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2022 Best Online Master's in Counseling Degrees

By Ariel Kurtz | Updated 6/15/2022
2022 Best Online Master's Degrees in Counseling Badge

The following list presents the top schools for online master’s in counseling degree programs. An online master's degree in counseling is designed to train students for careers that are dedicated to helping clients manage life's challenges and achieve emotional well-being. Earning a master's degree is also a necessary step for national counseling certification and state licensure. Professional counselors help clients identify and solve problems in order to modify unhealthy behaviors. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annuage pay for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $48,520, with a 23% demand in job prospects for these specialties. 

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2022 Best Online Master's in Counseling Degrees

RankSchool Salary Score Median Starting Salary
# 1 #1 Virginia Commonwealth University 93 93 $64,254
# 2 #2 Northwestern University 84 $54,060
# 3 #3 Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies 83 $52,906
# 4 #4 Southern New Hampshire University Online 81 $51,100
# 5 #5 University of Phoenix 79 $49,344
# 6 #6 University of Southern California 76 $47,828
# 7 #7 Mercy College 75 $47,163
# 8 #8 Lamar University 75 $46,927
# 9 #9 Chicago School of Professional Psychology Online 73 $45,806
# 10 #10 Capella University 72 $45,453

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#1 Virginia Commonwealth University

  • Salary Score: 93
  • Median Starting Salary: $64,254
  • Locations: Richmond (VA)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is a four-year public university that offers an online Master of Science in Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling. Totaling 60 credit hours — including 40 credits of didactic courses, nine internship credits, and three elective credits — the program prepares students to sit for licenses and certification exams to become Licensed Professional Counselors in Virginia, a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor, or a Nationally Certified Counselor. In addition students must complete a total of 3,400 hours of supervised practice hours before sitting for a licensure exam to become a licensed counselor in Virginia.

At VCU, students can take an accelerated or part-time version of the program, depending on their obligations outside of school. It's also important to note that VCU adheres to a hybrid learning format, which includes online and in-person instruction.

#2 Northwestern University

  • Salary Score: 84
  • Median Starting Salary: $54,060
  • Locations: Evanston (IL)
  • Accreditation: HLC

Northwestern University (NU) is a medium-sized nonprofit offering an online Master of Arts in Counseling. The program comprises 24 credit hours, a 200-hour practicum, and a 600-hour internship. In addition, the program has a Child and Adolescent emphasis for students who want to counsel adolescents during their careers. Some of the core courses include Counseling Methods: Skills for Counseling and Psychotherapy, Psychopathology in Counseling, Cultural Diversity in Counseling, and Career Development. Students must submit transcripts (official and unofficial), letters of recommendation, resume or CV, statement of purpose, essay, test scores, application fee, and a current photo to apply for the program.

NU's online coursework prepares graduates to become clinical mental health counselors, and it's offered at a full- or part-time pace. Although most of the course is offered online, there are some in-person immersion requirements, including clinical experiences.

#3 Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies

  • Salary Score: 83
  • Median Starting Salary: $52,906
  • Locations: Center City (MN)
  • Accreditation: HLC

Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies is a private nonprofit offering an online Master’s in Addiction Counseling. Totaling 60 credit hours, the program lasts two years on a full-time schedule, though part-time options are available. The curriculum is designed to train students in managing and coordinating their future patients' mental health and addiction concerns based on treatments supported by evidence. For example, coursework may cover trauma-informed treatment and recovery management.

At Hazelden, the addiction studies program is offered every January, May, and September, providing flexibility for students to complete the online coursework on their own schedule. While the program is entirely online, students must still attend two in-person, on-campus residencies, and each lasts four days. In addition to the residency requirements, students must complete 900 hours of clinical or internship experiences before graduation.

#4 Southern New Hampshire University Online

  • Salary Score: 81
  • Median Starting Salary: $51,100
  • Locations: Manchester (NH)
  • Accreditation: NECHE

Southern New Hampshire University Online (SNHU) is a private nonprofit that offers an online Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling for students interested in working in the clinical mental health field. The 60-credit-hour program provides flexibility and 24/7 access to all coursework and resources for students with busy schedules. In addition, the program requires students to complete two five-day, in-person residencies; a 100-hour practicum; and a 600-hour internship before graduation. Graduates are trained to become licensed professional counselors.

At SNHU, the coursework combines 90% online learning with 10% of face-to-face work in a hybrid format. The in-person requirements include two in-person residencies. In this way, students may enjoy asynchronous coursework that they can complete at their own pace while also benefiting from residencies that provide real-world experiences.

