Though speech-language pathologists work with a variety of patient populations and in many capacities, including direct care, administration, education, research, and advocacy, the education required to enter the field as a licensed professional remains consistent: A graduate degree in speech-language pathology.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the nation’s leading professional, scientific, and credentialing association for speech-language pathologists, sets the professional standards that underpin the SLP profession.
Though in most states it is not necessary to earn certification through ASHA to practice speech-language pathology, most states do have licensing requirements similar to ASHA’s certification standards:
- Earn a master’s degree in communicative sciences and disorders
- Complete a period of post-graduate experience
- Pass a competency examination
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- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
The Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA), the accrediting arm of ASHA, is responsible for establishing and enforcing the accreditation standards for graduate programs in speech-language pathology and audiology.
CAA-accredited master’s programs in SLP and CSD (Communicative Sciences and Disorders) prepare students for clinical fellowship, and eventually, state licensure and professional certification in speech-language pathology.
The purpose of CAA accreditation is to:
- Ensure students receive a comprehensive education that prepares them for professional practice
- Ensure the protection of the public
- Improve the quality of teaching, learning, research, and professional practice
As of 2016, there were 266 speech-language pathology master’s programs (248 accredited programs and 18 candidate programs), formatted in one of three ways:
- Master of Arts (MA)
- Master of Science (MS)
- Master of Education (MEd)
To be eligible for CAA accreditation, colleges and universities must:
- Offer a master’s degree program specifically designed to prepare students for entry into independent professional practice as a speech-language pathologist
- Hold regional accreditation from one of the following regional accrediting bodies:
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Commission on Colleges, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, Western Association of Schools and Colleges
CAA-accredited graduate programs must have a curriculum that includes both academic and clinical education. The education must be consistent with the mission and goals of ASHA and the CAA by preparing students with mastery of the full breadth and depth of skills and knowledge within the SLP scope of practice. This means all CAA-accredited graduate programs must:
- Provide a curriculum leading to a master’s or other entry-level clinical degree with a major emphasis in speech-language pathology
- Offer appropriate courses and clinical experiences on a regular basis to allow students to complete the degree requirements in the prescribed timeframe
- Ensure that graduates have opportunities to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for entry into professional practice across the range of practice settings, including hospitals, schools, private practice, community speech and hearing centers, etc.
- Ensure that graduates qualify for state and national credentials that support independent professional practice
With many conventional campus-based programs now including some online component, a true distance learning program has been defined as one in which at least 50 percent of the graduate academic hours can be completed online.
Online speech-language pathology graduate degree programs must meet specific distance education requirements for regular and substantive interactions between students and the instructor. For example, ASHA accreditation standards require institutions to use interactive technologies as part of the distance education platform, which may include everything from interactive modules to audioconferencing with professors and instructor-led interactive online discussions with peers.
Online Speech-Language Pathology Graduate Programs: Academic and Clinical Education Requirements
CAA-accredited master’s degrees in speech-language pathology are generally completed through two years of graduate education. The curriculum of these programs is designed to provide students with at least 400 supervised clinical education hours, 325 of which must be attained at the graduate level.
Supervised clinical experiences must be distributed throughout the program and provide students with the opportunity to obtain a variety of clinical education experiences in different work settings, with different populations, and with the appropriate equipment and resources.
Clinical experiences must be designed, organized, administered, and evaluated by the program. CAA accreditation requires institutions to have agreements in place with supervisors/preceptors and clinical sites.
Many institutions now offer master’s degrees in SLP in either a partially or fully online format. These distance-based programs allow students to complete the academic components of their SLP program through interactive, online study and then complete their clinical requirements at sites close to home.
On-campus clinical immersions help to round out the program and provide students with the opportunity to meet professors and fellow students and engage in unique learning experiences.
Supervisors and experienced SLPs often serve as mentors and help guide students throughout the program.
Students are assigned dedicated field placement advisors who oversee the scheduling and placement of their clinical learning experiences to ensure clinical experience diversity. Clinical placement settings often include:
- Skilled nursing facilities
- Private practices
- Public schools
- Rehabilitation clinics
CAA programs must provide a curriculum that allows students to acquire and demonstrate knowledge of basic human communication and swallowing processes, while considering biological, neurological, acoustic, psychological, developmental, linguistic, and cultural factors.
