Substance abuse and addiction counselors play a critical role in addiction recovery, and many find this to be an extremely fulfilling career. These professionals work one-on-one with clients, providing critical support to help people recover from drug and alcohol addictions as well as chemical dependencies. New research on addiction and treatment has led judicial systems to rely more on counseling services, and people continue to seek treatment on their own. As a result, employment rates for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors are projected to grow by 25% from 2019 to 2029, making now a great time to pursue a career in the field. Our rankings list below highlights top online addiction counseling programs to help students choose which one best fits their needs. Continue reading to learn more about certification requirements and the importance of accreditation for substance abuse counselors, along with frequently asked questions about the field.
Online Bachelor’s in Substance Abuse Counseling with the Highest Return on Investment
These are the top online programs in substance abuse counseling ranked by their return on investment. ROI uses alumni earnings and debt data to project the potential long-term financial benefit of earning an online BSW. The cheapest degree isn’t always the best investment over time, and the most expensive degree does not always signify quality. For example, the University of South Dakota has the highest ROI on this list ($296,500) despite not having the lowest tuition.
ROI amounts are based on data reported by the U.S. Department of Education. Tuitions are manually researched in order to determine tuition amounts specific to online degrees. Read our methodology for more details.
Best Bachelor's Degrees in Substance Abuse Counseling Rankings Details
University of South Dakota
10-Year ROI: $296,500
Median Salary: $31,828
Annual Tuition: $10,537
Median Debt: $25,000
The University of South Dakota (USD) offers an online Bachelor of Science in Addiction Counseling and Prevention. The program can be completed in four years if students complete 30 credits per year. Students may select a specialization in treatment or prevention. The curriculum includes courses in alcohol addiction, counseling, and ethical issues. To graduate, students must complete... two practicums in individual and group addiction counseling and a three-credit internship. Graduates will be eligible for credentialing through the South Dakota Board of Addiction and Prevention Professionals. Because requirements vary by state, online students should check their state’s addiction or substance abuse licensing board.
Online coursework is delivered through the D2L learning management system. USD offers exclusive tuition rates for online education and reduced rates for qualified veterans, active-duty military, and South Dakota National Guard members. Flexible payment plans are also available. Students may transfer credit from accredited institutions. The Academic and Career Planning Center and Coyote Careers programs connect students with employers and internship opportunities.
Applicants can submit a completed application online to apply for admission. USD online students have access to library resources, a writing center, disability services, a veterans resource center, and 24/7 support through the technical service desk.
Cost per Credit: $351
School Type: Non-Profit
Credits Required: 120
Graduation Rate: 56%
Acceptance Rate: 87%
Financial Aid Recipients: 95%
Average SAT Scores: 1030 - 1260
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 1,887
Ohio Christian University
10-Year ROI: $288,800
Median Salary: $32,213
Annual Tuition: $12,480
Median Debt: $34,431
Ohio Christian University (OCU) offers a fully online Bachelor of Arts in Substance Abuse Counseling. The program integrates instruction from a non-denominational Christian perspective and covers assessing, diagnosing, and treatment planning for individuals, families, and groups affected by chemical dependency. Students are required to complete a course on the spiritual aspects... of illness and recovery. The final course in the curriculum prepares students for the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professional Board’s State Licensure Examination. Graduates of the program meet the educational requirement for state licensure in Ohio and other states. Students should check with their state’s chemical dependency board because certification or licensure requirements vary.
Online classes are asynchronous and run for five weeks. Students are expected to participate in discussion boards and meet weekly assignment deadlines. OCU’s credit-for-prior-learning policy allows students to earn academic credit for qualifying previous training or experience. Military students, spouses, and dependents are eligible for exclusive tuition rates. Multiple scholarships are available for undergraduates, including the Business Partnership Scholarship that awards students who are employees of an OCU partner organization.
The majority of OCU programs can be started at any time; however, if prospective students require FAFSA financial aid, they should apply during the spring or fall semesters. Applicants submit an online application to get started. Online students have access to tutoring and mentoring services.
