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Guide to Online Master’s in School Counseling Programs

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 5/12/2022

About 55 million pre-K-12 students enroll in U.S. schools each year, and many of these students and their families need help navigating the educational system. You might assist these families once you earn a master's degree in school counseling.

Students in these programs learn skills and techniques for assessing learners' aptitudes, conferring with teachers and guardians about behavioral problems, helping students choose classes, and giving guidance about future academic and career options. Some colleges offer optional concentrations to help enrollees tailor their graduate studies for specific demographics.

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What Is School Counseling?

School counselors provide a valuable service outside of the classroom by guiding students through their academic careers. They have a broad remit to support young learners through any academic, behavioral, and personal challenges they face during their time in school. You can find counselors at every level from early childhood through high school, though their distribution can vary based on the resources of a district and whether a school is public or private.

This career is highly professionalized. To practice as a school counselor, you need at least a master's degree in school counseling that includes a practicum experience, along with a license in the state where you want to work. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) is the nonprofit group that recommends professional standards for licensure and continuing education requirements.

What Will I Learn in a School Counseling Program?

You can only pursue education in school counseling at the graduate level. In general, faculty design these degrees as professional programs that prepare graduates for specific careers. The aim of a master's degree is to create professional school counselors, and the goal of a doctoral degree is to produce researchers and professors in the discipline. 

Most degree programs have similar curricula to others at the same level, because they typically seek the ASCA's recognition based on its Standards for School Counselor Preparation Programs. These standards describe the association's preferred learning outcomes for graduate students in school counseling. You can expect courses to cover topics in the following areas based on the ASCA standards:

Foundational knowledge about the history and structure of U.S. education and the school counseling profession

Core theories and concepts such as behavior modification, strengths-based mental health counseling, emotive behavior therapy, and person-centered counseling

Interventions that include direct observation, meeting with staff and families, and group counseling

Student learning outcomes written in collaboration with teachers and guardians

How to create school counseling programs based on surveys, demographic data, and state standards

Professional scope of practice and ethics, including lessons on leadership, confidentiality, and a multicultural worldview

Recognition Versus Accreditation

In addition to ASCA recognition, some schools apply for Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accreditation. As the ASCA notes, this programmatic accreditation differs from ASCA recognition because it considers factors beyond student outcomes, such as faculty credentials and internship requirements.

It's difficult to say whether ASCA recognition or CACREP accreditation is the more important credential. Most states require that you graduate from an institutionally accredited program in order to be certified, but they typically don't require any specific programmatic accreditation.

Earning a School Counseling Degree Online

Given the rising popularity of distance learning, you might wonder how colleges structure online programs in school counseling. Although learning modes differ across programs, most of them feature asynchronous courses with no set meeting times. As an asynchronous student, you log in to a learning management platform to complete coursework, watch recorded lectures, respond to discussion posts, and access readings.

Some degrees consist of entirely asynchronous courses with no live elements. Others adopt a hybrid model that can include some live lectures or group discussions over video conferencing technology. Some hybrid programs go further by requiring students to meet their cohort on campus for a few days at a time once or twice a year. Carefully research each college's online school counseling programs so you understand what faculty expect.

Every online master's in school counseling includes an internship or practicum that usually takes place over two semesters or three quarters. For this field experience, you'll work at a school in your area under the supervision of a certified school counselor.

For more information about online degrees, explore our Trends & Insights hub, where we feature expert insights and data-driven articles.

What Can I Do With a School Counseling Degree?

As discussed, master's degree graduates usually seek positions as school counselors. These counselors earn median annual salaries of $60,510, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 11% job growth in the 2020-2030 period. Between new positions and regular turnover, you can expect about 35,000 open jobs every year during that time.

Below, we break down the responsibilities of counselors by type of school.

Grade Level Duties
Elementary School
  • Assessing behavioral issues and offering solutions
  • Administering and interpreting aptitude tests
  • Talking to classes about sensitive topics such as bullying
Middle School
  • Assessing behavioral issues and offering solutions
  • Giving aptitude tests to determine academic track
  • Talking to groups about what to expect in high school
High School
  • Assessing behavioral issues and offering solutions
  • Offering career counseling at the high school level to advise on higher education and career paths
  • Writing letters of recommendation to colleges

Note that the term "guidance counselor" was historically used in K-12 schools but has since fallen out of favor. The ASCA prefers the term "school counselor" because their scope of professional practice has expanded in recent decades. However, you may still find job posts from schools that use the older term.

Is School Counseling a Good Career?

The answer to this question depends on your goals. You might consider the field if you're passionate about helping young people succeed but don't relish the thought of teaching five or six classes a day. According to data analytics company Burning Glass Technologies, most employers ask for excellent communication, collaboration, and organizational planning skills in their job posts. As you consider a school counseling career, you can think about whether you have these competencies or are interested in acquiring them.

Is a School Counseling Degree Worth it?

It's helpful to take stock of your financial, familial, and work circumstances as you consider an online school counseling degree. You can examine the pros and cons listed below to help you determine if the diploma is likely to be worth the time and effort.

Potential Benefits

The field is enjoying higher than average job growth. BLS projections show an 11% increase in new jobs through 2030, compared to the nationwide average of 8% for all occupations. This growth, combined with regular turnover, will lead to about 35,000 open positions each year during this period.

Most school counselors believe that their work makes a positive difference. A 2020 ASCA survey of 7,000 active counselors indicates that 81% agree or strongly agree that their school counseling program improves student academic outcomes and behavior. Most also report that their work is helping close achievement and opportunity gaps and improving social justice.

Potential Drawbacks

School counselors earn relatively low pay compared to other master's-prepared occupations. The median annual salary for professionals with master's degrees is $77,844, about $17,000 more than the median school counseling rate. See the Financial Implications section below for more detail.

A majority of professors of counseling report difficulty balancing their workload. In ASCA's 2021 survey of PhDs, 63% of respondents say it's a challenge to find time for research and writing. Publishing articles is an important part of earning tenure, which may be why only one-third of these professors are currently tenured, though another quarter are on the tenure track.

The Financial Implications of a School Counseling Degree

Money certainly isn't everything, but our research indicates that earning potential is an especially important consideration for young students. Becoming a school counselor requires both bachelor's and master's degrees, so you'll spend at least six years at postsecondary institutions, which can lead to a lot of student debt. Even if you partially offset the expense with financial aid, a school counselor's relatively low salary might make it more difficult to justify the financial investment.

Because of these financial considerations, it's crucial that you feel passionate about school counseling before you make it your livelihood. You typically won't be exposed to the profession until your internship or practicum in the second year of your master's program, which can make it hard to know if you enjoy the work. It may be helpful to talk to current school counselors about their experiences before you decide to pursue a master's degree.

FAQs About a School Counseling Degree

What Undergraduate Degree Is Best for School Counseling?

One major isn't necessarily better than any other. Psychology and education are popular choices for future school counselors, and these subjects can potentially provide insights into child and adolescent learning and development. But you can enroll in a school counseling master's degree after earning a bachelor's in any field — some of ASCA's 2022 school counselors of the year hold undergraduate degrees in aviation management, kinesiology, and German.

How Long Does It Take to Become a School Counselor?

Most colleges intend their 120-credit bachelor's degrees to take four years with a full-time schedule. In addition, they estimate that a 48-credit-hour school counseling master's degree takes two years at full time. However, you may choose a part-time program so you can balance other responsibilities with school. Most students pursuing a bachelor's degree take longer to graduate than the traditionally expected times, so six years may be conservative.

How Much Do School Counselors Make?

School counselors earn a median salary of $60,510 per year.

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