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Counseling Degree Guide for 2020

Earning a counseling degree opens the door to a variety of careers in counseling and therapy. According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), “Professional counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.” In other words, counseling is a collaboration between counselor and client with the intent of helping the client reach their goals. This applies to all areas of counseling including mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, rehabilitation counseling, school counseling, substance abuse counseling, and various other areas of counselor specialization.

If you’re interested in a career in this helping profession, Counseling Degree Guide is your comprehensive resource for exploring degrees, careers, schools, licensing requirements, salary and job outlook, advice from working professionals, and the counseling field as a whole. Explore our site to find out more about opportunities in this exciting – and growing – field.

Table of Contents
Jobs in Counseling with a Degree
Counseling Degree Levels
Types of Counseling Degrees
Marriage and Family Therapy
Mental Health Counseling
Rehabilitation Counseling
School Counseling
Substance Abuse Counseling
Can You Get a Counseling Degree Online?
Finding Accredited Counseling Programs
Counselor Licensing Requirements by State
Frequently Asked Questions

Jobs in Counseling with a Degree

Although counseling is not just a relationship formed to treat mental illness, that is an important part of what counselors do. The prevalence of mental illness in the US has led to high demand for counselors, a demand which is expected to remain strong in the coming years. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in five adults in the US have a clinically-recognized mental illness, but less than half have received mental health services in the past year.1 In order to be able to recognize, diagnose, and treat mental illness effectively, as well as understand when to refer patients to another professional, counselors must have a formal education in these skills. In addition, as people who are seeking counseling services are considered a vulnerable population, all 50 US states have licensing guidelines for prospective counselors.

Taken together, this means that the greatest number of career opportunities in professional counseling require a college degree. For the highest level of licensure in most states, especially for mental health counselors, school counselors, and marriage and family therapists, a master’s degree in counseling is the norm. Some states recognize an intermediate level of licensure with a bachelor’s degree in counseling. For counseling support roles and roles in substance abuse counseling, an associate’s degree in counseling or even a high school diploma plus some formal training may be sufficient for an entry-level career.

Counseling Careers without a Degree

Although in most cases professional counseling licenses are geared towards those who have a college degree, there are entry-level opportunities for those who do not. Many states recognize human services technician or assistant roles, in which you may perform certain support tasks for licensed counselors or therapists. In select states, it may be possible to become licensed as a substance abuse counselor with a high school diploma plus some formal training. Working as a technician, assistant, or entry-level substance abuse counselor can also support you while you work towards the bachelor’s or master’s degree and supervised experience required in order to achieve a higher level of licensure.

Counseling Degree Levels

Statistics suggest that on average, the growth rate in the five major fields of counseling (marriage and family therapy, mental health counseling, rehabilitation counseling, school counseling, and substance abuse counseling) tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is expected to be 14.6% through 2026 – compared to an average job growth rate of 5% for all occupations during the same time period.2-6 The BLS expects job prospects to be strongest for those who have earned a counseling degree.2-6 The education required for a career in counseling is an investment that requires planning.

To help you understand the requirements for different types of on-campus and online counseling degrees by level, we have created the following table. While we have presented the typical requirements for programs at each level, individual program requirements will vary. You should also know that credits earned from a regionally accredited associate’s degree program will generally transfer towards a regionally accredited bachelor’s degree program. This can substantially reduce the amount of time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree and prepare for an advanced degree in counseling.

DegreeAverage Annual Cost*1,2Typical Program Length**Typical Credit Hour RequirementsPractice Level***
Associate’s in Counseling (All fields)$10,700Two years60 credit hoursEntry-level
Bachelor’s in Counseling (All fields)$21,800Four years120 credit hoursIntermediate
Master’s in Mental Health Counseling$19,084^Two to three years60 credit hoursAdvanced
Master’s in School Counseling$19,084^Two years48 credit hoursAdvanced
Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy$19,084^Two to three years60 credit hoursAdvanced
Phd in Counseling (All fields)$19,084^Three to seven years^^50 credit hours min.^^Advanced/Professional

See the bottom of this page for table notes and references.

Associate’s Degree in Counseling

An associate’s 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’s degree can also prepare you for entry-level careers working in support roles related to counseling, such as human services technician. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that over 200 not-for-profit schools offer associate’s degrees related to counseling.7 Read our guide to associate’s 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 open the door to entry-level licensure in certain types of counseling and may qualify you for counseling support roles. If you are planning a professional counseling career, a bachelor’s degree is an important stepping stone towards a master’s degree. According to NCES, there are over 200 not-for-profit colleges and universities offering bachelor’s degrees related to counseling.7 Our guide to bachelor’s degrees in counseling provides further information on this degree path.

