2020 Best Online Bachelor's Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees

By Taylor Nichols | Updated November 24, 2020
Quick Facts
Accreditation: CACREP
Degree Levels: Associate, Bachelor's, Master's, Doctoral, Certificate
Average Tuition: $22,971
Average Salary: $75,085

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.

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2020 Best Online Colleges Offering Bachelor's in Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees

2020 Best Online Colleges Offering Bachelor's in Substance Abuse Counseling Badge

The 19 schools on this list are the top options for an online bachelor's degree in substance abuse counseling based on alumni salaries and low tuition rates. A degree from Union College - KY has an impressive return on investment, with an annual tuition of $6,750 and alumni reporting a mid-career salary of $83,100. In the #2 spot, Southern New Hampshire University Online offers a BA in Human Services - Substance Abuse for only $9,600 per year, making it an affordable choice for distance learners who are looking for a high quality and affordable education.

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

Rank School Annual Tuition Mid-Career Salary
# 1 #1 $6,750 $83,100
# 2 #2 $9,600 $78,300
# 3 #3 $17,760 $79,500
# 4 #4 $8,550 $74,800
# 5 #5 $10,342 $70,000
# 6 #6 $12,720 $59,800
# 7 #7 $12,270 $52,400
# 8 #8 $24,073 $56,900
# 9 #9 $10,537 $51,300
# 10 #10 $10,943 $50,900
# 11 #11 $11,700 $50,300
# 12 #12 $6,560 $47,600
# 13 #13 $12,150 $47,500
# 14 #14 $12,000 $46,600
# 15 #15 $15,231 $42,300
# 16 #16 $9,269 $39,500
# 17 #17 $31,150 $47,200
# 18 #18 $23,812 $44,000
# 19 #19 $14,250 $39,200
Salary data provided by Payscale Logo

2020 Online Colleges Offering Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees - Ranking Details

#1 Union College - KY

  • Annual Tuition: $6,750
  • Median Salary: $83,100
  • Locations: Barbourville (KY)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

The Bachelor of Science in Substance Abuse Counseling at Union College - Kentucky offers a flexible, 120-credit program with a rigorous liberal arts curriculum. To remain in the program, students must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA and take all required college tests and assessments. The coursework in this online substance abuse counseling program focuses on the psychology and behavior of addiction and ethical issues. Students must complete an internship as part of their core requirements.

The curriculum follows an asynchronous format so students can learn at their convenience. Online coursework is delivered through the uLearn learning platform, which offers students support 24/7. Faculty and academic advisers are also available to assist students during their enrollment.

Applicants must submit transcripts from high school, or proof of a GED; transfer applicants must submit all transcripts from prior colleges. Military applicants should provide evidence of previous training, which can be transferred to academic credits. Students can also submit AP and CLEP exam scores for credit.

#2 Southern New Hampshire University Online

  • Annual Tuition: $9,600
  • Median Salary: $78,300
  • Locations: Manchester (NH)
  • Accreditation: NECHE

The Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) offers six concentrations of study: addictions, applied psychology, child and adolescent development, forensic psychology, mental health, and social psychology. The 120-credit program with a concentration in addictions allows students to develop the skills needed to help people recover from drug dependency. It also helps to establish a foundation for advanced study in psychology or counseling. SNHU offers classes in six 8-week terms, which allow students to enter the program when it is convenient for them.

This program’s curriculum focuses on theories, case studies, and practical experiences in the field of human behavior. Students will learn to analyze data and conduct research, and there are opportunities for internships and other experiential learning. SNHU students have 24/7 access to the online classroom. Available resources include academic advising and career planning through SNHUconnect, an online community that encourages interaction between students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

Individuals seeking admission must complete an application form on the website. An admissions counselor will connect with the prospective students to complete the application process, which requires school transcripts and proof of high school graduation or a GED. SNHU does not require an application fee or test scores for admission.

#3 Elizabethtown College

  • Annual Tuition: $17,760
  • Median Salary: $79,500
  • Locations: Elizabethtown (PA)
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

Elizabethtown College’s Bachelor of Science in Human Services is a 125-credit program that offers students the choice between a general track of study or a concentration in behavioral addictions counseling. The program prepares graduates for professional opportunities in human services in roles such as advocates, administrators, and counselors.

Students who select for the specialization in behavior and addictions counseling will learn the theories and best practices needed to help individuals recover in various counseling and rehabilitation settings. In addition to interpersonal skills, students will also develop other transferable skills, such as communication and critical thinking, that are considered valuable by employers in various fields.

