Associate’s Degree in Counseling Guide

If you are considering a career as a counselor, earning an associate’s degree in counseling or a related field is the first step toward reaching your career goals. While most states require a graduate degree for counseling licensure, an associate’s degree provides foundational knowledge for entry-level support positions and prepares you for further study.

If you are interested in counseling, you can also consider an associate degree in a related field such as psychology, human services, and human development. Any one of these introductory degrees can begin to prepare you for a career in mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, school counseling, rehabilitation counseling, or substance abuse counseling.

Table of Contents

Why Earn an Associate’s in Counseling?

Associate-level counseling degrees introduce students to the psychological theories and models used in practice. These entry-level degrees help students develop the academic and professional skills necessary for further study or various entry-level counseling roles such as counseling assistant, human service assistant, substance abuse counselor (in some states), or caseworker.

To be eligible for most types of professional counseling licensure, you will need a graduate degree in counseling, and most graduate counseling programs require applicants to have a related undergraduate degree for admission. An associate degree in counseling or a related field is an excellent way to gain familiarity with the profession and determine whether counseling may be a good career path for you. If you enjoy the program, you can continue your education at the bachelor’s degree level. In fact, many institutions offer transfer programs with local colleges and universities that enable graduating associate degree students to continue in a related four-year degree pathway.

Associate degree holders may also be interested in looking for employment directly after graduation. With an associate’s degree, you can work in the counseling field to gain experience and decide which area of counseling you prefer. Associate degree-holders may find work in support roles if these types of administrative careers are available in their area. In substance abuse counseling, an associate’s degree may be sufficient to secure employment as a graduate degree is not always necessary for licensure in this counseling subfield. Find more information about state requirements and job outlook in our counseling licensure state guides.

Choosing an Associate’s in Counseling Degree Program

Associate’s degrees introduce students to post-secondary learning and often have core curriculum requirements that every student must complete. While associate’s degrees in counseling are available, they are rare; therefore, students interested in counseling career paths may also choose to pursue a degree that provides related knowledge, such as psychology, human services, or family studies. Associate degrees in counseling and related fields will prepare students for further specialization in popular counseling areas of practice: professional counseling (also referred to as mental health counseling), marriage and family therapy, school counseling, substance abuse counseling, and rehabilitation counseling.

Associate’s-level degree programs are often designed to develop breadth of knowledge in core areas, such as writing and composition, math, humanities, and science, with fewer subject-specific electives. Students can choose from various courses related to counseling and mental health as part of the elective requirements, depending on what the school offers. Choosing an area of counseling specialization becomes more important at the graduate level as each state has specific degree and course requirements for each practice area.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements for an associate’s degree in counseling vary by school. A high school diploma or GED is usually required for entry. A minimum GPA may be required, as well as minimum scores on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT. Applicants may also need to submit a statement of purpose and letters of recommendation.

Licensure With an Associate’s in Counseling

With an associate’s degree in counseling or a related field, you can seek employment in mental health, community, and social service settings assisting mental health and human service professionals or in nonprofit or government institutions. Licensure is not typically required for associate-level jobs, with the exception of some available in substance abuse counseling. If you already know the type of counseling specialization you’d like to pursue, the next step is to gain work experience in your field of interest: marital and family therapy, school counseling, professional counseling, substance abuse counseling, or rehabilitation counseling.

Available job opportunities depend on the job outlook for associate degree holders in your state and your area of focus. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social and human service assistants earn an average annual salary of $41,600 as of May 2022; substance abuse counselors, who in some states can be licensed with an associate’s degree, are included by the BLS in the same category as mental health and behavioral disorder counselors, and together these professionals earn an average annual salary of $56,230 as of May 2022.1,2 Some examples of related jobs for associate degree holders include:

  • Caseworker
  • Child and Youth Advocate
  • Counseling Assistant
  • Family Mediator
  • Human Service Assistant
  • Mental Health Technician
  • Outreach Specialist
  • Program Assistant
  • Social Services Assistant
  • Substance Abuse Counselor

To find out more about the requirements and steps necessary for counseling licensure, contact your state’s board of professional counselors or refer to our counseling licensure guide by state.

Types of Associate’s Degrees in Counseling

Because counseling is a broad field, individuals with a counseling degree may work in a variety of settings. Most counseling areas require a graduate degree to qualify for a full counseling license, but gaining an associate’s degree in counseling or a related area can be the first step towards meeting licensure requirements and can provide opportunities to gain work experience through entry-level positions.

Associate of Arts (AA) degrees consist of a wider range of coursework in the arts, while Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees require statistics, science, or clinical coursework. Most associate’s degrees comprise 60 credits of full-time attendance and take about two years to complete. The five major counseling categories are: marriage and family therapy, mental health counseling, rehabilitation counseling, school counseling, and substance abuse counseling. Read more about associate degree options related to these common areas of counseling specialization below.