Cost per Credit: $416
School Type: Non-Profit
Credits Required: 120
Graduation Rate: 31%
Financial Aid Recipients: 88%
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 1,687
Indiana Wesleyan University Online
10-Year ROI: $283,900
Median Salary: $30,771
Annual Tuition: $11,760
Median Debt: $26,380
Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) offers an online Bachelor of Science in Addictions Counseling. This degree program provides instruction from a Biblical perspective and can be completed in 22 months. The curriculum includes courses in psychology, counseling, and addiction theory and practice. Students complete four practicums in addictions counseling totaling 350 hours at an approved... facility to gain practical experience in the field. Because licensing requirements for addiction counselors vary by state, students should check their state’s requirements.
Online coursework is asynchronous and delivered through the Brightspace Learning Management system. Students can access course materials 24/7 and are not required to log in at set times. IWU offers tuition discounts to active duty military and their spouses, veterans, and students employed by university partners. IWU students have access to various career-readiness resources like career training, discounts on education, counseling, and career placement services through the Lasting Change program, along with access to the Handshake job listings.
The program offers five start dates per year. Applicants can apply by submitting an online application. Online learners have access to academic tutoring, research assistance, and other off-campus library services.
Cost per Credit: $392
School Type: Non-Profit
Credits Required: 120
Graduation Rate: 52%
Financial Aid Recipients: 82%
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 5,219
Northwestern State University of Louisiana
10-Year ROI: $274,500
Median Salary: $29,685
Annual Tuition: $9,600
Median Debt: $25,000
Northwestern State University of Louisiana (NSU) offers a fully online Bachelor of Science in Psychology with a concentration in Substance Abuse. The program emphasizes communication skills, human behavior, and data analysis. There are 48 credits in the psychology major and 30 credits of elective courses, including 12 credits in the substance abuse concentration. Students can undertake... a field experience at a mental health agency. To graduate, students must complete a senior capstone course.
Online coursework is delivered through the Moodle learning management system, where students can access lectures, discussion boards, blogs, and projects. NSU offers various tuition fee exemptions, including an out-of-state exemption that qualifies all online students for the in-state tuition rate. NSU accepts transfer credit and offers prior learning assessment so that students can earn academic credit for prior life, work, and volunteer service or by completing a portfolio writing course. The Career Center offers several services to students and alumni, including career counseling and access to the university’s Handshake career portal.
To apply, prospective students must submit an online application. Online learners have access to a student help desk, advisors, tutoring, and library resources.
School Type: Non-Profit
Graduation Rate: 45%
Acceptance Rate: 80%
Financial Aid Recipients: 97%
Average SAT Scores: 920 - 1160
Accreditation: SACS COC
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 3,776
University of Central Arkansas
10-Year ROI: $269,200
Median Salary: $29,413
Annual Tuition: $8,550
Median Debt: $27,000
The online Bachelor of Science in Addiction Studies degree at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) offers a treatment track. This degree completion program is suitable for students with an associate degree. Students take core courses focusing on mental health, theories and prevention practices, and drug education. To graduate, students must complete a practicum in substance... abuse.
Online courses are asynchronous, so students can log in to the virtual classroom 24/7 to study at their convenience. UCA online students receive a flat-rate, per-credit tuition fee. Various institutional scholarships, financial assistance, and UCA Foundation and departmental scholarships are available. The career services office provides students with virtual career planning appointments, career and major exploration, and mock interviewing.
The application process requires prospective students to submit an online application. Online learners are assigned a program coordinator at the start of their programs and have access to tech support.
Online coursework is delivered through the Blackboard learning management platform, which features pre-recorded lectures, asynchronous assignments, and real-time video-conferencing. UMA offers tuition waivers and several scholarships to undergraduate students, including the $10k Scholarship Program and the adult degree completion scholarship. UMA Career Connections provides students with career counseling and access to workshops, resources, and assessment tools. According to a 2018 survey, over 85% of graduates found employment within the field.
The online application is free and requires that applicants pass a criminal background check. Online learners have access to academic success coaching, advising, disability accommodations, and library resources.