Master’s in Counseling

A master’s in counseling is typically considered the terminal degree for this field, meaning the highest level of education required for most jobs. A master’s is the highest level of education required for licensure as a counselor in all 50 states and Washington DC. At the master’s level, you will have the opportunity to focus your studies on a specific area of counseling, laying the groundwork for your counseling license and your career. There are over 800 schools offering a master’s or advanced degree in counseling in the US.7 See our master’s in counseling degree guide to learn more.

PhD in Counseling

Earning a PhD in counseling is not required to become licensed as a counselor, but is typically expected if you are interested in pursuing applied research or college-level teaching. Depending on your state’s guidelines and the program, you may be able to qualify for a counseling license by completing your 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 also 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. Beyond providing specialization, a certificate in counseling can also help students meet state licensure requirements (when paired with the appropriate formal degree) if they do not have the required credit hours.

Types of Counseling Degrees

In order to pursue a counseling career, in addition to planning the level of degree you’ll need to pursue, you’ll also need to plan which area of counseling to focus on. The five most commonly encountered specialties in counseling are mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, rehabilitation counseling, school counseling, and substance abuse counseling.

Marriage and Family Therapy

Degrees in marriage and family therapy are typically found at the master’s level. These degrees are also sometimes referred to as 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. Online master’s degrees in marriage and family therapy are offered by a growing number of schools. Our in-depth guide to master’s degrees in marriage and family therapy can help you learn more.

Mental Health Counseling

Earning a master’s in counseling, which can also be titled as a master’s in mental health counseling, a master’s in professional counseling, and other variations, will typically qualify you for licensure and work as a professional counselor or clinical counselor. There are opportunities to add specializations to this degree in areas such as substance abuse counseling, clinical mental health, community therapy, and more. There are many online master’s in counseling programs that offer a flexible alternative to the traditional, on-campus setting, although most programs take a similar amount of time to complete – 60 credit hours, or two to three years of study, is common. Not many degree programs focus on mental health counseling at the undergraduate level, although there are related programs that can prepare you for advanced study and/or entry-level licensure (in states where this is an option). Read more on our guide to master’s in mental health counseling degrees.

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 counseling is the practice of assisting individuals with disabilities in adapting to their life circumstances and building skills within their abilities. This can relate to physical rehabilitation as well as academic or career/vocational rehabilitation. States vary on their requirements for a rehabilitation counseling license. There are online rehabilitation degree programs that can qualify you for this career at the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s levels.

School Counseling

As a degree specialty, school counseling is mostly found at the master’s level. To prepare for this program, you might earn a bachelor’s degree in education or in a related area. A master’s in school counseling is the entry-level degree to earn a school counselor license, which prepares you for a career as a school counselor providing academic, career, and interpersonal support to students in a K-12 setting. In addition to on-campus programs, there are online master’s in school counseling programs that can help you reach your goals. Whether on-campus or online, a master’s degree in school counseling usually takes about 48 credit hours, or two years of full-time study, to complete.

Substance Abuse Counseling

Earning a degree in substance abuse counseling prepares you for licensure and a career as an addiction counselor. There are associate’s and bachelor’s substance abuse counseling programs that can be completed in as little as two to four years and qualify you for licensure in many states. A master’s in addiction counseling, which commonly takes 60 credit hours and two to three years to complete, can prepare you for higher levels of licensure in all 50 states and Washington DC. In addition to on-campus programs, many schools are now offering online addiction counseling master’s degree programs. Learn more about these degree options on our substance abuse degrees page.

Can You Get a Counseling Degree Online?

As demand for online counseling degrees increases, a growing number of schools are offering 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 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 22% of graduate students attending a public, not-for-profit college were enrolled exclusively in online courses, while 25% of graduate students attending a private, not-for-profit college were enrolled exclusively in online courses.8 These statistics show a 10% increase in online education enrollment since 2012.9

An online master’s in counseling can be either fully online or hybrid, a course format in which some classwork must be completed on campus while other classwork can be completed online. Master’s in counseling programs that are designed to lead to licensure will generally include a practicum or internship component; online students will usually be able to arrange to complete this requirement in their local area, especially in cases where the school they are attending is located out-of-state. Weekend or summer residencies are also not an uncommon requirement for master’s programs.

