Best Online Master's in Counseling Degrees

By The OnlineU team | Updated 3/4/2022
2020 Best Online Master's in Counseling Badge

Below, we list the top 10 schools offering the best online master's programs in counseling. 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.

Continue reading for a program overview and explanation of requirements, which can help you understand college enrollment expectations. To determine whether a program is right for you, check out our discussion about a counseling degree's value.

Alumni salaries were provided by PayScale. View our methodology for more details or learn more about OnlineU.

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RankSchool Annual Tuition Mid-Career Salary
# 1 #1 West Virginia University $16,960 $109,600
# 2 #2 Rutgers University $11,040 $72,600
# 3 #3 Pepperdine University $49,135 $85,000
# 4 #4 University of North Texas $16,194 $69,500
# 5 #5 University of Massachusetts-Boston $17,250 $69,100
# 6 #6 Our Lady of the Lake University $18,140 $68,200
# 7 #7 New York University $53,850 $78,300
# 8 #8 Liberty University $5,500 $54,300
# 9 #9 Virginia Commonwealth University $22,176 $60,100
# 10 #10 Nova Southeastern University $18,960 $57,100
Salary data provided by Payscale Logo

2020 Online Colleges Offering Counseling Degrees - Ranking Details

#1 West Virginia University

  • Annual Tuition: $16,960
  • Median Salary: $109,600
  • Locations: Morgantown (WV)
  • Accreditation: HLC

West Virginia University’s Master of Science in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling program focuses on teaching students how to provide guidance and support for those coping with various disabilities, addictions, and mental health disorders. Although the program includes three semesters, including one during the summer, participants are organized into fall and spring cohorts. Students can expect to take study vocational evaluation techniques, rehabilitation services, and disability across the lifespan. Courses are delivered through the WVU eCampus, powered by the Blackboard learning management system. Students work asynchronously and use eCampus to submit assignments, check grades, and watch videos and lectures. In addition to the virtual coursework, students complete a 16-week, 150-hour practicum, in which a minimum of 40 hours must be in direct client contact. Online resources, such as IT support, academic advising, research assistance, tutoring, and WVU library access, are available to distance learners. Students must have a bachelor’s degree with a minimum 2.8 GPA and GRE/GMAT scores from the last seven years to apply. Required documentation includes three letters of recommendation, transcripts, and a completed graduate school application. Students may be invited for a department interview as the final step in the admissions process.

#2 Rutgers University

  • Annual Tuition: $11,040
  • Median Salary: $72,600
  • Locations: New Brunswick (NJ)
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

The Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling – Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Rutgers University teaches students how to apply cognitive-behavioral counseling techniques to help people with developmental, physical, psychiatric, or sensory disabilities. The program is designed for those interested in beginning counseling careers as well as current counselors looking to enhance their credentials. In addition to the coursework, students must complete a 600-hour internship, of which 240 hours must be in direct service. Students must also complete a 100-hour practicum, of which 40 hours must be in direct service. Rutgers’ online graduate degrees require the same level of rigor as the on-campus programs. A variety of learning management systems are used, including Canvas, Blackboard, and Moodle, allowing students the flexibility to work on their own schedules. Full-time students can finish the program in two years, while part-time students can finish in three years. There are start dates in the spring and fall semesters. Applications are available online and require a personal statement, two letters of recommendation, and transcripts indicating a completed bachelor’s degree. GRE scores are not required. In order to assess applicants’ individual fit for the program, an interview is also required; it can take place by phone for those outside the area. Professional development services, tutoring, and IT support are offered to distance learners.

#3 Pepperdine University

  • Annual Tuition: $49,135
  • Median Salary: $85,000
  • Locations: Malibu (CA)
  • Accreditation: WSCUC

The Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology – Marriage and Family Therapy program at Pepperdine University is designed for students interested in becoming licensed marriage and family therapists. This online counseling program aims to provide students with the skills necessary to counsel families, individuals, and couples. The curriculum covers multicultural counseling, psychopharmacology, human sexuality, and trauma in diverse populations. In total, 62 credits are required for the degree, which can be completed in as few as 27 months. Graduates of the program may explore careers helping people navigate family conflict, mental and emotional health disorders, addictive behaviors, and trauma. Students attend synchronous classes and lectures through the online course management platform and participate in interactive classroom activities in real-time. Distance learners can log in from anywhere and access their coursework at any time. The hours of fieldwork needed to complete the program depend on the student’s home state licensure requirements. The application for this online program is the same as the on-campus program. Students interested in applying must submit transcripts from their completed undergraduate degree, two letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose. Admitted students can enroll for a fall, winter, spring, or summer start. Academic advising and 24/7 tech support are available to help students succeed.

