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Overview of an Associates in Substance Abuse Counseling

The need for substance abuse counselors and addictions counselors is on the rise. The opioid epidemic persists with no systemic solutions in sight, despite dramatic overdose numbers. On top of this, rates of alcoholism are very high, even if they seem to be at a plateau. Then there are other drugs to consider, such as cocaine, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines.

If you want to be part of the solution to this national problem and help people on an individual level, you can start with an associate's in substance abuse counseling. Typically, this degree should take around two years to complete. If you already have another degree but wish to join the ranks of caring providers who fight addiction every day, you can even consider a certificate program that can lead to state licensure.

Associate's substance abuse counseling degrees are two-year degrees that will prepare you to work in a substance abuse clinic, hospital, or even in a private practice in addiction counseling, as a substance abuse counselor, addiction counselor, and may prepare some students to work as mental health counselors. Depending on the specific degree and program you choose, your academic work will prepare you for the next steps in the licensure process. That work will be vital in that it will form the basis for your supervised experience and your entire career. For example, you may not need a master's degree to work in addiction counseling, but a drug counselor or substance abuse counselors who wish to run their own practice can definitely profit from a bachelor's degree or master's addiction counseling programs.

Your coursework will include things such as the statistics surrounding drug abuse, psychological theories of personality and development, as well as various topics pertaining to patient treatment. You will learn how to accurately diagnose patients, how to recognize relapses, and how to interact with their larger support structure including family dynamics. You should make sure that your program is appropriately accredited and that your state licensing board will recognize your hard work and apply it to your application file.

Compare Popular Online Addiction Counseling Programs


An associate degree in substance abuse counseling has many positive attributes. One of the most attractive aspects is that it is a quick way to achieve the credentials you need to start helping addicts in need. In approximately two years you will have the academic credentials needed to sit for a licensing exam and to begin your period of supervised fieldwork. Once you have your associate degree and then some experience in the field, you can always build on your academic accomplishments and attain a baccalaureate degree.

In the short term, one major positive of a two-year degree is the cost. If you attend a community college, you'll find that is less costly on a per-credit basis than classes from a four-year public institution. You might thus consider an associate degree, become licensed and work for a few years until you've paid off your degree. Then you can enter the next phase of your education with no debt.


While an associate degree in substance abuse counseling might have many positive attributes, there are also drawbacks. One of the bigger drawbacks is that once you have an associate-level degree you might find that it's hard to compete with those who have a bachelor's or master's degree. You might have the same, or similar, license but education means a lot in this job market. It might also be that the nature of your degree has limitations for further academic development.

If your degree is an Associate of Applied Arts or Sciences, you might find that it's difficult to return for a bachelor's degree. That's because you probably still need to take most or all of the required core courses. You may also find that many of your courses don't transfer. While they might be useful in the working world, academia has different standards.

Top 10 Best Online Associate in Addiction Counseling Programs


University of St. Thomas-Houston

Score: 80.21

  • Undergraduate Tuition
    • In-State: $33,660
    • Out-of-State: $33,660
  • Net Price: $19,207
  • Acceptance Rate: 97%
  • Retention Rate: 71%
  • Graduation Rate: 66%
  • Total Enrollment: 3,588
  • Undergrad Students: 2,646
  • Graduate Students: 942
  • Grads Salary: $44,700
  • Student-to-faculty: 14:1
  • University of St. Thomas-Houston

Clarks Summit University

Score: 71.43

  • Undergraduate Tuition
    • In-State: $32,400
    • Out-of-State: $32,400
  • Net Price: $16,176
  • Acceptance Rate: 65%
  • Retention Rate: 66%
  • Graduation Rate: 64%
  • Total Enrollment: 552
  • Undergrad Students: 376
  • Graduate Students: 176
  • Grads Salary: $28,000
  • Student-to-faculty: 11:1
  • Clarks Summit University
  • Undergraduate Tuition
    • In-State: $2,682
    • Out-of-State: $9,286
  • Net Price: $2,132
  • Acceptance Rate: 100%
  • Retention Rate: 74%
  • Graduation Rate: 38%
  • Total Enrollment: 23,501
  • Undergrad Students: 23,501
  • Graduate Students: N/A
  • Grads Salary: $33,400
  • Student-to-faculty: 22:1
  • St. Petersburg College
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Camden County College