The ACT or SAT is required for admission, although this requirement can be waived for applicants in the top 10% of their class or who have a 3.5 GPA or higher. The application process requires the submission of an online form, a report/recommendation from a guidance counselor, an official high school transcript, and a personal statement or writing sample. There is no application fee for this program. For adult learners returning to school, the EXCEL program at Elizabethtown College enables them to earn academic credit for prior professional experience.

#4 University of Central Arkansas

  • Annual Tuition: $8,550
  • Median Salary: $74,800
  • Locations: Conway (AR)
  • Accreditation: HLC

The online Bachelor of Science in Addiction Studies degree at the University of Central Arkansas offers a concentration in treatment. This degree completion program is suitable for students with an associate degree. Graduates are eligible for the Alcohol and Drug Counselor certification in the state of Arkansas and can pursue careers hospitals, clinics, schools, and outpatient programs. Students undertaking the treatment concentration learn about the theory and practice of addiction counseling, as well as intervention, planning, group counseling, and ethics. Additionally, students are required to complete a practicum in substance abuse.

The program is delivered in an asynchronous format so students can log in to a virtual classroom 24/7 to study at their convenience. Online learners have access to tech support and are are assigned a program coordinator who can provide non-academic support through email and phone.

The application process requires prospective students to submit a form and official transcripts from previous schools attended. Financial aid packages are available to those applicants who qualify.

#5 University of Cincinnati

  • Annual Tuition: $10,342
  • Median Salary: $70,000
  • Locations: Cincinnati (OH)(and 1 other)
  • Accreditation: HLC

The University of Cincinnati's (UC) Bachelor of Science in Substance Abuse Counseling is suitable for students interested in pursuing career opportunities in drug counseling in a rehabilitation setting. Fall, spring, and summer start dates are available, so prospective students can begin the program at their convenience. The program allows students to complete their degree on a part-time or full-time basis. Graduates can apply their skills and credits toward state licensure; however, they are advised to check their specific state requirements. Graduates of UC’s program will meet the Chemical Dependency Counselor II and III licensure requirements to work as counselors in Ohio.

This online substance abuse counseling program offers coursework in substance addiction recovery theory and practice. Students will learn individual and group counseling practices and develop skills in assessments and diagnoses, recovery treatment, ethics, and crisis management. Seniors will complete a capstone course before graduation that will be the culmination of their academic experience. Online coursework is delivered through Blackboard. Students have access to various campus services, including library resources, advising, and technical support.

First-year students must submit an official high school transcript and SAT or ACT scores. A 2.7 GPA is the minimum score required for entry. Transfer students with 24 credits and a GPA of 2.0 or higher will be considered for admission.

#6 Assumption College

  • Annual Tuition: $12,720
  • Median Salary: $59,800
  • Locations: Worcester (MA)
  • Accreditation: NECHE

Assumption College offers a Bachelor of Arts in Human Services and Rehabilitation Studies through its Center for Continuing and Career Education (CCE). The 120-credit BA in Human Services program offers a concentration in Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counseling, which prepares students to sit for their professional counselor licensure. Classes run in 7.5-week sessions with six start dates throughout the year. The curriculum includes a combination of liberal arts courses and core classes covering topics such as addiction, disabilities, interviewing techniques, and rehabilitation strategies.

Online coursework is delivered through Brightspace, a learning management system from D2L. Students take at least one course from each of the following tracks: psychological perspective, cultural perspective, and societal family perspective. Students may earn up to 12 credits through an internship experience and must complete a multi-disciplinary capstone course to graduate. Online students may receive academic advising and tutoring services, access electronic library resources, and download Microsoft Office products for free.

Assumption College may award students up to 75 transfer credits from previous college, professional, or military experience. Students can work with an admission counselor to navigate the application process, which requires that students submit an online application and official transcripts. A 2.5 GPA is preferred, but individuals are considered on a case by case basis. Counseling interviews are encouraged.

#7 Eastern Kentucky University

  • Annual Tuition: $12,270
  • Median Salary: $52,400
  • Locations: Richmond (KY)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

The online Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) requires 120 credit hours to complete and is offered through the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences. Students can select a concentration in Substance Abuse, which will prepare them to take the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Practitioner certification exam upon degree completion. Students in the program can take the following online classes, Biological Bases of Behavior, Cognition/Learning, Developmental, Social/Personality, and Skills. Seniors in the program must complete capstone requirements, including a senior seminar and research.

