Most of us are fascinated by the motivations and reasoning that drive human behavior, and some people are inspired to turn that fascination into a career by becoming a counselor, therapist, or mental health professional. For those who are inspired to assist people in understanding and modifying their behavior in order to lead healthier and happier lives, this is an excellent time to be entering the field of counseling. Over the next 10 years, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting a 25% increase in demand for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health disorder counselors, and a similarly dramatic rise of 22% in demand for marriage and family therapists. Scroll down to find a ranked list of the best schools for online degrees in counseling. Then read on for more information about possible career specializations, the importance of choosing an accredited counseling program, licensing requirements for counselors, and answers to frequently asked questions about the field.
2020 Best Online Colleges Offering Bachelor's in Counseling Degrees
With low tuition rates and high average alumni salaries, the following 18 schools offer the best online bachelor's in counseling degrees. Houghton College is the #1 school, with an average alumni salary of $123,200 and charging only $32,930 for their B.A. in Psychology with a concentration in Clinical Counseling. Second-ranked Union College - KY offers a Bachelor of Science in Substance Abuse Counseling for $6,750 per year. Graduates of the school's counseling program earn a median salary of $83,100.
Alumni salaries were provided by PayScale. View our methodology for more details or learn more about OnlineU.
The Bachelor of Arts in Psychology - Clinical/Counseling degree at Houghton College is for students who wish to pursue careers helping others in need. This program will equip students with the research and analytical skills necessary to better understand human behavior. Graduates of the program may go on to explore careers in health and human services, as well as pursue advanced studies in research, clinical psychology, or counseling. This online counseling degree program explores psychology within the realm of the Christian faith, which is suitable for students seeking careers in ministry. The clinical/counseling track of this program requires the completion of 17 to 21 credit hours.
Online coursework covers developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, the psychology of personality, religion, human sexuality, drugs and behavior, counseling, and psychotherapy. Online discussion forums encourage interaction between students and instructors. Students have the option to complete an internship that can earn them two to six credits.
First-time college students applying to Houghton College must submit an application form, a personal statement, high school transcripts, test scores, and one recommendation letter. Students can have the ACT/SAT requirement waived based on strong academic performance. Transfer students must submit an application and an official college transcript; those with one full semester of completed coursework do not have to submit test scores. Depending on the number of credits already completed, transfer students who study full-time can complete their degrees in as few as 12 to 18 months.
#2 Union College - KY
Annual Tuition: $6,750
Median Salary: $83,100
Locations: Barbourville (KY)
Accreditation: SACS COC
Union College - Kentucky offers an online Bachelor of Science in Substance Abuse Counseling. This 120-credit program combines a strong foundation in the liberal arts with classes focused on substance abuse counseling. Students must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA throughout this program and complete all required college assessments. The 24-credit core requirements of this program cover the psychology of addiction, recovery, and relapse, as well as the foundations and ethical issues of drug dependency. An internship is one of the core requirements of this online counseling degree. Students may also take 15 hours of electives.
Even though classes are completed remotely, students are able to connect with faculty and fellow students within the online classroom environment. The user-friendly virtual learning platform offers 24/7 support. Students also receive access to faculty and academic advisers during their program for support in their scholastic and professional endeavors.
Applicants must submit an application form and official college transcripts. A minimum 2.0 GPA is required for admission. Students can transfer a maximum of 67 credits. Veterans should submit documents that detail their previous training. AP/CLEP exams may be accepted for course credit.
#3 Elizabethtown College
Annual Tuition: $17,760
Median Salary: $79,500
Locations: Elizabethtown (PA)
The Bachelor of Science and Human Services program at Elizabethtown College may be suitable for students pursuing careers as advocates, administrators, and counselors in the field of human services. Students can opt for a general program, or they can specialize in behavior and addictions counseling. Advanced electives can help students tailor their education to meet their career and personal goals. Graduates of this online counseling degree program will understand the challenges individuals face and how they can better cope with them through the support of various counseling services. While this program prepares students for the health services field as well as advanced study in counseling, it also aims to develop other professional skills, such as communication and critical thinking.
Students can opt to take classes entirely remotely or in a combination of online and on-campus courses. Classes are facilitated through Blackboard, and students register for classes through JayWeb. Smarthinking is a 24/7 online service that provides web-based tutorials, manuals, and other resources.
