FARMINGTON — Starting next year, an accelerated program offered jointly by the University of Maine at Farmington and the University of Southern Maine will allow counseling students to graduate with a master’s degree a year sooner.

The combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program at UMaine Farmington and USM is intended to get motivated students their master’s degrees in five years instead of the traditional six and allow them to enter the growing field with less debt, said Jewel Jones, UMaine Farmington associate professor of rehabilitation services, who helped develop the program over two years.

“It’s not for everyone,” Jones said. “It’s targeted for high school juniors and seniors that have a clear career path.”

Jones said the program lets students enter a field that is expanding rapidly in Maine and elsewhere.

“We can’t place our students in the job market fast enough,” Jones said. “It’s growing. It will continue to be growing.”

However, Jenna Mehnert, executive director of NAMI Maine, an advocacy group for people with mental illness, said while the field is growing rapidly and mental health skill sets are critical in the workforce, she is concerned that the accelerated program will leave out important academic training.

“I’m pretty concerned about the less time being invested,” she said. “Right now, because we’ve switched to a mostly fee-for-service model, agencies don’t have the training dollars that they had 10 years ago. They don’t have the resources to invest in the on-the-job training that used to really develop someone’s expertise.”

Mehnert said the broad range of specialty work in social services and counseling requires specialized education.

“What they need now from academia is to come out of school with both the academic foundation and the actual skill development,” she said. “My question would be if they are going to train them on national evidence- based models.”

Charlie Bernacchio, USM associate professor of counselor education in rehabilitation counseling who helped develop the program, said he can understand concerns about accelerating the academic program, because the mental health field is diverse and requires proper preparation. However, he noted the two universities had to follow all national accreditation programs in creating the program and said the core content is not lost in the five years.

“The accelerated program includes all of the core courses for the rehabilitation science majors. The intent was to get them (the students) to declare a major early so they could get into those courses more quickly,” he said.

Graduates of the five-year program will be able to qualify for both state licensing for counseling and national certification for rehabilitation counseling,

The program, which will be available in the fall of 2015, is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs and the Council on Rehabilitation Education. The certifications covers work in a variety of settings, such as alcohol and drug treatment facilities, counseling agencies, correctional facilities, independent-living programs and mental health centers. The program will start out small, taking only eight to 10 students the first year, Jones said.