Online content is managed on the Blackboard learning platform, where students can engage in interactive classroom tools such as discussion boards, email, and virtual chats. Instructors may post videos, articles, PowerPoint presentations, and other materials for students to view. Students may use electronic library resources, access to free online tutoring, and receive career services.

Classes run in eight-week sessions with six start dates throughout the year. Interested applicants may work with an enrollment counselor to navigate the admissions process. Students should submit a completed application, official transcripts, and ACT or SAT scores to apply for enrollment. Individuals with at least 24 college credits may apply as a transfer student and are exempt from submitting test scores. Military students may receive tuition discounts.

#8 Eastern Washington University

  • Annual Tuition: $24,073
  • Median Salary: $56,900
  • Locations: Cheney (WA)
  • Accreditation: NWCCU

Eastern Online, the platform for online learning from Eastern Washington University (EWU), offers a Bachelor of Arts in Addiction Studies through the College of Social Sciences. The 67-credit hour program provides graduates with the academic training necessary to become a Certified Substance Use Disorder Professional in the state of Washington. A required senior capstone course prepares students for the state licensure exam.

Online coursework is delivered through the Canvas learning management platform, where instructors upload readings, videos, and recorded lectures that students may access when convenient. Classes typically follow an asynchronous format. If the class is offered synchronously, then students utilize video-conferencing tools to attend lectures. For students not currently working in addiction treatment, an optional practicum placement is available. Online students have access to EWU’s digital library resources, career counseling, and peer tutoring. Students begin with a virtual orientation.

Prospective students must complete an application (with fee) and submit test scores and transcripts. Students who are unable to provide test scores have several alternatives, including a recommendation letter from a current teacher. Individuals with at least 40 college credits may apply as transfer students and are exempt from submitting test scores.

#9 University of South Dakota

  • Annual Tuition: $10,537
  • Median Salary: $51,300
  • Locations: Vermillion (SD)
  • Accreditation: HLC

University of South Dakota Online (USD Online) offers an online Bachelor of Science in Addiction Counseling and Prevention program that consists of 120-degree hours. Students may select a specialization in treatment or prevention. Graduates of the program are prepared to meet standards for state, national, and international certification exams; however, students should check with their local state certification requirements. The curriculum includes courses in alcohol addiction, counseling skills, and ethical issues and students must complete a three-credit internship component.

Online coursework is delivered through the D2L learning management system. Several unique elective courses are available to students interested in a more focused study of specific populations. USD Online students have access to electronic library resources, a writing center, disability services, a veterans resource center, and 24/7 support through the technical service desk.

A completed application (with fee), official transcripts, and test scores are required to apply for admission. Additionally, incoming freshmen must meet one of the following requirements: an ACT score of 21 (SAT score of 1070), a 2.6 high school GPA, rank in the upper 50% of high school graduating class, or score a three or higher on Smarter Balanced Assessments.

#10 SUNY Empire State College

  • Annual Tuition: $10,943
  • Median Salary: $50,900
  • Locations: Saratoga Springs (NY)
  • Accreditation: MSCHE

SUNY Empire State College offers a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Professional Studies, or a Bachelor of Science in Community and Human Services for those seeking a substance abuse counseling program. Each degree program provides a concentration in Substance Abuse Services. Students may also complete a customized interdisciplinary concentration that combines courses in Child and Family Services, Criminal Justice Services, Disability Services, or Health and Human Services. Students must also complete an internship or an approved applied learning activity.

Online courses follow an asynchronous format and are hosted on the Moodle learning management system where students can review the course syllabus, submit assignments, and participate in discussions. To graduate, students must write an essay on how they have met the six foundations of learning through their coursework: knowledge of human behavior, service delivery, skills, ethics, diversity, and application and integration. Support services available to students include an IT service desk, electronic library resources, and the Peer Tutor Program that offers free academic coaching to assist students in specific courses.

Individuals may apply for fall, spring, or summer semesters. To be considered, applicants should submit their official high school transcripts (and college transcripts if a transfer student) and a personal essay.

#11 Liberty University

  • Annual Tuition: $11,700
  • Median Salary: $50,300
  • Locations: Lynchburg (VA)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

Liberty University’s online Bachelor of Science in Psychology program requires that students complete 120 credit hours over three and a half years. A concentration is offered in addiction and recovery. The curriculum emphasizes counseling theory and psychotherapy and the impact substance abuse has on individuals and families. Students must complete an internship before graduation. 