#4 University of North Texas

  • Annual Tuition: $16,194
  • Median Salary: $69,500
  • Locations: Denton (TX)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

The Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling program at the University of North Texas offers students a flexible way to enter or advance in careers providing support to individuals with disabilities. Graduates of the 60-credit program have gone on to work as licensed counselors or administrators. Completion of the program allows students to apply for national certification in rehabilitation counseling and state licensure in professional counseling. Coursework covers case management, disability from a multicultural lens, and the rehabilitation process. Students may elect to complete a thesis. Students use the Canvas learning management system to access lesson materials and class updates, submit assignments, and track grades. Students are supported by career services, counseling and testing services, and tutoring. Prospective students must meet the standards for general admission to the University of North Texas graduate school. Admission requirements include a bachelor’s degree with at least a 3.0 GPA, GRE scores, and a graduate school application. The MS program also requires students to have a minimum of one year of professional experience, submit a department application, a personal statement, resume, and two letters of reference. Competitive applicants will receive an invitation for an interview.

#5 University of Massachusetts-Boston

  • Annual Tuition: $17,250
  • Median Salary: $69,100
  • Locations: Boston (MA)
  • Accreditation: NECHE

Individuals have two online counseling degree options at UMass Boston: a Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling or a Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling. The MS in Rehabilitation Counseling has two concentrations available: Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling or Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling. Online courses share the same faculty and support teams as the on-campus versions. The online curriculum can be completed part-time or full-time and integrate real-time virtual classes. The MS in Mental Health Counseling is a 60-credit, two-year cohort program leading to Licensure as a Mental Health Counselor. The program does require students to participate in a two-week orientation and includes supervised fieldwork for licensure requirements. Cohorts start in the summer term. The MS in Rehabilitation Counseling, similarly, is a 60-credit, two-year program that prepares graduates to take the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor exam. Students complete a one-week residential component and can begin the program in either spring or summer term. Candidates for the MS in Mental Health Counseling program should have a bachelor's degree and must submit a resume, GRE scores, official transcripts, a statement of purpose, two letters of recommendation, and a completed application (with fee). For the MS in Rehabilitation Counseling, candidates must have a bachelor's degree with a 3.0 GPA. The application process includes a completed online application, official transcripts, three letters of recommendation, GRE or MAT scores, a statement of interest, a current resume, and an interview with a faculty member.

#6 Our Lady of the Lake University

  • Annual Tuition: $18,140
  • Median Salary: $68,200
  • Locations: San Antonio (TX)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

Prospective counselors seeking an online master's degree from Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) can consider the Master of Arts in Counseling. Three concentrations are available: Clinical Mental Health Counseling (60 credits), Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling (60 credits), or School Counseling (48 credits). Depending on the chosen specialization, the program takes 2.5 to 3.5 years on average to complete. All three options lead to professional certifications and include a practicum and an internship. The Clinical Mental Health program prepares graduates for the Licensed Professional Counselor certification, the Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling program qualifies graduates for the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor certification, and the School Counseling program prepares graduates for the Texas School Counseling certification. Online courses are taken in 14-week sessions. Students can pursue part-time or full-time study. Classes use asynchronous tools such as discussion forums and e-mail. Students are responsible for meeting assignment deadlines. Online student resources include 24/7 technical support, peer tutoring services, and access to the Mary Francine Danis Writing Center. A background in counseling, while recommended, is not a requirement for admission. Individuals must have a bachelor's degree with a 2.75 GPA minimum. A complete application package includes an online application form (with fee), a current resume, official transcripts, a personal statement, a completed student questionnaire, and one reference.

#7 New York University

  • Annual Tuition: $53,850
  • Median Salary: $78,300
  • Locations: New York (NY)
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

Individuals seeking an online counseling degree from New York University (NYU) have two choices: a Master of Arts in Counseling and Guidance or a Master of Arts in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness. The MA in Counseling and Guidance has two concentrations: School Counseling or Bilingual School Counseling. NYU's online graduate degrees seek to provide flexibility and customized delivery. Both counseling options are available through the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Online classes share the same faculty as NYU's on-campus versions and rely on a live-classroom format. Students engage in group projects virtually with peers and complete experiential work within their own communities. While most classwork is online, students participate in four days of intensive training on campus. The MA in Mental Health Counseling is a licensure-seeking program that can be completed in less than two years. The program requires 60 credit hours, which includes a 100-hour practicum and a 600-hour internship component. The MA in Counseling and Guidance is a 48-credit program that incorporates a 100-hour practicum and a 600-hour internship. This program can be finished in 18 months. NYU's Steinhardt School accepts applications year-round and has three start dates each year (January, June, and September). GRE scores are not required. Students applying for the Mental Health Counseling program should have some professional experience. Applicants should submit a statement of purpose, a current resume, official transcripts, two letters of recommendation, and a completed form (with fee).

