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Counseling Degree Guide for 2024

Counseling Degree Guide is a comprehensive resource for exploring degrees, careers, schools, licensing requirements, salary and job outlook, advice from working professionals, and the counseling field as a whole. Earning a counseling degree prepares graduates for careers in counseling and therapy.

This page provides an overview of degree levels with links to more detailed information. It also covers degree types that are often paired with degree levels such as a master’s degree in mental health counseling.

Table of Contents

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Counselor?
Counseling Degree Levels
Counseling Degree Concentrations
Marriage and Family Therapy
Mental Health Counseling
Rehabilitation Counseling
School Counseling
Substance Abuse Counseling
Can You Get a Counseling Degree Online?
Counselor Licensing Requirements by State
Frequently Asked Questions

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Counselor?

Researching state-level licensure will help you understand requirements for education in your state. There are unique counseling degrees matching specific counseling careers.

  • A master’s degree in an area of counseling (e.g. mental health) is the path for four of the top five counseling careers including Marriage and Family Counselor, Mental Health Counselor, Rehabilitation Counselor, and School Counselor.
  • A bachelor’s degree (or less depending on one’s state) is the typical degree requirement for Substance Abuse Counselor.
  • With an associate’s degree or high school degree, there are roles as human services technicians or assistants, performing support tasks for licensed counselors or therapists.

Counseling Degree Levels

The following table presents the requirements for different types of on-campus and online counseling degrees by level. While we have presented the typical requirements for each level, individual program requirements will vary. To become a licensed, professional counselor, a degree level is paired with a concentration such as a master’s in school counseling.

Whether you decide on an on-campus or online degree, researching accredited counseling programs is one of the most important steps in your journey to a career in counseling. There are two types of accreditation to look for in accredited mental health counseling programs, accredited school counseling programs, and other accredited counseling programs: national accreditation and programmatic accreditation. Accreditation is discussed in more detail in our guide to counseling schools.

DegreeAverage Annual Cost*1,2Typical Program Length**Typical Credit Hour RequirementsPractice Level***
Associate in Counseling (All fields)$11,200Two years60 credit hoursEntry-level
Bachelor’s in Counseling (All fields)$23,050Four years120 credit hoursIntermediate
Master’s in Mental Health Counseling$20,420^Two to three years60 credit hoursAdvanced
Master’s in School Counseling$20,420^Two years48 credit hoursAdvanced
Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy$20,420^Two to three years60 credit hoursAdvanced
Phd in Counseling (All fields)$20,420^Three to seven years^^50 credit hours min.^^Advanced/Professional

See Table Notes at bottom of page.

Associate Degree in Counseling

An associate degree in counseling can prepare you for entry-level licensure as a substance abuse counselor. Associate degrees usually take around 60 credit hours to complete, which is two years (four semesters) with full-time study. An associate degree can also prepare you for entry-level careers in support roles related to counseling, such as human services technician. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that nearly 200 not-for-profit schools offer associate degrees in one of the five primary counseling areas.3 Read our guide to associate degrees in counseling to learn more.

Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling

Depending on your state’s licensing guidelines, a bachelor’s degree in counseling can qualify you for entry-level counseling licensure and counseling support roles. If you are planning a professional counseling career, a bachelor’s degree is an important stepping stone toward a master’s degree. According to NCES, 65 not-for-profit colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degrees in the five major counseling areas.3 Our guide to bachelor’s degrees in counseling provides further information on this degree path.

Master’s in Counseling

A master’s is the highest level of education required for counseling licensure in all 50 states and Washington DC. It is considered the terminal degree for this field or the highest level of education required for most jobs. At the master’s level, you will focus your studies on a specific specialization of counseling, laying the groundwork for your counseling license and career. Over 600 schools offer a master’s or advanced degree in the five main areas of counseling.3 See our master’s in counseling degree guide to learn more.

PhD in Counseling

Earning a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in counseling is not required to become a licensed counselor, but prepares you for applied research or postsecondary teaching roles. Depending on your state’s guidelines and the PhD program, you may be able to qualify for a counseling license with a PhD. A doctorate in counseling is also helpful if you are interested in administrative careers in this field, particularly in a school setting. Our guide to doctoral degrees in counseling outlines further information.

Certificate in Counseling

Many schools offer certificates in counseling that can supplement an on-campus or online counseling degree program. Typically found at the graduate level, counseling certificate programs take around 12 to 25 credits to earn. These certificates are commonly designed to provide specialization in a particular focus area through in-depth study. Examples include certificates in trauma counseling, mental health, and college counseling. When paired with another degree, a certificate in counseling can also help students accumulate credits to meet state licensure requirements. NCES reports 262 not-for-profit schools that offer a certificate in the five primary counseling areas.3

Counseling Degree Concentrations

Choosing a concentration, (also referred to as specialty or track)in counseling is a key part of beginning your counseling career. The five most common concentrations in counseling are mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, rehabilitation counseling, school counseling, and substance abuse counseling. Concentrations are paired with a degree level such as Master’s in Mental Health Counseling.