Associate’s in Marriage and Family Therapy

To become a marriage and family therapist, all states require a master’s degree or above and professional licensure. However, there are numerous associate-level degree programs related to marriage and family therapy (MFT), such as counseling, psychology, and marriage and family studies, which prepare graduates for further study or entry-level positions in counseling. To learn more about MFT degrees see our marriage and family therapy degree page where we cover the various degree pathways in more depth.

Associate’s in Mental Health Counseling

Associate degrees in mental health counseling, mental health studies, or counseling prepare graduates to understand mental health and wellness and qualify licensed counselors for roles such as mental health technician or assistant. In mental health counseling associate degree programs, students may learn about human behavior and development, foundations of counseling, social and emotional disorders, and clinical terminology. To qualify for full licensure and practice independently as a mental health counselor, however, a graduate degree and supervised experience are required. Find more information about degree pathways in our master’s in mental health counseling degree guide.

Associate’s in Rehabilitation Counseling

Rehabilitation counselors work with clients living with a wide range of disabilities or impairments to help them achieve personal, physical, and emotional goals in their daily lives. An associate’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a related field, such as mental health, psychology, or human services, is a good start to building a career in this field. Prospective rehabilitation counselors should keep in mind that a master’s degree in counseling is typically required to become licensed, so further study at the bachelor’s and/or graduate levels may be necessary and can be advantageous for career progression. Review our rehabilitation counseling degree guide to learn more about the degree options in this specialty of counseling.

Associate’s in School Counseling

School counseling is a diverse field that can involve working with children from pre-K through 12th grade or specializing in the needs of specific age groups. The career path to becoming a school counselor varies depending on the state and typically requires the completion of a teacher preparation program, a graduate-level school counseling degree, or a combination of both. There are no associate’s degrees in school counseling that will qualify you to become licensed as a school counselor, though you may complete an associate’s degree in a related field, such as child development, family studies, education, or counseling on your way to a higher-level degree. Read about degrees in school counseling to learn more about how to follow this career path.

Associate’s in Substance Abuse Counseling

Substance abuse counselors provide screening, case management, counseling, and referral services to those struggling with substance abuse challenges. There are numerous associate degree programs available in substance abuse counseling and addiction studies that prepare graduates to work in the substance abuse field. Related degree programs, such as mental health counseling and human services, may also be acceptable for substance abuse counseling employment. Requirements for licensure vary by state, but many states provide credit for a related associate’s degree in lieu of supervised work experience. Refer to our Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Guide to discover more about degrees and programs in this field.

On-Campus Counseling Associate’s Degree Programs

Baltimore City Community College

The Allied Health Services program at Baltimore City Community College (BCCC) leads to an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree. This 60-semester-credit-program teaches students fundamental principles of social and human services fields including mental health, social work, and education. Courses in sociology, biology, and psychology complement two required fieldwork experiences in human services counseling. Students can complete the general curriculum or optional specializations in addiction counseling and mental health services; certificate programs are also available. To apply, individuals submit proof of a high school diploma or GED and then must complete a placement test and meet with an academic advisor. The BCCC program prepares students to work with diverse populations, such as veterans, the elderly, families, and people with mental illnesses, in a variety of settings and preference is given to students who plan to seek employment in the Baltimore area upon graduation.

Mt. Hood Community College

Located in Gresham, Oregon, Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC) offers a two-year Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in Mental Health, Social Service, and Addiction Counseling. This broad degree provides students with the opportunity to develop basic counseling knowledge and skills while exploring several types of counseling. Students complete approximately 100 quarter credits with coursework in psychology, sociology, counseling theories, and math. Once students complete the AAS degree, they qualify to sit for the Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC) exam. The program also includes a co-op internship in the final quarter of study. Upon completion of the program, previous graduates have found employment in community and institutional settings including hospitals, residential treatment facilities, and family services. Those looking to continue their education at the bachelor’s level can take advantage of MHCC’s transfer degree options with Portland State University, Clark College, and other local post-secondary institutions.

Penn State University

At Penn State University, students can graduate with an Associate in Science (AS) degree in Human Development and Family Studies in as little as two years of full-time study. This program prepares graduates for employment as assistants and other entry-level roles in community and family services settings. Students can customize their learning experience with three available specializations: Adult Development and Aging Services; Children, Youth, and Family Services; and Early Childhood Care and Education. Courses are primarily offered in the evening at numerous campuses in Pennsylvania and online through the Penn State World Campus; full-time and part-time study options are available. Coursework requirements include the general education core curriculum, the human development core curriculum, and electives from the area of specialization. New applicants are admitted for the fall and spring terms and all students must complete an internship during the final semester of study.