Cost per Credit: $306
School Type: Non-Profit
Credits Required: 124
Graduation Rate: 17%
Financial Aid Recipients: 94%
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 2,103
University of Cincinnati
Cincinnati (OH) (and 1 other)
10-Year ROI: $266,800
Median Salary: $29,685
Annual Tuition: $10,820
Median Debt: $31,167
The University of Cincinnati (UC) offers an online Bachelor of Science in Substance Abuse Counseling. Students learn individual and group counseling practices and develop skills in assessments and diagnoses, recovery treatment, ethics, and crisis management. The program can be completed in two to four years depending on part-time or full-time status. Graduates fulfill the academic... requirement for state chemical dependency counselor licensure in Ohio but nonresidents should check their state’s specific certification requirements. Students have the opportunity to complete two internships and a senior capstone experience.
Online coursework is asynchronous and delivered through Blackboard, where students can access course materials 24/7. UC’s tuition guarantee is a cohort program that ensures tuition costs and other required fees stay the same for the entire length of the student’s degree. UC also accepts transfer credit from previously completed college-level coursework and participates in the Yellow Ribbon program. UC instructors are nationally renowned; many are active on national boards, have been published, and have real-world experience in their field. UC online students receive support from enrollment service advisors and student success coordinators.
To apply, students must submit an online application. New applications are accepted for summer, fall, or spring start dates. Online learners have access to various services, including academic advising, library resources, and technical support.
School Type: Non-Profit
Graduation Rate: 68%
Acceptance Rate: 76%
Financial Aid Recipients: 83%
Average SAT Scores: 1160 - 1370
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 2,460
Online Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Overview & Career Information
A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement to become a substance abuse counselor in many states; others require a master's. In the undergraduate program, students study alcohol and drug use, counseling skills, group counseling, and pharmacology. Fieldwork experience is also required. The master's degree is required to earn a counseling license in most states. This degree requires two years of coursework as well as an internship. If you're interested in conducting intensive research into the physiological and psychological aspects of addiction, a doctoral degree would be appropriate.
During the course of treatment, substance abuse counselors may evaluate a patient's condition, identify causes and triggers of the abuse, develop a treatment plan or course of action, and help the patient develop positive behaviors and routines that avoid the abused substance. They may also coordinate social services for the patient and meet with the patient's family and friends to ensure that they are assisting with the recovery process. In the course of carrying out these job responsibilities, substance abuse counselors meet and talk with patients frequently, either in an individual or group setting.
Some substance abuse counselors work with individuals who have been sentenced by a court to complete a rehabilitation program; they may need to incorporate the court's ruling into the length or nature of the treatment. As part of the treatment plan, counselors help clients develop coping mechanisms to deal with troubling situations that could cause a relapse in their behavior. Some counselors diagnose and treat patients, while others focus on helping patients find useful community resources.
Online Bachelor's Degrees in Substance Abuse Counseling
To qualify for an online bachelor's program, applicants must typically have a high school diploma, a strong high school GPA, qualifying scores on college entrance exams, and letters of recommendation. Most online bachelor's degrees in substance abuse counseling can be earned within four years, though some schools offer accelerated programs. To graduate, students are expected to complete about 120 to 133 semester credit hours.
Students pursuing online bachelor's degrees in substance abuse counseling can expect to take general education classes in English and the humanities, science, math, and the social sciences in addition to counseling-specific core courses. Most substance abuse counseling programs include courses in various topics within psychology and clinical counseling, including psychopathology, pharmacology, diagnosis of addiction, counseling, human services, ethics in clinical work, and assorted counseling methods for specific demographics, such as youth and families. In some cases, online schools offer students the chance to practice in-person counseling through supervised practicums. During a practicum, students work in the same capacity as a fully employed counselor or assistant counselor within a mental health facility. This can be a great way for students to gain work experience prior to graduation.
Most students of addiction counseling specifically pursue their degree to become substance abuse counselors. While a bachelor's degree may be enough to find a job, each state has its own employment standards for counselors. Some states only ask that job applicants have a high school diploma, while others require master's degrees. Be sure to review the educational requirements of the state you wish to work in before deciding on a degree.