Applicants can waive the standardized test requirement if they have a 3.5 GPA or higher, or if they've graduated within the top 10% of their class. Students must submit an application form, guidance counselor report, high school transcript, and writing sample. Transfer students must submit an application and transcripts from prior colleges; test scores are optional. There is no fee to apply.
#4 Houston Baptist University
Annual Tuition: $12,865
Median Salary: $75,400
Locations: Houston (TX)
Accreditation: SACS COC
The Bachelor of Arts in Psychology - Christian Counseling degree at Houston Baptist University is designed for students who want to launch careers as counselors using a Christian faith-based approach. It is also appropriate for students wishing to pursue human service-based roles in a variety of fields. The program features a rigorous liberal arts foundation coupled with a Christian counseling cognate within the psychology major. This six-course sequence covers topics in individual, couple, and family counseling practice through the lens of Christianity. Students will learn how to combine their faith with counseling strategies in order to serve others effectively. Graduates can pursue opportunities in health and human services, as well as advance to graduate study in counseling and psychology.
This online bachelor's degree encourages active learning through asynchronous coursework. Students remain connected at home with regular feedback on their assignments from faculty members. The curriculum focuses on the science and theories that are the foundation of the field of psychology and addresses modern issues and ethics that are part of the Christian Counseling perspective.
Prospective students must submit official high school transcripts (or alternative). Transfer students must submit transcripts from previously attended colleges. The application fee is currently being waived. Admission counselors are available for prospective students to discuss their academic plans.
#5 University of Cincinnati
Annual Tuition: $10,342
Median Salary: $70,000
Locations: Cincinnati (OH) (and 1 other)
The University of Cincinnati offers an online Bachelor of Science in Substance Abuse Counseling. The curriculum in this program covers various theories and practices in the field, including crisis management, group counseling, ethics, assessment and diagnosis, and maintenance strategies for long-term treatment. Students can apply coursework from this program toward counseling licensure in their home state, but specific requirements will vary. For those who live or work in Ohio, this online counseling degree meets the requirements for the Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor II and III. A capstone experience is required during the senior year.
This program is offered entirely online via the Blackboard learning management platform. Students can enroll part-time or full time in the program, which has three start dates in the summer, fall, and spring. Online students at the University of Cincinnati are assigned an academic advisor and a Student Success Coordinator to provide support and guidance.
Students entering the University of Cincinnati directly from high school must submit their high school transcript and ACT or SAT scores. A minimum GPA of 2.7 is required for high school applicants. To be accepted as a transfer student, applicants must have at least 24 credits completed with a minimum GPA of 2.0.
#6 Washington State University
Annual Tuition: $11,550
Median Salary: $69,600
Locations: Pullman (WA)
The Bachelor of Science in Psychology offered at Washington State University's Global Campus offers a concentration in Clinical/Counseling. The diplomas earned from online degrees at WSU are the same as those earned from the on-campus programs. The concentration courses cover topics in gender, abnormal psychology, behavioral disorders, and psychological development. Online psychology students have the option to serve as tutors or teaching assistants and join Psi Chi, the national psychology honor society. Students are required to complete a writing portfolio to graduate.
Online courses are delivered via Blackboard’s learning management software. Faculty employ synchronous and asynchronous methods for teaching online coursework. Many classes use open education resources, meaning students are not required to pay for academic materials for those classes. The WSU Global Campus pairs each student with a personal academic advisor and offers 24/7 tech support. All online students may access WSU’s career counseling service for help with degree planning.
Applicants must submit high school transcripts, SAT or ACT scores, and (if over the age of 25) a resume and a brief essay.
#7 Colorado Christian University
Annual Tuition: $14,070
Median Salary: $59,700
Locations: Lakewood (CO)
Colorado Christian University offers an online Bachelor of Science in Applied Psychology. The curriculum explores human behavior theories from a Christian perspective. The BS in Applied Psychology requires students to complete 120 credit hours. Within the Clinical Counseling concentration, students complete 12 credits of graduate-level coursework, which they can apply toward a master’s degree in counseling should they decide to enroll in the accelerated option.
Online degrees operate on a platform called CCU Online, and course content is offered through Blackboard’s learning management software. Courses run in five-week sessions with weekly assignments. All classes are asynchronous, so students can complete their studies around their own schedules. Students have access to electronic resources from the Clifton Fowler Library, academic advisors for degree planning, and enrollment counselors.