#8 Liberty University

  • Annual Tuition: $5,500
  • Median Salary: $54,300
  • Locations: Lynchburg (VA)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

Liberty University has several faith-based graduate degrees available online for those interested in the field of counseling. Individuals can select a 48-credit licensure track Master of Arts in Addictions Counseling, a 60-credit licensure track Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, a 30-credit non-licensure Master of Arts in Human Services Counseling (with concentrations in Addictions and Recovery, Business, Christian Ministry Counseling, Marriage and Family, Military Resilience, or Life Coaching), a 60-credit licensure track Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy, a 36-credit non-licensure Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling (with concentrations in Addictions and Recovery, Community Chaplaincy, Crisis Response and Trauma, Discipleship and Church Ministry, Leadership, Life Coaching, Marriage and Family, Military Resilience, or Theology), a 60-credit Master of Arts in Religion (with concentrations in Community Chaplaincy or Pastoral Counseling), a 42-credit Master of Arts in Worship Studies (with a concentration in Pastoral Counseling), and a 75-credit Master of Divinity in Youth and Family Ministries. Programs range from 1.5 years to 2.5 years to complete. Classes run in eight-week terms and are entirely online. Liberty is recognized as a Military Friendly institution. Online students have access to Liberty's IT Help Desk, an online writing center, free e-tutoring, free Adobe software products, and resources from the Jerry Falwell Library. Online learning is hosted through Blackboard's learning management software and employs asynchronous methods, such as discussion boards and pre-recorded materials. Students complete work at their own pace. Applicants to the master's in counseling programs online must have a completed bachelor's degree and are required to send in official transcripts.

#9 Virginia Commonwealth University

  • Annual Tuition: $22,176
  • Median Salary: $60,100
  • Locations: Richmond (VA)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) offers a Master of Science in Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling online. Program courses are available asynchronously and prepare students for the Licensed Professional Counselor credential in Virginia and the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor credential nationally. Resources available to VCU's distance education students include disability services, career development services, and e-materials from the VCU library. Students with a military background receive additional benefits. Students can complete the online master's degree on a part-time or full-time basis. As such, the program can be completed on two-, three-, or four-year timelines. The full program requires 60 credit hours and is offered through the College of Health Professions. Participants will develop research and assessment skills and apply ethical and legal principles. To successfully graduate, students must complete nine credits of internship experience. The admissions process for the online MS in Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling includes three letters of recommendation and a statement of purpose. Candidates must have a completed bachelor's degree with a 3.0 GPA requirement. GRE or MAT scores are required, and students can only apply to start in the fall semester.

#10 Nova Southeastern University

  • Annual Tuition: $18,960
  • Median Salary: $57,100
  • Locations: Fort Lauderdale (FL)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

Students pursuing the Master of Science in Counseling program online at Nova Southeastern University can select from five concentrations: Advanced Applied Behavior Analysis (51 credits), Clinical Mental Health Counseling (60 credits), School Counseling (48 credits), Substance Abuse Counseling (48 credits), or Substance Abuse Counseling Education (60 credits). Nova Southeastern's online programs use Canvas learning management software. Faculty and students employ asynchronous tools, such as discussion boards, and synchronous real-time virtual lectures. Distance learners have access to career services, academic advising, and resources from the Alvin Sherman Library, Research, and Information Technology Center. Students with a military background can access veteran's services. The online MS in Counseling degree is designed for working professionals seeking advanced training or certifications. The School Counseling concentration qualifies students for the Florida certification in Guidance and Counseling. Graduates of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling concentration can seek licensure in Florida. Each specialization includes at least one practicum component. Applicants to the online graduate school must submit a completed application form (with fee), a current resume, and official transcripts from a completed bachelor's program with at least a 2.5 GPA.