#5 University of Phoenix

  • Salary Score: 79
  • Median Starting Salary: $49,344
  • Locations: Nationwide
  • Accreditation: HLC

The University of Phoenix (UoPX) is a private, for-profit institution offering an online Master of Science in Counseling/Clinical Mental Counseling that prepares students for roles in the clinical mental health field. The 60-credit-hour program lasts approximately 35 months, with students gaining skills in human development, research, diversity, psychotherapy, and more. In addition, the program meets the qualifications for graduates to sit for California’s Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) exam to gain licensure. To achieve acceptance into the program, prospective students must complete an admission readiness assessment that takes six weeks, where they must develop a graduate portfolio.

At UoPX, online students have 24/7 access to their coursework, which they can finish at their own pace. Their virtual learning environment offers the opportunity for students to gain one-on-one connections with faculty and experience team-building with peers.

#6 University of Southern California

  • Salary Score: 76
  • Median Starting Salary: $47,828
  • Locations: Los Angeles (CA)
  • Accreditation: WSCUC

The University of Southern California (USC) is a large, private nonprofit offering an online Master of Education in School Counseling for students who desire to become K-12 school counselors. The 49 credit-hour program lasts approximately two to three years, with the option to be a full- or part-time student. In addition, students are required to complete a 100-hour practicum and a 600-hour internship during the program. Areas of focus for the program include College and Career Readiness, Restorative Justice, and Trauma-Informed Practice. The application requirements for the program include the following: a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, transcripts, resume, letters of recommendation, GPA of 3.0 or higher, statement of purpose, and two short-answer responses.

At USC, students have scheduled live classes in a digital format on a weekly basis, which is paired with asynchronous coursework that students may complete at their own pace. After completion of the online program, graduates are eligible for the Pupil Personnel Services Credential within California.

#7 Mercy College

  • Salary Score: 75
  • Median Starting Salary: $47,163
  • Locations: Dobbs Ferry (NY)
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

Mercy College offers an online Master of Science in Counseling for students interested in becoming K-12 school counselors. The program requires 60 credit hours, with students eligible to sit for the exam to become licensed or certified New York school counselors after graduation. Coursework covers counseling intervention for children and adolescents, counseling and ethics, research methodology, and multicultural perspectives. Admission requirements include a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, a minimum 3.0 GPA, two letters of recommendation, a resume, and a personal statement.

At Mercy, full- and part-time schedule options are available to students, encouraging working professionals to further their studies. Mercy's coursework is 100% online, with 24/7 flexibility.

#8 Lamar University

  • Salary Score: 75
  • Median Starting Salary: $46,927
  • Locations: Beaumont (TX)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

Lamar University (LU) — a medium-sized, public institution — offers two online master's of education in counseling programs: (1) Master of Education in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and (2) a Master of Education in Counseling & Development. The latter program has two concentration options: Marriage Couple & Family Counseling and Professional School Counseling. Each program totals 60 credit hours and lasts approximately 30 months, with the ability to start the program throughout the year. An online application, application fee, minimum 3.0 GPA, and official transcripts are required for admission to each program.

At LU, coursework meets the requirements to become a Licensed Professional Counselor and/or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Texas. It also includes a residency, 15-week practicum, and 15-week internship.

#9 Chicago School of Professional Psychology Online

  • Salary Score: 73
  • Median Starting Salary: $45,806
  • Locations: Multiple Locations
  • Accreditation: HLC

Chicago School of Professional Psychology (TCSPP) is a private nonprofit offering an online Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling for students pursuing a career in this field. The three-year, part-time program offers a range of courses, such as Diagnosis of Mental Health Issues, Group Theories and Processes of Counseling, and Assessment of Individuals. Students must complete a 100-hour practicum and 600-hour internship during the program’s duration. In addition, students must attend two mandatory residencies during their first and second year. Admission requirements include a standard application, application fee, essay, official transcripts, and three letters of recommendation.

At TCSPP, coursework is offered through the instructional website Canvas in both asynchronous and synchronous formats.

#10 Capella University

  • Salary Score: 72
  • Median Starting Salary: $45,453
  • Locations: Minneapolis (MN)
  • Accreditation: HLC

Capella University — a medium-sized, private, for-profit institution — offers three online counseling degree programs: (1) a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, (2) Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy, and (3) Master of Science in School Counseling. All three programs, which are 72 credit hours each, offer online coursework but also require completing in-person residencies, internships, and practicums. Career paths for these programs include school counselor, mental health counselor, and substance abuse/addiction counselor.

At Capella, all coursework for each program is provided through the instructional website, Guidepath.

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Overview of Online Master's Degrees in Counseling

Online master's programs in counseling aim to provide students with the theoretical knowledge and practical skills to help others optimize their mental health through behavioral changes, goal-setting, and problem-solving. Programs typically cover some methods for building therapeutic relationships with clients, such as outlining useful communication skills and how to work effectively with diverse populations. In addition, a counseling master's program delves into the clinical skills necessary for providing treatment, such as identifying emotional issues and suitable treatment options.

