Online Counseling Degree Programs
Counselors serve a wide range of populations, from married couples to college students to individuals recovering from substance abuse, and projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that demand for these versatile professionals is on the rise. Employment projections for mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, behavioral disorder counselors and substance abuse recovery counselors show expectations of 19 to 22 percent growth between 2014 and 2024 — twice as fast as the national average across all occupations.
Before you see if a counseling program is right for you, here's some data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that shows how many schools in each region of the U.S. offer campus-based or online counseling degrees:
|Region||No. of institutions offering counseling degrees||No. of institutions offering online counseling degrees|
|Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI)||195||22|
|Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO)||46||6|
|Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK)||133||29|
|Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD)||129||32|
|Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV)||242||45|
|Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI)||174||21|
|Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.)||188||22|
|New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME)||82||8|
|Total (all 50 states)||1,189||185|
Entry-level counseling degrees
The skills and perspectives taught in counseling degree programs can be useful even if you haven't completed enough education to qualify for a licensed counseling career. Here's some information about undergraduate degrees for aspiring counselors:
- Associate degrees - Dedicated associate programs in counseling are somewhat uncommon, but students training for certain areas of the profession may be able to get started as early in the academic process as the associate level. Some faith-based universities offer associate degrees in Christian counseling, for example, and those who want to accelerate their start in the field of addictions counseling can usually find dedicated two-year degrees in their chosen subject.
- Bachelor's degrees - A tight focus on professional counseling is somewhat less rare at the bachelor's level than it is among two-year degrees, but many aspiring counselors opt instead for a general psychology approach during their bachelor's degree work. Coursework requirements are somewhat similar between general and counseling psychology degrees — they both may include study of personality theory, lifespan development, abnormal psychology, introductory research methods, social policy and the history of psychology as a clinical discipline.
- Non-degree study - Two particular fields of counseling stand out for their availability among undergraduate certificate programs: addictions counseling and genetic counseling. Addictions counseling students learn the laws, ethics and other characteristics of substance abuse treatment to help them better assess and treat those who put themselves at risk. Genetic counselors train to help people understand and adapt to the challenges and implications of genetically transmitted diseases and other conditions. Undergraduate certificates typically take between 15 and 24 credit hours to complete and include little to no general education coursework.
An increasing number of institutions are beginning to offer online counseling and psychology degrees for undergraduates, which can be a great help to a full-time working student who needs a flexible school schedule. Certain programs also feature a hybrid model, where students attend some classes in person and some online.
Advanced-degree counseling programs
Most types of fully licensed counselors need a master's degree before they can begin to practice, and some who wish to contribute independent research to the discipline may go on to finish their education with a doctoral or professional degree. Here's some more detailed information about the traditional and online counseling degrees that you'll encounter in graduate school:
- Master's degree programs - Options at this level include master's degrees in school counseling, marriage and family therapy, clinical mental health counseling and human services administration, among others. Some institutions may allow students to also select sub-disciplines within the aforementioned specializations. A large portion of the theoretical coursework and basics of counseling practice may be similar across these fine-grained distinctions, but they each also feature several credit hours of subject matter unique to each chosen specialization. Master's students should be careful to ensure that their program of choice has been recognized by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP), for increased ease in transitioning into the working world after graduation.
- Doctoral degree programs - Professional counselors who wish to go into research or postsecondary counselor education must return to school for a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree before shifting careers. Post-graduate students typically study advanced concepts in counseling for the first portion of the program, with the latter half often devoted to fieldwork, research, internship sections and the composition and defense of a lengthy dissertation. The American Psychological Association (APA) accredits doctoral programs in counseling and school psychology, and programs with their seal of approval tend to take some of the legwork out of the process of applying for a psychology license in your state.
- Graduate certificates - Post-baccalaureate and post-graduate certificates are quite common in most disciplines of psychology, and counseling is no exception. If you want to be a school counselor but you're unprepared to embark on a full masters in school counseling curriculum, a graduate certificate in the field may require just 21 credits of coursework to qualify you for the school counseling license exam in your state. Not every graduate certificate program provides the necessary conditions for licensure, however; it's important to check with your chosen school before making any assumptions in that regard.