Marriage and Family Therapy

Degrees in marriage and family therapy are typically found at the master’s level and may be called master’s degrees in marriage and family counseling. A master’s in marriage and family therapy, which usually takes 60 credit hours to earn (two to three years of full-time study), prepares you for licensure as a marriage and family therapist through advanced coursework focused on human relationships and interpersonal dynamics. A growing number of schools offer online master’s degrees in marriage and family therapy. Our in-depth guide to master’s degrees in marriage and family therapy can help you learn more. Or read more about this career.

Mental Health Counseling

A master’s in counseling, also a master’s in mental health counseling or a master’s in professional counseling, among other variations, will typically qualify you for licensure to work as a professional counselor or clinical counselor. Potential master’s degree specialization areas include substance abuse counseling, clinical mental health, community therapy, and more. Many online master’s in counseling programs offer a flexible alternative to the traditional, on-campus setting, and in both settings take around 60 credit hours, or two to three years of study to complete. Most mental health counseling degrees are found at the graduate level, although there are related undergraduate programs that can prepare you for advanced study and/or entry-level licensure (in states where this is an option). Read more on our guides to master’s in mental health counseling degrees and earning a master’s in mental health counseling online. Or read more about this career.

Rehabilitation Counseling

Although a bachelor’s in rehabilitation counseling is sufficient for many jobs in this field, a master’s in rehabilitation counseling is generally considered to be more competitive in the job market. Rehabilitation counselors assist individuals living with disabilities in adapting to their life circumstances and building skills within their abilities. This can relate to physical, academic, or career/vocational rehabilitation. Requirements for a rehabilitation counseling license vary by state. Rehabilitation degree programs can qualify you for careers at the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s levels. Or read more about this career.

School Counseling

School counseling degrees are mostly found at the master’s level and typically require a bachelor’s degree in education or a related area. A master’s in school counseling is the entry-level degree that qualifies graduates for a school counselor license. Licensure prepares you for a career as a school counselor providing academic, career, and interpersonal support to students in a K-12 setting. Flexible online master’s in school counseling programs are also available. Whether on-campus or online, a master’s degree in school counseling takes 60 credit hours, or two to three years of full-time study, to complete. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) adjusted its standard for licensure in all 50 states and Washington DC from 48 to 60 credit hours starting in 2023. Or read more about this career.

Substance Abuse Counseling

Earning a degree in substance abuse counseling prepares you for licensure and a career as an addiction counselor. There are associate and bachelor’s substance abuse counseling programs that take two to four years to complete and qualify you for intermediate levels of licensure in many states. A master’s in addiction counseling, which commonly takes 60 credit hours and two to three years to complete, is the standard for advanced or professional licensure in all 50 states and Washington DC. In addition to on-campus programs, many schools offer online addiction counseling master’s degree programs. Learn more about these degree options on our substance abuse degrees page. Or read more about this career.

Can You Get a Counseling Degree Online?

As demand for online counseling degrees increases, a growing number of schools offer online master’s in counseling programs. As with traditional, on-campus programs, most online programs are found at the graduate level. Looking at distance education enrollment trends for all types of graduate programs, as of fall 2021, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 36% of graduate students attending a public college or university were enrolled exclusively in online courses, while 38% of graduate students attending a private, nonprofit institution were enrolled exclusively in online courses.4 These statistics show a 12-15% increase in online education enrollment since 2012.7

Master’s in counseling programs can be fully online or in a hybrid format. Master’s in counseling programs that are designed to lead to licensure generally include practicum and internship components; online students will usually be able to arrange to complete this requirement in their local area, especially out-of-state students. Some master’s programs also have weekend or summer residency requirements.

Whether fully or partially online, completing a counseling degree program through distance education can provide greater scheduling flexibility than a traditional, on-campus program. Distance education can also allow for accelerated study, as many programs offer eight-week terms (as opposed to the more traditional 16-week semester).

On Campus vs. Online Counseling Degrees: Which One Is for You?

Online programs are designed for learners who are self-directed, highly motivated, and able to meet course deadlines independently. If you are interested in completing a counseling degree online, ask yourself:

  • Are you a self-starter with excellent time management skills?
  • Are you a visual learner who does not need hands-on work in order to assimilate new skills and knowledge?
  • Are you comfortable learning alone in an environment that has limited direct interaction with peers and professors?
  • If it is located out-of-state, will the program you are considering meet the counselor licensing requirements in your state?
  • Will you be able to meet any internship, fieldwork, or practicum requirements of the program in your local area?

