throughout their learning. These soft skills include empathy, listening, people skills, and emotional intelligence. Even if graduates do not enter the marriage and family therapy field, they can apply these skills across their personal and professional lives.

The typical master's in family therapy (MFT) program lasts one to two years and requires 36 credits to complete. On-campus programs usually provide students with more completion times, while online programs offer students greater flexibility. Many online MFT programs also deliver courses asynchronously, meaning that students complete coursework at their convenience without any set class times. Students stay in touch through message boards and other group work. While this setup provides students with much more flexibility, it also requires far greater discipline. Students who thrive in online MFT programs can motivate themselves and establish their own schedule.

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

While individual courses differ in each master's in family counseling program, core coursework generally holds steady across all programs. Since programs prepare graduates for the same workforce, they must ensure that their students graduate with the same core competencies. Below, we highlight five common core courses.

Multicultural Counseling

This course explores cultural and social foundations that explain individual, family, and group behavior. In addition to theory, the course covers strategies for intervention and understanding with different cultural groups. The course prepares students to practice with different minority populations.

Psychopathology

A standard course in any counseling program, psychopathology covers prevention, etiology, disease treatment, and diagnosis for different mental health disorders. The course also familiarizes students with DSM IV terminology, an essential skill for use in their professional lives after graduation.

Major Models of Marriage and Family Therapy

Often separated into three or even four courses, major models of marriage and family therapy familiarizes students with historical, theoretical, and practical knowledge. Topics include treatment strategy and the biological, spiritual, and emotional background of marital or familial issues.

Human Growth and Development

This course provides a comprehensive overview of how individuals grow and develop across their lifetime. This information provides essential context for how individuals operate in marital and familial settings. Possible topics include cognitive, moral, emotional, and personality development over an individual's lifespan.

Group Counseling

As opposed to human growth and development, which focuses on the individual, this course studies dynamics, processes, stages, and theories in the context of groups. Possible topics include roles and leadership within groups. As families and marriages both involve groups, this course provides future marriage and family counselors with essential career preparation.

Internship or Clinical Component

Most high-quality master's in family counseling programs require students to complete a 100-hour practicum and a 300-hour internship. In most cases, half of the practicum hours and half of the internship hours must include direct contact with patients. For online programs, these components often take place at prearranged sites (e.g. private practices, mental health clinics, and other relevant organizations) in students' individual communities, eliminating the need to travel to campus. Online students generally need to research local organizations, propose an internship and practicum site to their programs, and receive approval.

How Can I Choose a Quality Online Master's in Family Counseling Program?

Students should not enroll in a master's in family counseling program that does not hold regional accreditation. The ED and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation oversee the process of regional accreditation, which sends auditors to vet each school for quality. Employers often do not recognize degrees from schools that do not hold regional accreditation. In addition, the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education oversees programmatic accreditation within family counseling. This commission evaluates schools against a field-specific set of standards, and its seal of approval can help future counselors identify a quality program.

Other hallmarks of high-quality and trustworthy master's in family counseling programs include graduation rate and qualified faculty (e.g. professors with advanced degrees). In addition, as discussed in the previous section, all quality master's in family counseling programs should provide opportunities for direct experience through internships and practicum offerings.

Career Opportunities With a Master's in Family Counseling Degree

Though an online master's degree in marriage and family therapy prepares graduates for a very specific field, they can also apply the general counseling skills they learn to several adjacent fields. Below, we explore five separate career possibilities for master's in family counseling online graduates. One important note: while a degree in marriage and family counseling certainly helps during the job search, no one degree can guarantee eligibility or suitability for any given position. Additionally, many counseling-related careers require an additional licensure or certification beyond a master's degree in the appropriate field.

Marriage and Family Therapists

Marriage and family therapists assist individuals, groups, and families in overcoming their relationship problems by facilitating conversations and listening. They often carry out this mission through weekly or monthly sessions at their private office or at a mental health center. All of these professionals must possess patience, understanding, people skills, and emotional intelligence. All marriage and family therapists must earn state-specific licensure and a master's degree before they can practice.

Median Salary: $48,790

Currently Employed: 41,500

Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: +23%

Psychologist

Psychologists research and publish in several different areas within the broad field, including social, emotional, and cognitive psychology. In general, psychologists conduct experiments that observe some facet of human behavior and publish their findings, adding to a larger scientific conversation. Professional psychologists must feel comfortable spending many of their hours in the lab, working with other psychological professionals, and confronting ethical dilemmas. In most cases, psychologists need a doctoral degree.