Score: 67.88

  • Undergraduate Tuition
    • In-State: $4,056
    • Out-of-State: $4,056
  • Net Price: $2,957
  • Acceptance Rate: 100%
  • Retention Rate: 72%
  • Graduation Rate: 22%
  • Total Enrollment: 7,770
  • Undergrad Students: 7,770
  • Graduate Students: N/A
  • Grads Salary: $38,900
  • Student-to-faculty: 23:1
  • Camden County College

Northcentral Technical College

Score: 66.86

  • Undergraduate Tuition
    • In-State: $3,861
    • Out-of-State: $5,615
  • Net Price: $10,866
  • Acceptance Rate: 100%
  • Retention Rate: 63%
  • Graduation Rate: 32%
  • Total Enrollment: 6,069
  • Undergrad Students: 6,069
  • Graduate Students: N/A
  • Grads Salary: $40,000
  • Student-to-faculty: 18:1
  • Northcentral Technical College
  • Undergraduate Tuition
    • In-State: $3,401
    • Out-of-State: $12,979
  • Net Price: $7,792
  • Acceptance Rate: 100%
  • Retention Rate: 57%
  • Graduation Rate: 41%
  • Total Enrollment: 14,326
  • Undergrad Students: 14,326
  • Graduate Students: N/A
  • Grads Salary: $36,500
  • Student-to-faculty: 27:1
  • Florida SouthWestern State College
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NHTI-Concord's Community College

Score: 64.92

  • Undergraduate Tuition
    • In-State: $7,200
    • Out-of-State: $15,450
  • Net Price: $16,936
  • Acceptance Rate: 100%
  • Retention Rate: 52%
  • Graduation Rate: 30%
  • Total Enrollment: 2,619
  • Undergrad Students: 2,619
  • Graduate Students: N/A
  • Grads Salary: $42,800
  • Student-to-faculty: 9:1
  • NHTI-Concord's Community College

University of Providence

Score: 62.88

  • Undergraduate Tuition
    • In-State: $29,018
    • Out-of-State: $29,018
  • Net Price: $22,318
  • Acceptance Rate: 95%
  • Retention Rate: 67%
  • Graduation Rate: 41%
  • Total Enrollment: 955
  • Undergrad Students: 593
  • Graduate Students: 362
  • Grads Salary: $36,800
  • Student-to-faculty: 7:1
  • University of Providence

CUNY Kingsborough Community College

Score: 61.52

  • Undergraduate Tuition
    • In-State: $5,252
    • Out-of-State: $8,132
  • Net Price: $8,073
  • Acceptance Rate: 100%
  • Retention Rate: 61%
  • Graduation Rate: 27%
  • Total Enrollment: 15,042
  • Undergrad Students: 15,042
  • Graduate Students: N/A
  • Grads Salary: $34,400
  • Student-to-faculty: 19:1
  • CUNY Kingsborough Community College

Central Texas College

Score: 60.45

  • Undergraduate Tuition
    • In-State: $3,900
    • Out-of-State: $7,500
  • Net Price: $4,693
  • Acceptance Rate: 100%
  • Retention Rate: 49%
  • Graduation Rate: 17%
  • Total Enrollment: 8,326
  • Undergrad Students: 8,326
  • Graduate Students: N/A
  • Grads Salary: $34,700
  • Student-to-faculty: 13:1
  • Central Texas College

Certificate vs. Associates

A certificate is an interesting option. Your state might acknowledge a certificate as part of a valid licensure packet, but many do not. You may need to have a full online associate degree in substance abuse counseling before you are able to apply for licensure.

While you can always get a certificate without a degree, they are very useful if you already have a degree. Consider if you have an English degree but have decided that you would rather work with addicts and alcoholics. You can take a one-year certificate program and thus begin the road to licensure.

What Substance Abuse Counseling Associate Degrees are Available Online?

  • Online Associate of Arts in Substance Abuse Counseling:
    An AA degree just might be perfect for a substance abuse counselor. This degree is more likely to focus on things like counseling methodologies and psychological theories than hard scientific data or coursework in research methods.
  • Online Associate of Applied Arts in Substance Abuse Counseling:
    An applied degree implies that the coursework was centered on occupational preparation. As such, your courses are likely to place less emphasis on scientific or pure academic research. These degrees may also include very few core courses, thus inhibiting a later application for a bachelor degree.
  • Online Associate of Science in Substance Abuse Counseling:
    An AS degree in substance abuse counseling is likely to focus on hard data on top of the coursework you'll need regarding counseling and psychological theories.
  • Online Associate of Applied Science in Substance Abuse Counseling:
    An AAS degree will typically focus on courses that are specific to your field. You might take a composition course or maybe a statistics class, but the bulk of your transcript will reflect occupationally oriented work. Some AAS programs have relationships with baccalaureate programs but if not, your credits might not transfer to a four-year institution. Discuss this matter with your academic adviser prior to enrolling.