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 now 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 complete course requirements within specific timeframes without the in-class reminders and “status checks” that are common in traditional, on-campus courses. 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 an option!

Finding Accredited Counseling Programs

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 different types of accreditation that are crucial to understand when talking about accredited mental health counseling programs, accredited school counseling programs, and other accredited counseling programs: regional accreditation and voluntary national accreditation.

At a minimum, the school you choose should be accredited by one of the six regional accreditors recognized by the US Department of Education. Regional accreditation holds schools accountable for meeting minimum education standards and is also a requirement for many financial aid programs, especially federal financial aid. Some states may also require prospective counselors to attend a program that is specifically approved within that state for the preparation of counselors.

There are also voluntary, national accreditations that counseling degree programs can seek that are specific to counseling and therapy. These accreditations show that schools go above and beyond the minimum in counseling education to meet the higher standards of a given accreditor. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the most common and widely respected accreditor for professional counseling programs. Some states, such as Ohio, strongly suggest attending a CACREP-accredited program. In other states, attending a CACREP-accredited program may waive additional requirements. In addition to on-campus programs, there are CACREP-accredited online counseling programs.

Depending on a program’s emphasis, you may also see accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC) specifically for accredited genetic counseling programs. Programs developed for licensed substance abuse counselors may be accredited by the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP) or the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission (NASAC).

At the doctoral level, some counseling-related programs may also have accreditation from the American Psychological Association (APA). This is a widely-recognized accreditation, but it is not found at the master’s level.

Counselor Licensing Requirements by State

Each state in the US sets its own 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, mental health counselor, and so on. The process typically involves completing a certain level of education in the license area, 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 be a pathway to becoming a licensed professional counselor. This might be an option to consider if you already have a master’s in another subject, or if you 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 will need to earn a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or, in some states, a related mental health field. Focusing specifically on marriage and family therapy in your graduate studies will help prepare you for the relationship-based treatment models that this area of counseling entails. Marriage and family therapy master’s programs can typically be completed in about two years.

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 in order 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 can allow those with as little as a high school diploma to work in substance abuse counseling under certain circumstances (such as under supervision). However, those with higher educational attainment typically qualify for higher-level licenses, which may provide a broader range of career opportunities as well as higher pay.

Can I earn a counseling degree online?

Absolutely! There are many online counseling degree programs that can help you earn your associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s in a flexible format. Be sure to check with your state licensing board for degree requirements if you are considering an online counseling program that is based in another state.

How long does it take 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 educational attainment required. This means that you will spend at least six years in school – four years for your bachelor’s plus two years for your master’s – to complete the required education. In many states, you will also need to complete one to three years of supervised experience in order to qualify for a full license. This means that it commonly takes from seven to nine years to become a counselor from the time you begin your bachelor’s degree.

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’s 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 not many counseling careers without a degree since most states require at least a master’s degree to become licensed. However, in some states, it is possible to work in substance abuse counseling or as a counselor’s assistant without a degree. Check with your state’s licensing board for further information.

Table Notes and References:
*Average annual cost is based on the average cost for this level of degree 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 will vary 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 will be 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 $22,913 per year for nonprofit schools in 2016-17.2
^^Will vary depending on the program’s requirements and the individual student’s dissertation progress. Schools may or may not count previously earned master’s degree credits towards overall PhD credit requirements, which can vary from examples such as 45 credit hours after a master’s degree to 96 credit hours after a master’s degree.
1. National Center for Education Statistics, Price of Attending an Undergraduate Institution, 2017-18: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cua.asp
2. National Center for Education Statistics, Average Graduate Tuition and Required Fees in Degree-granting Postsecondary Institutions, 2016-17: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_330.50.asp

References:
1. National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Health Information and Statistics: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Marriage and Family Therapists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/marriage-and-family-therapists.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, School and Career Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/Community-and-Social-Service/School-and-career-counselors.htm
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Rehabilitation Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/rehabilitation-counselors.htm
6. O*NET OnLine, Counselors, All Other: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1019.00
7. National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator: https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
8. National Center for Education Statistics, Postbaccalaureate Enrollment 2017: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_chb.asp
9. National Center for Education Statistics, Postbaccalaureate Enrollment 2012: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/Indicator_CHB/coe_chb_2014_05.pdf