They must also provide opportunities for students to acquire and demonstrate knowledge of the nature of speech and language, hearing, swallowing, and communication disorders and differences in the areas of:
- Voice and resonance including respiration and phonation
- Receptive and expressive language
- Pre-linguistic communication
- Paralinguistic communication
Accredited SLP graduate programs give attention to the mechanics of different facets of communication, like speaking, listening, reading, writing, and manual modalities, with consideration given to factors that include:
- Hearing, including the impact on speech and language
- Swallowing, including oral, pharyngeal, esophageal, and related functions
- Cognitive aspects of communication:
- Problem solving
- Executive functioning
- Social aspects of communication (behavioral and social skills affecting communication)
- Communication modalities:
- Oral, manual, and augmentative and alternative communication techniques
- Assistive technologies
SLP master’s degree programs must also provide students with the opportunity to acquire and demonstrate knowledge of:
- Principles and methods of prevention, assessment, and intervention for people with communication and swallowing disorders across the lifespan, with consideration given to anatomical/physiological, psychological, developmental, linguistic and cultural factors
- Standards of ethical conduct
- Interaction and interdependence of speech, language, and hearing, and hearing in the discipline of human communication sciences and disorders
- Processes used in research and the integration of research principles into evidence-based clinical practice
- Contemporary professional issues and advocacy
- Certification, specialty recognition, licensure, and other relevant processional credentials
Speech-language pathology master’s degree programs must also provide students with the opportunity to acquire and demonstrate skills in:
- Oral, written, and other forms of communication
- Prevention, evaluation, and intervention of communication disorders and swallowing disorders
- Interaction and personal qualities, including:
- Ethical practice
- Professional behavior
- Effective interaction with patients, families, professionals, and other individuals
- Delivery of services to culturally and linguistically diverse populations
- Application of the principles of evidence-based practice
- Self-evaluation of the effectiveness of practice, including assessments, diagnoses and interventions
Speech-language pathology master’s degree programs tend to be competitive, requiring students to possess:
- Minimum 3.0 GPA
- Minimum GRE scores
- Letters of recommendation
Specific undergraduate courses (often called foundational courses) are required to enter an accredited SLP master’s program. These generally include:
- Anatomy and Physiology of the Speech and Swallow Mechanism
- Science of Language
- Neurological Basis of Cognition, Behavior, and Communication
- Speech Development and Disorders
- Language Development and Disorders in Children
- Introduction to Audiology and Aural Rehabilitation
For some students, all undergraduate requirements are satisfied through the completion of a bachelor’s degree in communication sciences and disorders. Applicants who completed a bachelor’s degree in another field may need to complete the required foundational courses after admission but before commencing graduate coursework.
Some institutions allow students to complete undergraduate requirements through online courses as a way to more easily facilitate the admission process.
Doctoral Degrees in Speech-Language Pathology
Research Doctorate (PhD) in Speech-Language Pathology – Rather than being designed as practice-focused degrees for speech-pathologists, research-focused doctorates (PhD) are designed to prepare individuals for a career in academia or research.
The purpose of the post-entry PhD is to prepare doctoral students to contribute to the science of speech-language pathology by providing them an opportunity to:
- Extensively study a focused area of interest within speech-language pathology
- Learn the scientific method
- Receive the preparation needed to independently pursue a program of research
- Secure funding to pursue research in an area of interest within SLP
- Contribute to the basic and applied knowledge of speech-language pathology
Clinical Doctorate in Speech-Language Pathology (SLP.D.) – ASHA refers to the clinical doctorate in speech-language pathology as an “emerging optional career path degree.” Currently, it is offered only through a few institutions.
The purpose of the post-entry clinical doctorate in speech-language pathology is to:
- Increase advanced critical thinking and clinical problem-solving skills
- Achieve greater depth of knowledge in select areas of clinical practice
- Encourage leadership and advocacy
- Gain expertise in the interpretation and application of clinical research
- Improve interprofessional practice
- Improve oral and written communication regarding the clinical enterprise
ASHA assumes that graduates of a clinical doctorate in SLP will be prepared to assume specific professional roles, such as:
- Master clinician
- Clinical educator
- Clinical administrator
- Leaders in a specialty clinical area or setting
- Collaborators and supporters of clinical research
AHSA predicts the need for advanced clinical skills and specialization as a major factor in the development of the non-entry level clinical doctorate in speech language pathology. Just a few of the emerging areas of practice include:
- Pediatric feeding and swallowing
- Tracheostomy and ventilation management
- Hearing loss
- Communication disorders among English language learners, among others