The Importance of an Accredited Substance Abuse Counseling Degree
Prospective online substance abuse counseling students should research the accreditation of their schools and degree programs before enrolling. Accrediting agencies carefully assess a school or program's ability to provide a high-quality education by reviewing its curricula, faculty members, student resources, and student outcomes. Choosing one of these accredited schools can help you feel confident that you are investing in a worthwhile education program that will be recognized by future employers, licensing boards, other accredited schools, and student financial aid agencies.
What Students Will Learn in an Online Substance Abuse Counseling Program
In addition to receiving a solid foundation in psychology, counseling theory, and addiction patterns, students will learn to provide both individual and group counseling in a substance abuse counseling program. They will also learn about community treatment resources so that they will be able to refer their clients to additional services and facilities outside their realm. Students will also learn about advocacy for increasing the funding and support of the programs they are aligned with. Another avenue of training for most students will be to work as a volunteer at a hospital or a rehabilitation clinic. This provides students with valuable experience and a realistic perspective of what to expect when they are employed as a counselor. Students should contact local addiction counseling groups and inquire about their volunteer opportunities.
The following courses are commonly required in substance abuse degree and certificate programs:
Addictive Behaviors: This course provides students with an overview of what causes addictions and the consequences that can result from addictive behavior. It also introduces some of the theories of prevention and treatment being practiced today.
Cognitive Neuroscience: Students will learn the basics of cognition with regard to memory, executive functions, emotion, and how people make decisions. Gaining a better understanding of how the brain functions will help substance abuse counseling students understand the physical mechanisms occurring behind the addictions.
Developmental Psychology: An introduction to developmental psychology teaches students about cognitive development, language and motor skill acquisition, moral reasoning and empathy, and social development.
Group Counseling: Students will explore the theories and techniques of group counseling, different group counseling styles, and ethical responsibilities for group counselors.
Psychopathology: An introduction to psychopathology teaches students about the causes of mental illness and the ways in which mental illness can manifest itself in people's behaviors.
Certification Requirements for Substance Abuse Counselors
Unlike many other positions in the healthcare field, becoming a substance abuse counselor doesn't necessarily require a postsecondary degree. This doesn't mean that a degree isn't helpful; earning an online bachelor's degree may make you more competitive in the job market and may exponentially increase your earning power over the course of your career. As for what level of degree you'll need and in what field, that often varies according to state, employing institution, or position.
The types of treatment and services you can offer as a substance abuse counselor will depend on the state in which you live. The education requirements for addiction treatment specialists vary from state to state. In some states, counselors with only a high school diploma or certificate can provide certain services to clients. In other states, a bachelor's degree in substance abuse counseling prepares graduates to earn a state substance abuse license. Some employers may require or prefer particular professional certifications, like those offered through The Association for Addiction Professionals. In many states, to diagnose and treat people with behavioral disorders, you will need to earn a master's degree or higher in counseling and complete 2,000-4,000 hours of fieldwork under the supervision of an experienced counselor. For information on the training requirements in your state, visit the National Board for Certified Counselors or the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network.
Frequently Asked Questions About Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees
How long do you have to go to school to be a drug counselor?
There are a wide range of career options available for those interested in substance abuse and addiction counseling, and the education requirements vary by state. Most states require a bachelor’s degree to be a substance abuse counselor, which typically take four years to complete. Some states only require a two-year associate degree to be a counselor. Others may require education or clinical experience hours in lieu of a degree. Students should check requirements for their state.
What is the difference between substance abuse and substance use disorder?
Substance use disorder is a medical diagnosis used by the American Psychological Association. The APA introduced this term in 2013 to replace the two separate diagnoses of “substance abuse” and “substance dependence.” Those who suffer from substance use disorder may fall into the mild, moderate, or severe categories based on their symptoms. Mental health professionals use these terms to evaluate, treat, and measure progress in patients.
Can a person who was formerly incarcerated become a substance abuse counselor?
While having a criminal record can make it more difficult to become licensed, it still is possible for many. Those who have struggled with drug and alcohol addiction in the past are often drawn to a career as a substance abuse counselor, and are uniquely positioned to support others in recovery.
Laws vary from state to state, but most licensure boards take into account the type and seriousness of the crime, how long ago it was committed, and the length of rehabilitation time when evaluating applicants.
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