Admission Requirements

To enter an online educational program for substance abuse counseling, you will need an application packet that includes your previous academic work, letters of recommendation, and your SAT or ACT scores. Depending on the online program, you will need a graduating GPA of a certain level, often 2.0 is the minimum. You may also need to show proof of a diploma or GED. Your letters should come from previous teachers or employers, and your test scores should meet program minimums.

Since substance abuse counseling is such a personal, human-services field, you may also need to submit an essay that details your desires for the career. Personal experience with addicts and other motivations will help your application.

How long does it take to earn an online Substance Abuse Counseling Associates Degree?

Typically, an online associate-level program in substance abuse counseling is designed to take two years. However, there are online programs that have fast-track options that might result in graduation within 18 months. However, many students take up to four years to complete the degree. Try to avoid prolonging your time in school. When you apply, make a plan of action that will keep you on track with school and your other responsibilities. You might have to make short-term sacrifices in terms of vacations or finances, but it will all pay off in the long-term.

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Potential Careers in Substance Abuse Counseling with an Online Associates

  • Substance Abuse Counselor:
    This position requires the education and experience necessary to acquire a state license. You may also wish to attain professional certifications, as well. In the job, you will help addicts and alcoholics overcome their disorder. Your work could be in an independent drug rehab facility, a hospital, or even in private practice.
    The national average pay for this position is $38,800.
  • Health Educators:
    Educators work in the public health field to spread information regarding health and wellness. For instance, you might educate adolescents on the issue of sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy, and addiction. You might also educate rooms of recovering addicts on how drugs work on a bio-chemical level.
    Payscale shows that the average salary for this position is $44,600.
  • Social and Human Service Assistants:
    These positions are typically not licensed, but your state requirements may vary. In this position, you will work with help support families and individuals to receive the services they need. You may report to a licensed social worker.
    The average pay for this occupation is $32,900.
  • Social Worker:
    Professionals who work under this title can work with a wide array of populations and in a range of working settings. Some work in hospitals to help patients access services or to provide counseling. Other social workers may work with homeless people or with all sorts of disabled people.
    Their salaries vary according to duties and educational level, but the average pay is $45,300.

Salary by Occupation

Occupations Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Substance Abuse Counselor $35,800 $41,500 $48,800
Program Manager $44,400 $54,900 $60,200
Rehabilitation Director $79,600 $89,600 $96,600
Certified Addiction Drug and Alcohol Counselor $37,200 $40,700 $42,700
Clinical Psychologist $62,300 $63,800 $76,700
Licensed Clinical Social Worker $48,100 $59,400 $65,000

Options to Advance

If you wish to advance in your career as a substance abuse counselor, you can take a variety of pathways. First, you need to attain your state licensure as well as a national certificate. Those credentials will get you started accruing experience, which should result in pay raises and promotions over time.

At some point, those with two-year degrees will hit a glass ceiling. If you are working with an online associate-level degree, you should consider returning to school for a baccalaureate degree. A four-year degree is sure to result in higher pay and better job offers. In fact, if you decide on a baccalaureate degree, you might seek an online program that offers an online master's degree concurrently with your undergraduate work.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the positives and negatives of being a substance abuse counselor?

Many who work as substance abuse counselors cherish their ability to help people recover from addiction and turn their lives around. They enjoy working with clients who really want to get better and who are starting to live happy, alcohol-free lives. However, there are also negatives for those who work in these roles. Many mention that there is a lot of ‘drama’ in this type of role as you deal with patients whose lives are being upended in many cases. Additionally, there are sometimes large amounts of paperwork involved, especially when treatment has been court mandated. Clients can also sometimes be rude due to the stresses of addiction recovery. So, there are many positives, but you should also be aware of the possible stressors in this job.

Do I really gain anything by joining the association for addiction professionals (NAADAC)?

Generally, professional organizations have a lot to offer those who work within the appropriate roles. When it comes to addiction professionals, NAADAC is nothing to ignore. They offer many hours of free education credits that can help you maintain your license and lower rates for their many conferences, which can also give you CE credits, and independent study courses. They also can help you gain access to telehealth platforms and reduced rates for liability or malpractice insurance, which is needed by all mental health professionals. So, while you can definitely make it without joining this organization, there are many reasons to choose to make them a part of your professional journey.

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