If the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” an online master’s in counseling might be a good option for you! Be sure to check out our ranking of top online master’s in mental health counseling programs.

Counselor Licensing Requirements by State

Each state in the US sets licensing requirements for prospective counselors. These requirements vary not only by state but also by the type of counseling license requested–such as school counselor, marriage and family therapist, or mental health counselor. The licensure process typically involves completing a certain level of counseling-related education, passing an approved exam, completing supervised work experience, and passing a background check. Click on your state below to learn more about licensing requirements by counselor type in your area.

Frequently Asked Questions

What degree do I need to be a counselor?

To become a licensed professional counselor, you will need a master’s degree in counseling. Various counseling degree programs are available; depending on your state’s requirements and your career interests, this might be a master’s in professional counseling, mental health counseling, or clinical counseling. In some states, a doctoral degree in counseling can also prepare you to become a licensed professional counselor. You might consider this option if you already have a master’s in another subject or are interested in a research or academic career.

What degree do you need to become a marriage and family therapist?

To become a marriage and family therapist, you must earn a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or a related mental health field, depending on your state’s requirements. Focusing specifically on marriage and family therapy in your graduate studies will help prepare you for the relationship-based treatment models unique to this area of counseling. Marriage and family therapy master’s programs typically take two years to complete.

Do I need a master’s to become a school counselor?

To become a school counselor, you will need a master’s degree in school counseling. All 50 states and Washington DC require prospective school counselors to have a master’s degree to become licensed and work in K-12 settings.

Do you need a degree to become a substance abuse counselor?

Most states follow a tiered licensing model for substance abuse counselors, which allows those with a high school diploma or associate degree to work in substance abuse counseling under supervision. Those with a more advanced degree can qualify for higher-level licenses, which may also provide a broader range of career opportunities and higher pay.

Can I earn a counseling degree online?

Absolutely! Many online counseling programs offer flexible ways to earn your associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. Be sure to check with your state licensing board for degree requirements if you are considering an online counseling program based in another state.

How long does it take to become a counselor?

It commonly takes seven to nine years to become a counselor. For most types of counseling, including mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, and school counseling, a master’s degree in counseling is the minimum degree required. This means that you will likely spend at least six years in school–four years for your bachelor’s plus two to three years for your master’s. In many states, you must also complete one to three years of supervised experience to qualify for a full license.

What degree do you need to be a counselor?

The typical counselor education requirements include earning a master’s degree in your chosen area of counseling, such as professional counseling or marriage and family therapy. However, there are exceptions. In particular, counselor education requirements for substance abuse counselors tend to be less stringent; many states allow substance abuse counselors to practice with an associate or bachelor’s degree. In some cases, the education requirement may be a high school diploma plus supervised experience. Check out our guide to counselor licensing to learn more.

Are there counseling careers without a degree?

There are no clinical counseling careers without a degree since most states require at least a master’s degree to become licensed. However, in some states, such as California, it is possible to work in substance abuse counseling or as a counselor’s assistant without a degree if you complete a state-approved training program. Check with your state’s licensing board for further information.

Table Notes:
*Average annual cost is based on the average cost for this degree level at public and private nonprofit institutions nationwide (e.g., the average annual cost of tuition and fees for a two-year degree in any field, taken from the average of all schools reported).
**Program length is based on full-time study (12+ credits per semester undergraduate; 9+ credits per semester graduate) for typical programs. Specific programs may require more or fewer credit hours.
***The practice level permitted varies by your state’s laws. Check out our guide to counseling licensure to find out more about requirements.
^Based on assessed in-state tuition only. Out-of-state tuition averages are higher at many institutions for graduate students. In addition, graduate study may be partially or fully funded by the institution. The 50th percentile tuition charge, the point at which half of schools charged more and half of schools charged less, was $17,317 per year for public and nonprofit schools in 2018-19.2
^^Varies depending on the program’s requirements and the individual student’s dissertation progress, as schools may or may not count previously earned master’s degree credits toward overall PhD credit requirements.

1. National Center for Education Statistics, Price of Attending an Undergraduate Institution, 2019-20: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cua
2. National Center for Education Statistics, Average Graduate Tuition and Required Fees in Degree-granting Postsecondary Institutions, by Control of Institution: 2019-20: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_330.50.asp?current=yes
3. National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator: https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
4. National Center for Education Statistics, Post Baccalaureate Enrollment 2021: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/chb
5. National Center for Education Statistics, Post Baccalaureate Enrollment 2012: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/Indicator_CHB/coe_chb_2014_05.pdf