Median Salary: $77,030 per year

Currently Employed: 166,600

Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: +14%

School or Career Counselor

School counselors help students deal with their problems, develop social and study skills, and plan their future. These professionals often help students choose their classes and apply to different colleges. Career counselors help other professionals who find themselves at a crossroads decide which career path they want to pursue. Both career and school counselors need a master's degree and state licensure in their field in order to practice.

Median Salary: $55,410 per year

Currently Employed: 291,700

Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: +13%

Social Worker

Social workers assist individuals with their personal, everyday emotional problems. Social workers can work for the government (e.g. social service agencies), schools, community health clinics, or private practices. Social workers can earn a clinical designation that allows them to diagnose mental health disorders. In all cases, social workers must possess outstanding people skills and empathy and must feel comfortable working in high-stress situations and for long hours. Social workers need at least a bachelor's degree, but many professional social workers also hold a master's in the field.

Median Salary: $47,980 per year

Currently Employed: 682,100

Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: +16%

Social and Community Service Manager

Social and community service managers operate in a managerial role, overseeing programs for governmental and nonprofit organizations. The position generally requires some work experience in the field and a bachelor's degree, although a master's degree can help separate you from the competition. In general, these professionals typically work regular hours, although they may need to give speeches or man tables at certain special events for their organization.

Median Salary: $64,100 per year

Currently Employed: 147,300

Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: +18%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

What's the Expected Job Growth for Family Counseling Careers?

Marriage and family therapy constitutes one of the nation's fastest-growing fields, as the BLS projects the number of available marriage and family counselor jobs to grow by 23% through 2026. That rate far outstrips the national average growth rate. Since all marriage and family therapists must earn a master's degree before they can practice, now is a particularly apt time to enroll in marriage and family therapy master's programs online.

Professional Organizations for Careers in Family Counseling

In a field as people-centric as family counseling, professional organizations can make the difference in an individual's career advancement and ability to get hired. These organizations offer opportunities such as networking events (e.g. annual conferences), job boards, continuing education, and professional development. Below, we spotlight five family counseling-related organizations.

  • American Family Therapy Academy

    Arguably the field's leading organization, AFTA offers membership to a variety of professionals, including researchers, therapists, educators, academics, and students. AFTA features an annual conference, puts out several publications, and provides a member directory for networking.

  • International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors

    IAMFC primarily focuses on providing access to publications and other media materials to its members. These publications include The Family Journal and The Family Digest (IAMFC's newsletter). The association also maintains several local chapters.

  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy

    AAMFT focuses more on professional development compared to its peer organizations, offering continuing education opportunities such as webinars, an annual conference, and access to publications and research.

  • National Council on Family Relations

    NCFR strives to better understand families through "interdisciplinary research, theory, and practice." The council accomplishes its mission through an annual conference, local discussion groups, and the publication of journals.

  • International Family Therapy Association

    IFTA maintains a similar mission to AFTA, but operates internationally instead of domestically. IFTA offers an annual conference that brings together family therapy professionals from around the globe. The organization also provides quality standards for the profession.

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

Students earning an online master's degree in marriage and family therapy can pursue several different avenues to reduce the cost of their tuition. They can choose to pursue aid, grants, and both need-based and merit-based scholarships through the federal government, third parties, and individual programs. Below, we take a closer look at some of those options.

Federal Financial Aid

All eligible students pursuing an online master's degree in marriage and family therapy should fill out the FAFSA application as a first step to receiving financial aid. FAFSA serves as the gatekeeper to many different types of federal aid and provides assistance to college students from a variety of backgrounds.

AAMFT Minority Fellowship Program

The AAMFT Minority Fellowship Program provides yearly stipends ranging from $6,600 to $36,000 to students who demonstrate a commitment to working with minority populations. Applicants must also hold current AAMFT membership and enroll in accredited campus-based or online master's in marriage and family therapy programs. Fellowship awardees also gain access to lifelong mentoring.

American Addiction Centers Behavioral Health Academic Scholarships

Each year, AAC awards three scholarships ($2,500-$5,000) to students pursuing mental health careers. All applicants must submit a 500-word essay addressing issues in getting people struggling with addiction to accept treatment. Though students in many different fields apply, 2018's first place winner — Crystal Clark — was pursuing a master's in family therapy.

Future Counselors of America Scholarships

DatingAdvice.com awards several $1,000 annual scholarships to students of all levels (bachelor's, master's, and doctoral) planning to practice in relationship counseling. All applicants must provide proof of a minimum 3.5 GPA for consideration. Applicants must also write a 500-900 word essay about psychological issues in online dating.