CCU awards transfer credit for prior college coursework (up to 45 credits from an associate degree and up to 90 credits from a bachelor's degree), military experience, professional training, and life experience. To apply, prospective students should complete the online adult undergraduate application. A copy of a state-issued identification card and proof of high school graduation is required.
#8 University of Toledo
Annual Tuition: $17,573
Median Salary: $55,600
Locations: Toledo (OH)
The University of Toledo’s online 120-credit Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies offers a concentration in counseling. The program is designed for adult learners and active military students. Students will complete seminars, electives, concentration courses, and a senior capstone project with an optional internship component. Coursework covers topics in humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Students who earn a minimum GPA of 3.3 in the program graduate with honors.
Online course content uses Blackboard learning management tools, including web-based discussion boards, videos, articles, and even phone and email for collaboration with peers and instructors. Online programs are designed by the institution’s faculty and are accessible 24/7. The University of Toledo provides students with a live chat feature for technical assistance. Individuals in the online BA program can work with a personalized academic advisor for degree planning.
To be considered for admission, students must be at least 24 years old and have a minimum GPA of 2.0. Students can receive up to 81 transfer credits for prior college experience, military service, and standardized testing.
#9 Oral Roberts University
Annual Tuition: $12,369
Median Salary: $51,800
Locations: Tulsa (OK)
Oral Roberts University offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Christian Caregiving and Counseling through the College of Theology and Ministry. This 124-credit program is designed for adult learners seeking a flexible course schedule. Courses are taught in 7-week sessions, and the curriculum includes instruction in psychology principles, biblical teachings, research methods, theology, and ethics. Seniors are required to complete a project or practicum experience before graduating.
Course content is managed through the Desire2Learn learning management system and uses asynchronous tools. Online learners must complete a three-credit virtual orientation course. Support resources for online students include enrollment counselors and digital materials from the ORU library (including a live chat with a librarian feature). Additional benefits are available for active military and veteran students.
First-year applicants should submit a completed application, official high school transcripts, and ACT or SAT scores. Those with at least 15 transfer credits from prior college-level work need only to submit the application and college transcripts.
#10 Notre Dame College
Annual Tuition: $14,250
Median Salary: $52,500
Locations: Cleveland (OH)
Notre Dame College offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a concentration in Clinical and Counseling. The college's online degree programs are designed for working adults pursuing a career change or career advancement. The BA in Psychology is a four-year program totaling 120 credit hours; Courses run for eight-week sessions. The curriculum includes general education requirements, major coursework, and concentration classes. A senior seminar is required before graduating.
Online instruction includes discussion forums and assignments with set deadlines. Students are expected to dedicate significant time each week to their studies. Online learners work with an online program advisor to address any questions and concerns.
To apply, students should have a minimum GPA of 2.5 and should submit a completed application, official high school transcripts, and official college transcripts (if applicable). Enrollment counselors and a transcript team are available to help even before a student applies.
#11 Liberty University
Annual Tuition: $11,700
Median Salary: $50,300
Locations: Lynchburg (VA)
Accreditation: SACS COC
Liberty University offers an online Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Bachelor of Science in Religion. Students in the psychology program can select a concentration in Addiction and Recovery, Christian Counseling, or Crisis Counseling. The BS in Religion includes a concentration in Christian Counseling. Both of these degree programs require that students complete 120 credit hours over 3.5 years, with classes running in eight-week sessions. The curriculum for the BS in Psychology includes an internship component to provide practice in counseling. The BS in Religion emphasizes theological coursework and trains individuals in how to provide care to patients. Individuals in this program complete a research capstone project.
Liberty University uses Blackboard’s platform to facilitate its online content. Courses are delivered asynchronously, which lets students complete work and watch classes at their own pace. Online learners have access to Adobe products, an IT help desk (with service hours every day), virtual tutoring, and resources from the Jerry Falwell Library.
Transfer students can submit up to 90 credits to go toward their bachelor’s degree. Applicants must submit a completed application and official transcripts.
