Best Online Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees

By the OnlineU team | Updated 5/18/2021
Quick Facts
Accreditation: CACREP
Degree Levels: Associate, Bachelor's, Master's, Doctoral, Certificate
Average Tuition: $22,884
Average Salary: $75,085

Substance abuse and addiction counselors work with clients one-on-one or in groups, 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% through 2029, making this an ideal time to pursue what many people feel is a fulfilling career in the counseling field.

Our ranking list below identifies the top 7 online addiction counseling programs to help you choose which one best fits your needs. We also provide information about earning a degree online, career options for graduates, and certification requirements.

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Online Bachelor's in Substance Abuse Counseling with the Highest Return on Investment

2021 Best Online Colleges Offering Bachelor's Degrees in Substance Abuse Counseling Badge

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.

RankSchool Annual Tuition Median Starting Salary Median Debt 10-year ROI
# 1 #1 University of South Dakota $10,537 $31,828 $25,000 $296,500
# 2 #2 Ohio Christian University $12,480 $32,213 $34,431 $288,800
# 3 #3 Indiana Wesleyan University Online $11,760 $30,771 $26,380 $283,900
# 4 #4 Northwestern State University of Louisiana $9,600 $29,685 $25,000 $274,500
# 5 #5 University of Central Arkansas $8,550 $29,413 $27,000 $269,200
# 6 #6 University of Maine at Augusta $9,486 $29,882 $31,250 $268,700
# 7 #7 University of Cincinnati $10,820 $29,685 $31,167 $266,800

Best Bachelor's Degrees in Substance Abuse Counseling Rankings Details

#1

University of South Dakota

Vermillion (SD)
  • 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
Accreditation: HLC
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 1,887

#2

Ohio Christian University

Circleville (OH)
  • 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%
Accreditation: HLC
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 1,687

#3

Indiana Wesleyan University Online

Marion (IN)
  • 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%
Accreditation: HLC
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 5,219

#4

Northwestern State University of Louisiana

Natchitoches (LA)
  • 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

#5

University of Central Arkansas

Conway (AR)
  • 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.

Cost per Credit: $285
School Type: Non-Profit
Credits Required: 120
Graduation Rate: 41%
Acceptance Rate: 90%
Financial Aid Recipients: 98%
Average SAT Scores: 970 - 1170
Accreditation: HLC
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 261

#6

University of Maine at Augusta

Augusta (ME)
  • 10-Year ROI: $268,700
  • Median Salary: $29,882
  • Annual Tuition: $9,486
  • Median Debt: $31,250

The University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) offers an online Bachelor of Science in Mental Health and Human Services (MHHS) - Addiction Counseling. The program is accredited by the Council for Standards in Human Service Education. The addiction counseling concentration covers topics in crisis intervention, substance abuse disorders, and the effects of addiction on different populations.... Students in the program must complete nine credits of supervised fieldwork placement, serving as the capstone requirement. Graduates of this program meet the academic requirements for the Licensed Social Worker-Conditional credential in Maine.

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%
Accreditation: NECHE
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 2,103

#7

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
Accreditation: HLC
Undergrad Online Enrollment: 2,460

Overview of Online Substance Abuse Counseling Bachelor's Degrees

Students of substance abuse counseling study the symptoms and causes of chemical dependency and are trained to provide clinical support for those suffering from addiction. The top online colleges for bachelor's degrees in substance abuse counseling provide the highest return on investment for students, meaning that the career outcomes of graduates will likely outweigh the initial program cost.

What Students Will Learn in an Online Program

Students 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. 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 some cases, online schools offer students the chance to practice this 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. Another avenue of training for most students will be to work as a volunteer at a hospital or a rehabilitation clinic. Students can contact local addiction counseling groups and inquire about their volunteer opportunities.

Common Courses

The following courses are commonly required in substance abuse counseling degree and certificate programs:

  • Developmental Psychology: An introduction to developmental psychology teaches students about cognitive development, language and motor skill acquisition, moral reasoning and empathy, and social development throughout the life cycle. Students will gain an understanding of diagnostic and assessment tools, and how to utilize them in the counseling setting.
  • Families and Addiction: Because an individual's chemical dependency or other addictive behavior often has a profound impact on family life, many programs devote a course to the counseling and treatment of whole families. Coursework typically explores the prevention of additional substance abuse and other dysfunctional behavior, relational patterns typical of substance-dependent families, and other specific issues related to women and children.
  • Group Counseling: Sometimes involving experiential learning, this course explores the theories and techniques of providing counseling in group settings. Students learn about types of groups, group interaction and development, the benefits of different counseling styles, and effective group facilitation. Coursework also addresses ethical concerns, such as client confidentiality.
  • Individual Counseling: Designed to develop and enhance students' competencies as professional substance abuse counselors, this course trains students to perform all aspects of counseling individuals. Students learn the stages of the counseling process, from client screening, intake, and treatment planning, through client education and case management reporting. Coursework often emphasizes the skills and knowledge needed to pass certification exams, including ethical and legal issues related to counseling practice.
  • Introduction to Substance Abuse and Addiction: This course provides students with an overview of the causes and consequences of addictive behavior. Course materials will cover drug and alcohol abuse, and may address eating disorders, pathological gambling, and compulsive sexual behaviors. Students will be introduced to various perspectives on addiction treatment, including views from psychology, sociology, criminology, and medical science.
  • Professional Ethics and Legal Responsibility: While some programs interject a discussion of ethical and legal issues into many courses, other programs consolidate this important topic into a standalone course. Students will learn various theories of ethical reasoning, and understand how they are applied in the counseling setting. Course materials also cover the legal responsibilities associated with the counseling profession.
  • Psychopharmacology: In the context of a substance abuse counseling program, psychopharmacology will cover two major topics. First, coursework will examine major drug classifications and the effect of both legal and illegal drug types on the central nervous system. Second, the course will explore the possible use of prescription drugs in the treatment of substance abuse, especially for patients who also suffer from mental illness.