Liberty University's online programs are offered on a part-time basis so students can continue working full-time. Classes run in eight-week sessions. Along with core and faith-based requirements, students complete courses related to their major and several electives. An internship is required before graduation. Online courses are delivered on Blackboard and follow an asynchronous format, which lets students complete work at their own pace without meeting at a specific time. 

Online learners have access to many resources, including Adobe products, an IT Helpdesk, an online writing center, virtual tutoring, and the Jerry Falwell Library. Applicants must submit a completed application and official transcripts. Transfer students may submit up to 90 credits toward the bachelor’s degree at Liberty University.

#12 Fort Hays State University

  • Annual Tuition: $6,560
  • Median Salary: $47,600
  • Locations: Hays (KS)
  • Accreditation: HLC

Fort Hays State University offers both a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology with a concentration in Addictions Counseling. This track prepares students to become a licensed addictions counselor in the state of Kansas. The 120-credit curriculum includes core sociology degree requirements, general education courses, concentration classes, and electives.

Online coursework is delivered through the Blackboard learning management platform, where students engage in discussion boards, presentations, team projects, and exams. Two practicums are required before graduating. The Bachelor of Arts consists of an additional foreign language requirement. Online students benefit from free tutoring and career services, technological support, and digital library resources.

Prospective students are required to submit an application, official transcripts, and test scores. First-year students must score a 21 on the ACT (980 on the SAT) or rank in the top third of their graduating class. A minimum 2.0 GPA is also required. Students with at least 24 college credits and a 2.0 college GPA may apply as a transfer student.

#13 New England College

  • Annual Tuition: $12,150
  • Median Salary: $47,500
  • Locations: Henniker (NH)
  • Accreditation: NECHE

New England College (NEC) offers a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a concentration in Addiction and Substance Abuse. The 120-credit program introduces students to addiction studies and covers topics in biology, psychology, and sociology. Online classes run in seven-week sessions. Students in the human services major take classes in Delivery of Human Services, Research Methods, Sociology, Substance Abuse, Client Assessment and Planning, and fulfill elective and general education requirements.

NEC partners with Bisk Education, an online learning services provider, to offer online degrees to students. Online coursework can be completed asynchronously and is delivered via recorded lectures and written assignments. Online support services include academic advising, a tutoring center, digital resources from the Danforth Library, career planning, and veteran services.

Prospective students have the option to work with an enrollment representative and should submit a completed application and official transcripts to apply. No application fee is required. The college is a Yellow Ribbon institution that offers tuition assistance to military-connected students.

#14 Bay Path University

  • Annual Tuition: $12,000
  • Median Salary: $46,600
  • Locations: Longmeadow (MA)(and 1 other)
  • Accreditation: NECHE

Bay Path University offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a concentration in Foundations of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling. Students in the program will complete the academic and practicum requirements to sit for the Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor exam after graduation. Additionally, students can prepare for the national certification and a master’s degree in the field by completing two, 12-week graduate-level courses.

The curriculum for the Drug Abuse Counseling track includes topics in drugs and behavior, addictions and intervention, health psychology, and counseling diverse populations. Students must complete a supervised, 300-hour internship in a clinical setting. Online coursework is delivered through SOUL, a data-driven online learning platform that utilizes adaptive learning technologies. Additionally, online orientation and accelerated courses are offered on the platform.

Resources for online students include virtual tutoring, academic advising, career services, and digital resources from the Hatch Library. Online applicants may also take a virtual tour. To apply, prospective students should submit a completed application and official transcripts. A 2.0 GPA is required to be considered for enrollment. Upon acceptance, students will schedule a phone interview with a counselor to discuss future academic goals.

#15 Western New Mexico University

  • Annual Tuition: $15,231
  • Median Salary: $42,300
  • Locations: Silver City (NM)
  • Accreditation: HLC

Western New Mexico University (WNMU) offers an online Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in Chemical Dependency Counseling through the School of Behavioral Sciences. The 120-credit program is designed to meet the academic requirements for the Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor in the state of New Mexico.

The curriculum combines coursework in chemical dependency, psychology, sociology, and statistics. The BA degree option requires an additional foreign language requirement, while the BS degree option requires additional math or computer science requirements. Both programs require that students complete a 300-hour internship. Online coursework is facilitated through the Canvas learning management platform and is delivered asynchronously. Online students may access e-tutoring, disability services, and veteran services.