#12 Fort Hays State University
Annual Tuition: $6,560
Median Salary: $47,600
Locations: Hays (KS)
There are two online counseling degree options for undergraduate students at Fort Hays State University (FHSU): the Bachelor of Arts in Sociology with a concentration in Addictions Counseling and the Bachelor of Science in Sociology with a concentration in Addictions Counseling. The Addictions Counseling track provides students with academic training to become licensed addictions counselors in Kansas. The curriculum includes core sociology degree requirements, general education courses, concentration classes, and electives. Along with the minimum 120 credit hours, students are required to take two practicums before graduating. The BA degree includes a foreign language requirement.
Online content is delivered through the FHSU Virtual College with web-based tools provided by the Blackboard learning management system. Students completing coursework in the sociology program engage in discussion boards, presentations, team projects, and exams. Distance learners have access to tutoring services, career counseling, and technical assistance with a live chat feature.
Prospective students should submit a completed application, official transcripts (which must reflect the minimum GPA requirement of 2.0), and test scores. Applicants coming in as first-year students must score a minimum of 21 on the ACT (or 980 on the SAT) or rank in the top third of their high school graduating class. Students with at least 24 college credits and a minimum college GPA of 2.0 may apply as transfer students.
#13 Drexel University
Annual Tuition: $38,475
Median Salary: $59,300
Locations: Philadelphia (PA)
Drexel University’s Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Counseling is available entirely online and shares the same curriculum as its on-campus counterpart. The program provides comprehensive instruction of behavioral disorders, with topics in assessment and treatment planning, substance abuse disorders, group counseling, and psychiatric rehabilitation. Drexel University operates in four 10-week quarters. Seniors complete a final research project before graduating.
Online content is asynchronous and managed on Blackboard’s platform, where students are expected to watch weekly lectures and videos and engage in online chat features. Online learners have access to enrollment counselors and academic advisors. Prospective students can try out an online course to make sure Drexel University is the right fit.
Students with previously earned college credits may transfer up to 135 quarter credits (90 semester credits) toward the liberal arts and general education requirements. To be considered for admission, applicants should send in a completed application, official transcripts, and ACT or SAT scores. Transfer students are exempt from submitting standardized test scores.
#14 New England College
Annual Tuition: $12,150
Median Salary: $47,500
Locations: Henniker (NH)
New England College offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with two counseling concentration options: Addiction and Substance Abuse, and Marriage Therapy, and Family Counseling. The 120-credit degree can be completed in four years, which requires that students complete courses in biology, psychology, and sociology, a liberal arts core, and general education classes. Psychology classes cover topics in abnormal psychology and forensic psychology; Classes run in seven-week sessions.
Online degrees are delivered using Bisk Education, an online learning services provider. Online content is typically delivered via recorded lectures, and participants complete assignments and readings at whatever time works best for them. New England College's online support services include academic advising, enrollment counselors, a tutoring center, resources from the Danforth Library, career planning help, and additional benefits for veterans.
New England College is recognized as a Yellow Ribbon institution. There is no application fee to apply: Individuals need only submit the application and official transcripts. Up to 90 transfer credits may be applied to the undergraduate degree.
#15 Bay Path University
Annual Tuition: $12,000
Median Salary: $46,600
Locations: Longmeadow (MA) (and 1 other)
Bay Path University has an online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with two counseling concentrations in Foundations in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling and Counseling Foundations. Both programs are offered through the American Women’s College. The curriculum for the Foundations in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling track includes topics in drugs and behavior, interventions, and counseling in diverse populations. Graduates must complete a 300-hour internship component and are prepared to take the Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor licensing exam. The Counseling Foundations track instructs in counseling techniques for diverse populations and counseling ethics.
Bay Path University’s American Women’s College uses a data-driven online learning platform called SOUL, which provides students with an online orientation, adaptive learning strategies, and accelerated courses. Distance education resources include virtual tutoring, academic advising, career services, and the Hatch Library.
To be considered, applicants must have a minimum GPA of 2.0. Individuals should submit a completed application and submit official transcripts. A phone interview will follow.
#16 Western New Mexico University
Annual Tuition: $15,231
Median Salary: $42,300
Locations: Silver City (NM)
Western New Mexico University offers an online Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in Chemical Dependency Counseling through the School of Behavioral Sciences. The 120-credit programs are designed to meet the academic requirements for the Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor certification in the state of New Mexico. The BA requires additional foreign language coursework, while the BS requires additional math or computer science coursework. Individuals interested in becoming counselors will complete chemical dependency coursework and fundamental classes in psychology, sociology, and statistics. Students will also complete a 300-hour internship to qualify them for licensure.