Accreditation

Prospective online substance abuse counseling students should research the accreditation of the schools they're considering before enrolling. Accrediting agencies carefully assess a school's ability to provide a high-quality education by reviewing its curricula, faculty members, student resources, and student outcomes. Choosing an accredited school 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
  • Student financial aid agencies

For information about the accreditation status of individual schools, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) are helpful resources. We've also compiled a guide to accreditation, including the different types of accrediting agencies and why accreditation is so important for students.

Frequently Asked Questions About Careers

What Do Substance Abuse Counselors Do?

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.

What Degree Do You Need To Be a Substance Abuse Counselor?

In general, a bachelor's degree in substance abuse counseling or a similar program that provides training in counseling (such as psychology) is required for entry-level positions. In some states, a bachelor's degree qualifies you to become a substance abuse counselor in a number of different settings, such as an outpatient mental health clinic, substance abuse clinic, or juvenile detention center.

If you want to enter into private practice where you can provide additional services to your clients, most states require you to earn a master's degree in counseling, psychology, or clinical social work from a regionally accredited school. In addition to earning a degree, you will need to complete 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience and pass a certification exam in order to practice.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor?

Online bachelor's degrees in substance abuse counseling typically require the completion of 120 credits of general education and major-specific courses. Students can accomplish this in four years of full-time study.

Online master's programs in counseling can take two to three years to complete the required number of credit hours, which varies by school. Many students also need at least a year to accumulate the 2,000+ hours of supervised clinical experience required to become certified for private practice.

What Can I Do With a Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling or Addiction Studies?

With a bachelor's degree in substance abuse counseling or addiction studies, you are eligible for a number of counseling jobs in:

  • community-run health clinics,
  • private health facilities,
  • and agencies and offices related to the legal system.

In most cases, you will work under the supervision of a licensed counselor, and you may have to work some evenings and weekends. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for substance abuse counselors is $47,660, and demand for professionals in this field is expected to grow by 25% over the next decade, creating 79,000 new jobs.

Once you've earned a substance abuse counseling bachelor's degree, you have several other career paths open to you. For example, you could become a social and community service worker, earning a median annual salary of $69,600. You might also consider becoming a correctional treatment specialist, with a median annual salary of $55,690. By earning a master's degree in counseling or therapy, you can pursue quite a few additional career options, such as marriage and family therapist, rehabilitation counselor, and school and career counselor.

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.

Certification Requirements for Substance Abuse Counselors

Certification requirements vary by state, employing institution, and position. A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement to become a substance abuse counselor in many states, but others require a master's. Even so, it is possible in some states to become a substance abuse counselor without a postsecondary degree.

The types of treatment and services you can offer as a substance abuse counselor will depend on the state in which you live.

  • 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.

One of the most common certifications available in this field is the National Certified Counselor (NCC), administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors. Check with your state to determine the exact educational and certification requirements you need to practice in your state.

How Do You Become a Certified Addiction Professional?

The Certified Addiction Professional (CAP) credential is required to practice as a substance abuse counselor in the state of Florida. Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree or higher in substance abuse counseling or a similar field. Florida also allows counseling professionals to obtain an alternate type of certification, known as the Certified Addiction Counselor. The requirements are much lower, as only a high school diploma and far fewer hours of clinical training and experience are needed. CAC certification is also accepted in many other states across the U.S., and is sometimes known as Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC) certification. Your state's department of health or a similar website can provide you with information on certification requirements for your state.

What is CADC Certification?

In the state of California, the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals administers the certification training and testing for the Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC) certification. CADC certification is available in three levels: CADC-I, CADC-II, and CADC-III. Level I and Level II certification are available to individuals who have a high school diploma or associate degree and meet other requirements for education, training, and experience. Level III criteria includes a bachelor's degree in counseling. CADC certification is just one of several different types of certification accepted by employers across the state. If you are a California resident, check with the state board of health for full details on substance abuse counseling certification.

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