Overview of Online Master's Degrees in Counseling

Master's programs 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 helpful communication skills and how to work effectively with diverse populations. In addition, a master's program delves into the clinical skills necessary for providing treatment, such as identifying emotional issues and suitable treatment options.

Online programs are designed so students learn mostly through asynchronous coursework, which means they can work at their own pace. Some on-campus work may be required as well as in-person, experiential learning under the supervision of trained professionals off-campus.

Program Requirements

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, applicants will most likely need to submit undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, a resume, and a personal statement when applying to a counseling master's program. A personal statement is, essentially, an admissions essay that expresses an applicant's interest in counseling and outlines their professional goals. Many schools also request GRE scores.

When applying, it may be helpful to have some experience in counseling through volunteer or professional opportunities.

Online graduate counseling degrees generally take full-time students two years to complete. For those attending part time, it could take between three and four years. 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.

Common Courses in a Counseling Master's 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.

Common 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 or Substance Use Counseling
  • Marriage and Family Counseling
  • Mental Health Counseling
  • Rehabilitation
  • School Guidance Counseling

If you prefer to enroll in a complete degree program in your desired specialty, you may want to consider the following master's programs instead: school counseling, substance use counseling, or marriage and family counseling.


Accreditation ensures that a school meets quality higher education standards. Furthermore, attending an accredited school may also be necessary to use federal financial aid or transfer credits from one accredited school to another. Most non-profit universities have regional accreditation, which is often preferred over national accreditation because it has more regulations. Prospective students can verify a school's accreditation status through the U.S. Department of Education's accreditation database.

Online master's degrees in counseling may also receive programmatic accreditation, which is often conferred to ensure students enter the workforce prepared to meet professional standards and expectations. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the primary accreditation board for over 900 graduate counseling degree programs at over 400 colleges and universities across the U.S. Completing a CACREP-accredited program may be required for state licensure. CACREP lists all currently accredited schools and programs on its website.

Careers With a Counseling Degree

There is a growing need for mental healthcare professionals nationwide. Over 21% of adults reported experiencing mental illness in 2020. Yet, the U.S. is 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:

Marriage and Family Therapists
Median Annual Salary: $51,340
Job Outlook: 16%

Marriage and family therapists help couples and families manage problems in their relationships. By working with clients to develop coping strategies and communication skills, professional therapists can help their clients process life changes with greater ease and understanding. This kind of therapy can be administered between a therapist and individual family members or collectively through group counseling.

Rehabilitation Counselors
Median Annual Salary: $37,530
Job Outlook: 10%

Rehabilitation counselors work with people who have physical, emotional, or developmental disabilities so they can live as independently as possible. They work to eliminate attitudinal and environmental barriers to achieving quality of life by providing counseling, evaluating abilities and interests, connecting clients with other resources for services — such as medical care — and advocating for the rights of those with disabilities.

School and Career Counselors and Advisors
Median Annual Salary: $58,120
Job Outlook: 11%

School and career counselors and advisors often work with K-12 students to help them develop the academic, social, and emotional skills needed to succeed. They may also help students plan for life after high school, such as college, vocational training, or joining the workforce. Some counselors work in colleges and universities providing career counseling services to students, graduates, and alumni.

Substance Use, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
Median Annual Salary: $47,660
Job Outlook: 23%

Substance use, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors work with clients who suffer from behavioral or other mental health issues, such as eating disorders, alcoholism, addiction, and depression. These professionals help clients identify and manage triggers that lead to relapse or block recovery by developing treatment plans.

Certification and Licensure

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. Eligibility requirements include the following:

  • A master's degree
  • 3,000 hours of counseling experience
  • An additional 100 hours of supervised experience for those who did not graduate from a CACREP-accredited program
  • A professional endorsement from a mental health professional

Those who earn their NCC designation are eligible to apply for 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. NCC designation is also a prerequisite for the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor and National Certified School Counselor certifications the NBCC offers.

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.

Some employers require that rehabilitation counselors become certified. Master's program graduates may become certified rehabilitation counselors by passing the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) examination. Administered by the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification, passing the CRC exam is also accepted in some states for meeting testing requirements for licensure.

Is a Master's in Counseling Worth It?

Ultimately, this degree's value 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

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

It can take full-time students about two years to earn a master's degree in counseling.

Can You Get a Master's in Counseling Online?

You can earn a master's in counseling mostly 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.

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

Salaries vary based on location, industry, and type of counseling services provided. The bottom 10% of substance use, behavioral disorders, and mental health counselors earned $30,590, while the top 10% earned $78,700 in 2020.

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