Online courses are facilitated through the Canvas learning management software. All class materials are delivered asynchronously with set due dates for assignments. Distance learners have access to various resources, including tutoring, disability services, and veteran's services.
To be considered for admission, students must complete an application and send official high school transcripts. ACT or SAT scores may be submitted in lieu of taking the Accuplacer Exam, but they are not required. Students with at least 24 college credits may apply as transfer students.
#17 University of Maine at Augusta
Annual Tuition: $9,269
Median Salary: $39,500
Locations: Augusta (ME)
The University of Maine at Augusta offers a Bachelor of Science in Mental Health and Human Services through its online platform, UMA Online. Students may select a concentration in Addiction Counseling. Upon successfully completing a total of 121 credits, graduates meet the requirements for the licensed Social Worker Conditional credential. The Addictions Counseling concentration covers topics in crisis intervention, substance abuse disorders, and how substance abuse affects different populations. Students work with UMA to identify an appropriate field placement site, which is part of the capstone requirement.
UMA Online uses Blackboard learning management software to host its online content. Some courses use pre-recorded lectures and asynchronous assignments, and some use real-time video-conferencing services. Online students attend a completely online new student orientation. Additionally, online learners have access to academic success coaching, advising, disability accommodations, and resources through the UMA libraries, including a live chat feature.
The online application is free and only requires official transcripts. Applicants must pass a criminal background check.
#18 Lee University
Annual Tuition: $7,560
Median Salary: $38,800
Locations: Cleveland (TN)
Accreditation: SACS COC
Lee University offers an online Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science in Ministry Leadership. Both 120-credit degree programs offer a concentration in Counseling and are designed for adult learners seeking a career path in ministry. The curriculum includes general education requirements, religion core classes, major courses, general electives, and concentration courses. Several counseling topics are studied, including personality theory, human sexuality, abnormal psychology, and various methodologies. The BA requires students to take six foreign language credits. To graduate, students need to complete a senior capstone project in the form of a reflection paper.
All online courses are asynchronous and follow a seven-week schedule. Online students must complete a virtual orientation that provides information on distance-based learning tools and resources available. Students have access to digital library materials and a writing lab, and there are additional support resources for veterans.
Application requirements include at least three years of experience beyond high school, a completed application (with fee), official high school transcripts, and official ACT or SAT scores (if under the age of 25). Transfer students with at least 16 credits are also exempt from submitting test scores.
Online Counseling Degree Overview & Career Information
Online graduate certificates and master’s degrees are the most commonly available counseling programs and generally prepare students for state licensure. Each state determines its own set of standards for licensed counselors, and the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) contracts with all of the states to administer the licensing exam. Students should review their state's requirements in order to determine which degree program is best suited for their professional goals.
Online bachelor’s degree programs in counseling typically focus on substance abuse, addictions, or human behavior. While a bachelor's degree in counseling will provide an introduction to the field, most states require that counselors have at least a master's degree in order to become licensed.
Master’s degree programs allow prospective counselors to specialize in a particular area, such as marriage and family or mental health counseling. Coursework varies greatly depending on the specialization, but most programs that prepare graduates for direct client assessment require supervised counseling practicums, fieldwork, and internship experience.
Doctoral degrees are designed for current counselors who want to advance in their careers, either as educators, advanced practitioners, researchers, or supervisors in counseling settings. Advanced classes within the doctorate generally cover topics such as counseling assessment, group counseling, supervising, counseling diverse populations, and counseling curriculum development.
Online Bachelor's Degrees in Counseling
An online Bachelor of Arts (BA) in counseling provides solid preparation for graduate study in counseling, marriage and family therapy, social work, and other human services and helping professions.
Online undergraduate programs in counseling follow the standard admissions protocol and require a high school diploma, SAT/ACT scores, a resume, and letters of recommendation. Online graduate counseling degree programs accept undergraduate majors in a wide variety of areas, although experience with psychology and sociology coursework is helpful.