SUNY Adirondack

At the SUNY Adirondack campus, students can earn an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Criminal Justice: Substance Abuse Services by completing 64 semester credits in two years of full-time study. In addition to coursework in substance abuse theories and counseling, this program requires students to complete coursework in criminal justice and clinical psychology to understand legal, ethical, and practical challenges clients may face when receiving substance abuse counseling services. The program also provides students with hands-on learning experience through a required internship at a related agency that connects substance abuse and addiction to broader, interlinked issues of the law, mental health, and the criminal justice sector. Examples of required course topics include human services, abnormal psychology, chemical dependency, ethics in substance abuse counseling, and statistics. Transfer options to related bachelor’s degree programs are available for other SUNY campuses or post-secondary institutions in the state.

Online Counseling Associate’s Degree Programs

Brigham-Young University

Brigham-Young University (BYU) is a post-secondary institution affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and offers an online Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in Marriage and Family Studies through BYU-Idaho and BYU-Pathway Worldwide online campus. This degree may be a good starting point for aspiring marriage and family therapists. Students first complete the foundational requirements for the Marriage, Family, and Human Relations Certificate and then complete more advanced coursework in marriage and family functioning. The degree content covers a range of topics relevant to marital and family systems such as communication, healthy relationships, family dynamics, and money management. Applicants are admitted for fall, winter, and spring start dates and can apply online at any time. All coursework is completed online and students must have access to a computer with video and chat capabilities as some synchronous coursework is required. Graduates of the associate degree program can continue their studies to complete the online bachelor’s degree in marriage and family studies at BYU as well.

Southwestern Assemblies of God University

The Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU) in Waxahachie, Texas offers an online Addiction Studies degree with a Christian worldview leading to the Associate of Science (AS) degree. A degree in addiction studies provides a broad introduction to many of the theories and models used by substance abuse counselors who provide addiction and recovery counseling services and is an excellent platform to apply for licensure in Texas as a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor (LCDC) or complete further study in addiction studies. In this AS degree, students complete 64 credit hours with 43 credits of core curriculum including English, biblical studies, and science, and 21 credits in the addiction studies pathway, such as counseling, addictive behaviors, and ethics. The program also includes 300 hours of practicum and a course in crisis intervention. Applicants can apply online and must send copies of high school transcripts and placement test scores; a minimum 2.0 GPA is required. Transfer students who have completed at least 21 credits at an accredited college or university must have official transcripts sent directly to SAGU for review.

Navarro College

Navarro College offers an online Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Child Development that teaches students about early childhood development, teaching and learning strategies, and child psychology. Because some states require teaching experience or a related degree, this program may be a good option for prospective school counselors who wish to work with younger school-age children. This associate’s degree takes 60 credit hours to complete, with courses such as Families, Schools, and Community; Child Guidance; and Administration of Programs for Children. To apply, individuals must submit high school or GED transcripts and placement test scores for a fall start. Child development certificate programs are also offered through the college online.

University of Arkansas-Cossatot Community College

Another online psychology degree option is the Associate of Science (AS) in Psychology offered by Cossatot Community College at the University of Arkansas (UA Cossatot). This fully-online program requires students to complete 60 credit hours over two years of full-time study. The degree can prepare students for more advanced counseling study as it covers several areas of psychology including developmental and abnormal psychology. Applicants work with an admissions advisor to meet enrolment requirements and develop a degree plan. New students are admitted throughout the year for fall, spring, and summer term start dates with part-time or full-time options. For those interested in further psychology study, the program is pre-approved for transfer applicants to the Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in psychology at Southern Arkansas University, the University of Central Arkansas, or Arkansas Tech University.

Careers With an Associate’s in Counseling

To learn more about the educational requirements, steps to licensure, and job outlook for different types of counseling careers, read our counseling career pages.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are associate degrees in counseling offered online?

With growing interest in online education, many institutions now offer associate degrees fully online or through hybrid methods. In general, however, associate degree programs in counseling are less common, so there are fewer fully-online options. If online associate degrees in counseling aren’t available, alternative online options include related degrees in psychology, family studies, or human services.

Do I need to complete an associate’s degree core curriculum?

Many institutions require all students to complete a core curriculum, which is a set of required courses in various subjects that ensure all graduates have formative skills and knowledge. The specifics of core curriculum requirements vary between institutions and may include courses in arts and humanities, science, math, languages, or social science. Many schools require transfer applicants to provide proof of core curriculum credits.

What are the differences between the AA, AS, and AAS degrees in counseling?

Associate degrees are offered as Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS), and Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees. AA degrees may require students to complete more coursework in subjects such as history, languages, and English, whereas AS degrees may focus on core sciences, math, social sciences, and statistics. AAS degrees have specific coursework requirements but often include an applied learning experience, such as an internship or practicum.

Can I work as a counselor with an associate’s degree?

In most areas of professional or mental health counseling, a graduate degree is required to be eligible for counseling licensure, with the exception of substance abuse counseling. In some states, substance abuse professionals can provide counseling services within the addiction counseling scope of practice with a high school diploma, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree; however, in many cases, even addiction counseling services relating to mental illness can only be provided by licensed counselors. Always check the licensure requirements of the state where you plan to work to ensure your degree meets educational requirements.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, Social and Human Service Assistants: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211093.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211018.htm