Prospective online students should find quite a few opportunities to earn an online masters in school counseling, mental health counseling and other specialties of the counseling discipline in the virtual classroom. Some programs may require a few campus visits per year, for fieldwork or other purposes difficult to replicate online, while others may be delivered entirely in the digital environment.
Q&A with an expert
Dr. Wyatt Fisher, Psy.D., founder of Colorado Marriage Refresh
What's something that prospective students should know about the job market for professional counselors?
Dr. Wyatt: It's very strong. As the stigma of counseling services continues to diminish and as health clinics integrate counseling in as a valid component of treatment, the field continues to grow.
What are the most common educational paths into the counseling profession?
Dr. Wyatt: One's ultimate career goals should dictate the educational path they take. With a master's, one can teach at a community college and have their own private practice. With a doctorate in psychology, one can conduct research, assessments, teach at the university level, and have their own private practice.
Is it necessary to study psychology as an undergraduate to get the most out of a master's in counseling?
Dr. Wyatt: It's ideal to study psychology in undergrad if you plan on going on for a Master's degree in Counseling; however, it's not required. Most Master's programs in counseling require at least 18 credit hours of psychology at the undergrad level. Other undergraduate programs that can be helpful include philosophy and communications.
What are some reasons that a counselor might choose to go on and earn a Ph.D.?
Dr. Wyatt: The main reasons are more opportunities. Only with a doctorate can one teach at the university level, conduct research, and provide psychological testing.
Would you encourage someone to consider a degree in counseling or counseling psychology?
Dr. Wyatt: If a student would like to continue on with their doctorate in psychology then they should take the counseling psychology track.
What's some advice you would give to a student who's thinking about enrolling in a counseling degree program?
Dr. Wyatt: Definitely apply to one that's CACREP approved which will make later licensing and first jobs easier to obtain.
Types of counseling careers
Counseling degrees teach you a well-rounded set of skills with numerous applications in the world of mental health and beyond. Here's a chart that shows a few data points on careers that often accommodate graduates with counseling degrees, according to numbers pulled from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
|Occupation title||National mean annual salary
|Projected job growth
|Total U.S. employment
|Social and human service assistant||$33,190||11 percent||386,600||High school diploma or equivalent|
|Substance abuse or behavior disorder counselor||$42,920||22 percent||94,900||Bachelor's degree|
|Human resources specialist||$63,710||5 percent||482,000||Bachelor's degree|
|Mental health counselor||$45,080||20 percent||160,900||Master's degree|
|Marriage and family therapist||$53,520||15 percent||33,700||Master's degree|
|School or career counselor||$56,490||8 percent||295,900||Master's degree|
|Psychologist||$77,950||19 percent||206,400||Doctoral or professional degree|
If you've got an athletic background and you're looking for an off-the-radar job that suits the qualifications of graduates with traditional or online counseling degrees, the American Psychological Association lists sports psychologist as a career to watch.
Common misconceptions about counseling degrees
Many people have a general impression of the counseling profession and the duties that counselors perform, but a large percentage of the population has less than a perfect grasp on the details. Let's correct a few of the mistaken notions floating around about traditional and online counseling degrees:
Misconception: You need a Ph.D. or Psy.D. to make a decent living as a counselor.
- Fact: Licensed professional psychologists may need a doctoral or professional degree to practice legally, but the counseling side of the psychological field contains a considerable array of jobs at the master's level. School counselors, career counselors, substance abuse counselors, marriage and family therapists, mental health counselors and more can earn better than the national average salary with just a master's degree, and counseling degree graduates may be able to join the growing field of industrial-organizational psychologists with just a few additional courses or a graduate certificate program.
Misconception: Counseling students only learn about medications they can advise their clients to take.