Students who choose to earn bachelor's degrees in counseling will study general psychology and sociology, and they will also take a broader array of classes in math, sciences, communications, and social sciences. The classes students take as undergraduates will often mirror the courses they will take as graduate students, but the undergraduate curriculum revolves around learning existing theories rather than developing one's own ideas and techniques. Students gain a firm foundation in psychology and sociology through classes such as child development, addiction, abnormal psychology, and emotional disorders. Other courses discuss particular counseling issues, such as case management, drugs and behavior, substance abuse recovery, counseling skills, and counselor ethics. Many counseling bachelor's programs also include field experience requirements, where students observe experienced counselors and practice basic counseling skills in a supervised setting.
A four-year bachelor's degree may lead to positions in substance abuse or behavioral disorder counseling or nonclinical positions in human services or helping professions, but it alone will not qualify graduates to become a licensed counselor in most states. In order to become a licensed counselor, students will need to pursue a master's or doctoral degree in counseling.
What Students Learn in an Online Counseling Program
Online graduate counseling degrees offer courses that help students better understand how to interact with diverse populations. Psychology and sociology courses are offered with a variety of titles and will probably play a role in every class a counseling student takes. Because counselors are bound by legal parameters, graduate students will likely study these parameters, as well as the ethics and legal procedures that govern their work. Some counselors will take classes in general social work and cultural studies as well, so they can prepare for work in settings that serve populations in need. Students may also take courses that explore counseling procedures and theories, including group and individual counseling sessions.
The subjects that online students take are essentially the same as those in traditional schools; both types of students will complete extensive reading and writing assignments, but traditional students have more opportunities for role play, group work, and discussion. Online students must be comfortable working alone, and they may need to take more responsibility for their licensure process by finding an apprenticeship in a local school, clinic, or community agency to get the hours they need.
In order to gain the hands-on experience that an expert counselor needs, all quality online graduate counseling degrees require a practicum and internship experience. Practicums put students in mock counseling settings, which allow them to work on their counseling skills in low-stakes situations. Internships in a counseling office allow students to shadow experienced counselors and practice their counseling skills under the watchful eye of a professional. The amount of fieldwork required will depend on the state in which the training takes place and the type of counseling the student specializes in.
The following list provides examples of some of the general courses covered in an online graduate counseling degree program:
Clinical Assessment: Students learn about different tools, such as standardized questionnaires, which can be used to determine a patient's diagnosis.
Counseling Psychology: This class discusses how personality and personal interaction can manifest in the client-counselor relationship. Students learn different methods for working with clients, depending on what the client wants to get out of counseling.
Ethics: Since counselors have the ability to make a deep impact on their clients, both in a positive and negative way, they must be careful to hold themselves to the highest ethical standards at all times.
Evidence-Based Counseling: Students learn how to use evidence and counseling research to improve their therapy practice. Students study different interventions and findings and apply research in a clinical setting.
Group and Family Therapy: Students practice methods for interviewing, assessing, and treating groups of individuals.
Interviewing: This course covers methods of initial interactions with clients to determine the problems they are facing and the results they hope to achieve with therapy.
Lifespan Development: This course discusses how people change from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood and old age. All aspects of development are covered, such as cognitive, physical, and emotional development.
Understanding Licensure and Certification Requirements
Licensure refers to the set of laws and regulations that professional counselors must follow, as determined by each US state. Most states require that all mental health counselors complete an accredited master's degree program and two years of supervised training (or 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised fieldwork) in addition to passing a state licensing exam before they are allowed to work with clients. Licensing standards for counselors vary from state to state, so it is important that prospective counseling students consult their state's regulatory board to learn about their particular requirements. The American Counseling Association provides information about the licensure requirements for each US state.
Professional certification for counselors is optional, but it serves as a way for professional organizations, employers, and clients to recognize whether a counselor is competent, educated, and adheres to a strict code of ethics. Certification may also improve job prospects and increase your salary.
The two primary certification agencies for counselors are the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC). NBCC offers a national certification for the broad counseling profession (NCC, or National Certified Counselor) and specialty certifications for mental health counselors (CCMHC), school counselors (NCSC), and addictions counselors (MAC), while CRCC offers certification for rehabilitation counselors (CRC). Certification in any of these categories requires a master's degree, supervised clinical experience, and a certain number of approved continuing education courses every five years in order to remain current.