To be considered for admission, students need to complete an application and send official high school transcripts. ACT or SAT scores may be submitted instead of the Accuplacer Exam, but are not required. Students with at least 24 college credits may apply as a transfer student.

#16 University of Maine at Augusta

  • Annual Tuition: $9,269
  • Median Salary: $39,500
  • Locations: Augusta (ME)
  • Accreditation: NECHE

UMA Online, the distance learning platform for the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) offers a Bachelor of Science in Mental Health and Human Services (MHHS). The MHHS degree requires 121 credits to complete and offers a concentration in addiction counseling. Graduates of this program meet the academic requirements for the licensed Social Worker Conditional credential in the state of Maine.

Online coursework is delivered through the Blackboard learning management platform and features pre-recorded lectures, asynchronous assignments, and real-time video-conferencing. The addictions counseling concentration covers topics in crisis intervention, substance abuse disorders, and the effects on different populations. Students work with UMA to identify an appropriate field placement site, which serves as the capstone requirement.

The online application is free and requires that prospective students submit official transcripts. Applicants must pass a criminal background check. Students can attend an online orientation and have access to academic success coaching, advising, disability accommodations, and digital resources through the UMA libraries.

#17 Nova Southeastern University

  • Annual Tuition: $31,150
  • Median Salary: $47,200
  • Locations: Fort Lauderdale (FL)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

Nova Southeastern University offers an online Bachelor of Science in Human Services Administration with a concentration in Substance Abuse Studies. The BS in Human Services Administration is offered through the Abraham S. Fischler College of Education and School of Criminal Justice. This 120-credit hour, four-year program includes 350 hours of a supervised internship.

Online coursework is delivered through the Canvas learning management platform, where students participate in discussion boards and synchronous, real-time virtual lectures. Classes cover a variety of core topics, including counseling, communication, and management. Students have access to career services, academic advising, and electronic library resources.

Students with a military background may access veteran services. Prospective students should submit a completed application (with fee), official transcripts, official test scores, and one letter of recommendation. Students with at least 24 college credits may apply as a transfer student and should submit college transcripts.

#18 University of Michigan-Flint

  • Annual Tuition: $23,812
  • Median Salary: $44,000
  • Locations: Flint (MI)
  • Accreditation: HLC

The University of Michigan-Flint (UM-Flint) offers prospective online students a Bachelor of Science in Substance Abuse Treatment. The degree program consists of 124 credit hours that can be completed in four years. Graduates are eligible for the Certified Alcohol and Drug Counseling certificate in the state of Michigan.

Students take courses in substance abuse theory and treatment of special populations, crisis intervention, social psychology, and social prevention. Students must also complete a field placement and an integrative seminar to graduate. Online coursework is managed through the Blackboard learning platform and combines synchronous, live audio discussions with assignments that students can complete independently.

Students can access academic advising, a Student Veterans Center, a technical assistance help desk, and electronic resources from the Thompson Library. Transfer students should have a 2.0 GPA for prior college credit with at least 24 credits earned. A completed application and official transcripts are required to apply.

#19 Mercer University

  • Annual Tuition: $14,250
  • Median Salary: $39,200
  • Locations: Macon (GA)
  • Accreditation: SACS COC

Mercer University’s (MU’s) online Bachelor of Science in Human Services offers a concentration in Substance Abuse Services and requires 120 credit hours to complete. Distance education students receive the same support services as traditional on-campus students. The curriculum includes core classes (including subjects in research methods, case management, and a senior internship), concentration-specific courses, general education hours, and electives.

Classes are delivered through the Canvas learning management software and Zoom video-conferencing; some courses require regular, virtual attendance. Online students may schedule a session with an admissions counselor to discuss degree planning. Resources available to students include technical assistance, Microsoft Office products, MU’s libraries, and career counseling.

Applicants can choose from five start dates throughout the year, with online classes running for eight weeks. To apply, applicants should submit a completed application, an application fee, and official high school and college transcripts. Individuals with over nine hours of prior college credit are considered transfer students. Incoming students should have a GPA of 2.25. 

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

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 offer a combination of academic strength and affordability to prospective undergraduates.

Program Requirements

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.

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accredits various types of graduate-level counseling degree programs, and several regional accrediting agencies accredit entire institutions that offer substance abuse counseling degrees. Both programmatic and institutional accreditation are acceptable as long as the accrediting agencies are officially recognized by either the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Please visit OnlineU's accreditation hub for more information about accreditation.

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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