When thinking about what a master's degree in counseling may entail as well as a resulting career, it's helpful to keep in mind the five types of counseling, as defined by the American Psychological Association (APA):


Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Therapy
This type of counseling delves into the unconscious realm in an attempt to reveal hidden motivations behind people's actions.


Behavioral Therapy
Under this umbrella that emphasizes environmental factors, counselors may evoke techniques such as operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitization, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.


Cognitive Therapy
With cognitive therapy, counselors are concerned with changing their clients' thought process, first and foremost, by focusing on an internal locus of control.


Humanistic Therapy
This type of therapy is heavily invested in a client-centered approach, emphasizing a client's concerns by validating their perceptions and emotions.


Holistic/Integrative Therapy
This is probably the most common approach among counselors, as it combines aspects from different branches of therapy to create a holistic treatment plan that best suits individual clients.

What Are the Benefits of Earning a Master’s Degree in Counseling?

One of the benefits to earning a master’s in counseling is learning about different types of theories designed to help your future clients work through their fears, trauma, and other challenges.

Additionally, online programs are designed so students learn mostly through asynchronous coursework, which means they can work at their own pace. A master's degree may also allow you to get hands-on fieldwork experience. In fact, some on-campus work may be required —even with an online degree — as well as face-to-face, experiential learning under the supervision of trained professionals off-campus.

Perhaps one of the most important benefits to earning your master's is that it opens the door to licensure. In the US, you must have a counseling license to practice as a therapist or guidance counselor. In order to obtain a counselor license, you must have completed a master’s program, among other requirements.

How Much Is an Online Masters in Counseling?

According to our internal data, an online Master’s in Counseling can cost anywhere from about $10,000-$50,000 in annual tuition fees. Of course, this amount can be lessened if you receive any financial aid, scholarship or grant money, and/or in-state residency status. Additionally, earning your online degree can provide a more affordable option than a traditional, in-person degree. It allows you to also avoid daily transportation and moving costs, which can be substantial. However, it's still important to factor in the cost of learning materials, such as books and other supplies you may need.

How Long Does It Take To Earn a Master's in Counseling?

Most master’s in counseling programs — whether online or in-person — take two years if you decide to study at a full-time pace. If you decide to pursue a program part time, however, it can take anywhere from three to four years to finish your degree. Online degrees often offer students the flexibility to either pursue a full- or part-time schedule, and many of these programs are also asynchronous, meaning that students can study and complete assignments at their own pace.

Students must usually complete approximately 60 credit hours to graduate. Counseling programs may also require practicums that take roughly 600 hours under the supervision of trained counseling professionals.

What Are the Requirements for a Master's Degree in Counseling?

A bachelor's degree from an accredited university is required for enrollment in an online master's degree in counseling. Most graduate schools prefer that students major in sociology or psychology, but they may accept undergraduate degrees in unrelated fields. It may also be helpful to have some experience in counseling, like through volunteer or professional opportunities.

In general, when applying to a counseling master's program, applicants will most likely need to submit the following:

  • Undergraduate transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Resume
  • GRE scores
  • Personal statement

A personal statement is, essentially, an admissions essay that expresses an applicant's interest in counseling and outlines their professional goals.

Common Courses in a Master's in Counseling Program

Core course requirements in a counseling master's curriculum help students become effective communicators, understand fundamental counseling methods and techniques, and deliver emotional support. While titles for core courses and electives may vary across school programs, learning outcomes and objectives remain similar. Below are some common courses in an online master's program in counseling:

Counseling Theory and Techniques

Coursework may emphasize how intrapersonal and interpersonal communication skills are necessary to develop fundamental counseling skills. Students may work on building listening skills, empathy training, basic interviewing techniques, and performing clinical observations.

Ethical Standards and Professional Issues in Counseling

Lessons generally cover the foundation of ethical practices in terms of being a responsible counselor. Topics may include the study of models for ethical decision-making, ethical codes of professional organizations, and client rights.

Life Span of Human Development

Instruction generally provides an overview of human growth and development, from childhood to adulthood, and how information processing looks different in various stages of life.

Research and Evaluation in Psychology

Coursework often explores statistics and research models, design, and strategies. This allows students to identify, evaluate, and implement practical research methods and better understand how research informs evidence-based practices.

Social and Cultural Foundations of Counseling

This course typically reviews how gender, cultural diversity, religious preference, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and disability impact the counseling process for both the counselor and client.

Master's in Counseling Specializations

Students may choose to specialize by selecting an emphasis within counseling to treat targeted populations. This process means choosing electives in a specific area of interest, which generally requires the approval of a program advisor.