The Importance of an Accredited Online Graduate Counseling Degree
In most counseling professions, practitioners must have a state-issued license or credential in order to work with clients; to earn this license, students must graduate from an accredited master's or doctoral degree program. Accredited programs are those that are deemed to be properly established and meet the standards approved by the profession. Accredited counseling programs are the most tailored to providing you with the right skills and knowledge needed to pass a state licensing exam. Graduates of CACREP-accredited programs are also immediately qualified to acquire national certification from the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) upon passing the National Counselor Examination (NCE).
While it is not strictly required that students attend an accredited school to obtain a master’s degree in counseling, it is strongly recommended because doing so will open up better employment opportunities, help with state licensure, and make it easier to work in a different state. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) evaluates graduate counseling programs to ensure that they meet the highest educational and professional standards. Currently, CACREP accredits master's degree programs in the following counseling disciplines: addiction, career, clinical mental health, marriage, couple, and family, school, and student affairs and college counseling.
Counseling is a broad profession that plays a role in many settings and populations, so a wide variety of career specializations are available. Possible settings include community agencies, schools, universities and community colleges, hospitals, and private practice. Counselors may also travel within the community to see clients. Although a master's degree in counseling is necessary to become a licensed counselor, graduates with a high school or bachelor's degree and relevant experience may qualify for the following counseling-related positions:
Social and Community Service Manager: Community organizations and social services departments require managers who understand complicated cultural and social dynamics and can help their employees better serve their clients.
Social and Human Service Assistant: Counselors and social workers utilize social and human service assistants to help them find and apply for benefits and community services for their clients. These assistants may also help the patients under the guidance of a licensed counselor or social worker.
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor: Depending on the setting and the state in which they work, graduates with a bachelor's degree may qualify for a position as a substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor. They work with individuals and groups with addictions or other behavioral disorders by providing therapy, designing treatment and recovery plans, and helping them manage stress in a healthy way.
The following specializations are just a sample of the many careers available to counseling graduates with a master's degree and a state-issued license:
Career Counselors: Career counselors help recent graduates and mid-career professionals assess and evaluate their interests, strengths, and goals in order to select a new profession. They also advise clients regarding resumes, interviews, networking, decision-making, and general job-search skills.
Clinical Mental Health Counselors: These counselors provide a wide range of mental health services and help clients better understand their own behavior. Counselors work with people who are experiencing mental illness, as well as people who have experienced trauma or setbacks in life, such as divorce or grief. They also provide diagnoses and treatment, as well as prevention plans.
Marriage, Couple, and Family Counselors: These counselors evaluate individual and group dynamics within the family system and help define the roles and behaviors that contribute to difficult situations or transitions. They often provide group therapy, help clients set goals and make decisions, and create strategies to change behaviors.
Frequently Asked Questions About Counseling Degrees
How much can I expect to earn as a counselor?
In the field of counseling, annual salaries are influenced by level of education and years of experience. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health disorder counselors with bachelor’s degrees is $46,240. Marriage and family therapists with master’s degrees earn a median salary of $49,610 and licensed psychologists earn a median annual salary of $80,370.
What is the job outlook for counselors in the future?
Although demand for psychologists is projected to remain fairly steady over the next 10 years, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting significant increases for many types of specialized counselors. Demand for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health disorder counselors, for example, is expected to rise by 25%, and for marriage and family therapists by 22%.
What is the work environment like for a counselor?
Counselors and therapists work with patients in a variety of settings. Many work in private practices and mental health centers, while others work in community health centers, hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, schools, and prisons. Most counselors are employed full time, and they are sometimes required to work evenings and weekends to accommodate the needs of their patients. Counselors and therapists generally rely on talk therapy, although some employ other methods, such as play therapy, art therapy, and more, which may entail more physical movement and interaction with patients.
What are the differences between therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists?
Although there are some broad similarities between therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists, they are distinctly different roles with different educational and career paths. Therapists, like counselors, generally work with people on a relatively short-term basis to address behavioral issues. Psychologists and psychiatrists are trained to treat people with mental health disorders and illnesses, so they tend to work with their patients over longer periods of time. All of them work in similar work environments, from private practice to other types of healthcare facilities, and all types of mental health professionals must be licensed to practice. However, therapists and counselors typically earn master’s degrees, while psychologists go to school for either a PhD or PsyD degree. Psychiatrists also earn advanced doctoral medical degrees, which require the completion of residencies in psychiatry. Psychiatrists are licensed to treat their patients with a combination of talk therapy, pharmaceutical medications, and other types of therapy.
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