- Fact: Our national conversation about mental health may be occasionally dominated by the pharmaceutical approach, but those in the profession themselves know that there's quite a bit more to it than that. Unless you're being seen for counseling by a psychiatrist or a licensed psychologist with prescribing privileges, the chance that you'll be prescribed medication by your counselor is essentially zero. Both traditional and online counseling degrees prepare students with a range of non-pharmaceutical methods to address their clients' issues.
Misconception: Online counseling degrees can be a shortcut to a job in the mental health profession.
- Fact: For one thing, if you're looking for a "shortcut" to a career as a mental health professional, you may not be especially suited for the day-to-day challenges of the job itself. That said, though, by no means is it easier to earn your degree online than in a traditional classroom — the coursework, readings and expectations of academic performance are essentially the same, and they come with the additional challenge of keeping yourself engaged and on task without the regular classroom meetings to help motivate you.
How can I enroll in an online counseling degree program?
Each individual institution sets its own standards and policies for enrollment, so the best way to get more information on admissions is to address your questions directly to admissions representatives at schools you're considering. We've provided some listings below to get you started; browse through and find a few counseling schools that seem right for you.
1. National Center for Education Statistics, College Navigator, accessed August 28, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
2. School pages, accessed August 28, 2016: AA in Psychology - Christian Counseling, Liberty University, http://www.liberty.edu/online/associate/psychology/christian-counseling/; Associate's Degree in Addictions Counseling, Southern Assemblies of God University, https://www.sagu.edu/admissions/associate-s-degree-in-addictions-counseling; Addiction Counseling Degree, NHTI, Concord's Community College, https://www.nhti.edu/academics/programs-study/human-service-programs/addiction-counseling-degree; Bachelor of Science (BS) in Counseling, Lesley University, http://www.lesley.edu/bachelor-of-science/counseling/; Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, Penn State World Campus, http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/degrees-and-certificates/psychology-bachelors/courses; Undergraduate Certificate in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling, National University, http://www.nu.edu/OurPrograms/CollegeOfLettersAndSciences/Psychology/Programs/UndergraduateCertificateAlcoholandDrugAbuseCounseling.html; Genetic Counseling Certificate Program, Rutgers University, http://genetics.rutgers.edu/students-academics/undergraduate/genetic-counseling; MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Walden University, https://www.waldenu.edu/masters/ms-in-clinical-mental-health-counseling; Online Master of Arts in Counseling, Wake Forest University, http://counseling.online.wfu.edu/; Counseling Psychology Master's Degree, Angelo State University, http://www.angelo.edu/content/profiles/2436-counseling-psychology-masters-degree-ms/Templates/profiles-graduate-programs.php; Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision, Liberty University, http://www.liberty.edu/online/doctoral/philosophy-counseling/; Online PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision, Capella University, http://www.capella.edu/online-degrees/phd-counselor-education-supervision/courses/; PhD in Counseling Psychology, Northeastern University, http://www.capella.edu/online-degrees/phd-counselor-education-supervision/courses/; Counseling, PhD, Barry University, https://www.barry.edu/counseling-phd/; Graduate Certificate in Integrative Mental Health Care, University of South Florida, http://rmhc.cbcs.usf.edu/graduateCertificates/behavioralHealth.cfm; Graduate Certificate in School Counseling, St. Cloud State University, http://www.stcloudstate.edu/graduate/school-counseling/certificate.aspx
3. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed August 28, 2016: Social and Human Service Assistants, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Community-and-Social-Service/Social-and-human-service-assistants.htm; Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm; Human Resources Specialists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Business-and-Financial/Human-resources-specialists.htm; Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/mental-health-counselors-and-marriage-and-family-therapists.htm; School and Career Counselors, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/school-and-career-counselors.htm; Psychologists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
4. CACREP, Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs, accessed August 28, 2016, http://www.cacrep.org/
5. May 2015 National Occupational and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed August 28, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2015/may/oes_nat.htm