Below are some common counseling concentrations to choose from:

  • Addiction Counseling
  • Marriage and Family Counseling
  • Mental Health Counseling
  • Rehabilitation
  • School Counseling

Suppose you prefer to enroll in a complete degree program in your desired specialty. In that case, you may want to consider these master's programs instead: school counseling, substance use counseling, or marriage and family counseling.

What Can You Do With a Master’s Degree in Counseling?

There is a growing need for mental health care professionals nationwide. Over 21% of adults reported experiencing mental illness in 2020. Yet, the US remains short on mental health practitioners. As a result, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects high job growth — as opposed to the 8% national average across occupations — for the following counseling professions through 2030:

To plan for your future as a counseling professional, be sure to read our article: Counseling Careers and Job Outlook.

Certification and Licensure

Prospective counselors must complete 2,000-4,000 hours of clinical experience, pass an exam, and earn national certification to apply for a state license.

Every state across the U.S. requires licensure for professional counselors to practice. Licensure ensures that these health and human services professionals are adequately trained and have the necessary field experience. Prospective counselors must complete 2,000-4,000 hours of clinical experience, pass an exam, and earn national certification to apply for a state license.

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) offers the National Certified Counselor (NCC) exam as its primary credential. Those who earn their NCC designation are eligible to apply for state licensure — also administered by the NBCC — to become a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), or Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC), depending on the state.

Licensure is covered more thoroughly in our comprehensive Guide to Online Counseling Degrees.

Is a Master's in Counseling Worth It?

Ultimately, becoming a counselor depends on your personal, professional, and financial goals. You may also want to consider your temperament and whether you'll enjoy the work after graduation. For example, counselors tend to be kind, generous, cooperative, patient, empathetic, and friendly. They enjoy socializing and teaching others, which is often what draws them into counseling careers.

It's also helpful to contemplate whether earning your counseling master's degree online will work well with your learning style. In general, completing a graduate program online can be convenient if you can't relocate or simply need to fit classes around your busy schedule. On the other hand, it may be harder to stay motivated when completing asynchronous online classwork and studying without a rigid class schedule. Below are some other pros and cons to consider when deciding on whether to pursue an online master's degree in counseling:

Potential Benefits

Mental health professionals are in high demand. There is a shortage of mental healthcare practitioners throughout the country, but according to the Health Resources and Services Administration, the need for counselors is the highest in the Western U.S.

Counseling work can be satisfying. According to CareerExplorer, those who provide counseling services find their job satisfying and rewarding. In fact, counselors are in the top third of careers in terms of job-related happiness.

Attending online school can save time and money. Earning a degree online can be less expensive than a traditional on-campus degree. For example, online students don't have to pay for on-campus housing or relocation costs. Distance learning also means that students don't have to commute to and from campus.

Potential Drawbacks

An online master's degree in counseling may have a low return on investment. For example, substance use, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earn a median wage of $47,660, according to the BLS. Yet, annual tuition rates can cost as much as $53,850, and the average student loan debt in the U.S. is $36,510.

Some counselors may have to work irregular hours. For example, mental health counselors at inpatient facilities may have to work evenings, nights, and weekends, which can infringe on their personal time. If a clearly delineated work-life balance is an important factor in one's career choice, this role may not be a suitable fit. Even those who decide to start their own private practice may have to be available whenever there is need.

Earning an online degree may feel isolating and limit relationship-building opportunities. It can be hard to feel motivated to study when doing so from home, and distance learning may not suit everyone's learning style. Forming meaningful relationships may also be challenging in an online environment because it could take more effort.

FAQs About Online Master's in Counseling Degrees

What Is the Highest Degree in Counseling You Can Earn?

The most advanced degree you can get in counseling is a Doctorate in Psychology, which usually takes between five and seven years to complete.

What Is the Difference Between an MA and an MS in Counseling?

A Master of Arts in Counseling is more liberal arts based, while a Master of Science in Counseling has a more scientific and evidence-based approach that relies on research and statistics.

Can You Get a Master's in Counseling Online?

You can earn a master's in counseling online. However, schools may require some on-campus work — usually for a week at the beginning and end of the degree program — called an intensive. This may involve assessment testing or a general orientation. Program advisors will also help online students secure practicums, which are on-site learning experiences that involve working with professional counselors in their local area.

What Is the Difference Between a Counselor and a Social Worker?

While social workers and counselors perform some of the same functions, a social worker's main role is to help individuals, groups, and families cope with everyday challenges by connecting them with a wide range of services. A counselor, on the other hand, is most likely to focus on only one service related to mental health and well-being. Counselors have more of a direct approach, whereas a social worker helps steer their clients in the right direction.

How Much Does a Counselor Make With a Master's Degree?

Salaries vary based on location, industry, and the type of counseling services provided. The bottom 10% of substance use, behavioral disorders, and mental health counselors earned less than $30,870, while the top 10% earned over $77,980 in 2021.

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