Updated on June 13, 2024
Edited by Evelyn Keener
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University Headquarters (HQ) is an industry-leading, independent educational organization that provides independent college rankings using a proprietary formula to create first class unbiased rankings. The team at University HQ strives to provide accurate and trustworthy rankings that highlights the best programs for counseling.

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A counseling degree offers challenges and rewards for students seeking a path to a career that helps other people. As a counselor, you will work closely with patients to manage their stress, overcome addictions, and resolve emotional issues. This career can be in broad area like career counseling or in a narrowly focused specialty. Family counseling, substance abuse counseling, and spiritual counseling are among the popular counseling specialty areas. The requirements for in-person counseling programs are essentially the same as online counseling degrees.

Counselors work in a wide-range of settings in private, public, and non-profit organizations. They can work with individuals, couples, and groups. Employers include public agencies that provide social services, hospital-based mental health services, and faith groups that offer Christian counseling. In the internet age, counselors can also reach patients through online counseling programs. Today, increased awareness of the importance of mental health spurs job growth in counseling fields. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects strong growth for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors through calendar year 2030.

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How to Earn an Online Counseling Degree

Counseling requires education, training, and experience. The initial stages can be an associate (two-year) degree followed by a bachelor’s degree in counseling from a four-year institution. Full participation as a licensed counselor requires a master’s degree in counseling or counseling psychology. Today, students can pursue a counseling career in a traditional college setting with in-person synchronous coursework or complete a degree in counseling online.

Students can get an online bachelor of arts degree and continue their career path with an online counseling graduate degree. A Master of Arts in counseling qualifies graduates for specialization in fields like mental health counseling, family counseling, and couples counseling. To qualify for certifications and licensure, graduates at the bachelor’s and master’s levels must complete required training in direct counseling hours.

Some students may wish to advance in the field to become educators and researchers. The doctoral level is ideal for those seeking the highest levels of counseling research and senior policy roles. A PhD opens opportunities for graduate faculty positions and high-level research positions.

Typical Counseling Degree Requirements

A bachelor’s degree is the typical educational requirement for entry-level counseling positions. Bachelor degree holders must gain experience to advance in the field. To focus on one or more specialty areas, bachelor degree holders can get certifications and specific training. Full participation in professional counseling usually requires a master’s degree and a state license.

An online degree combined with specialized training can be an entry-level qualification for specialized counseling fields. Substance abuse counselors can qualify for certification with a GED, associate, or bachelor’s degree combined with required hours of supervised training and practical experience. The required amount of experience depends on the level of education.

A master’s degree is the commonly accepted education level for professional licensure. Each state sets professional licensing rules, and most states use the National Counselor Examination and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination. A master’s degree can open a wide range of job and career options in counseling and can provide concentrations in a specialized counseling field such as family counseling, mental health, or school counseling.

Many employers seek applicants with master’s degrees, relevant concentrations, licensure, and certifications. Specialized counseling certifications come from private associations that focus on one or more counseling fields. Certifications demonstrate knowledge, experience, and competence in a counseling field.

Typical Counseling Certifications Needed

Professional associations have an interest in maintaining the standards of their line of work. As experts in a field, counseling associations develop education and training standards. Called certifications, the professional standards represent achievement of training, experience, and proficiency in subject matter. Certifications typically cover skills, experience, and knowledge of counseling methods or work with a type of patient. For example, certifications might cover school counseling K-12 or working with patients suffering from drug addiction.

The National Career Development Association offers the certified career counselor certificate for counselors seeking to work in the career development field. The American Institute of Health Care Professionals provides training and certification for crisis intervention.

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Post Undergraduate Certificates

Undergraduate certificates demonstrate knowledge, experience, and competence for holders of bachelor’s degree or lower levels of formal education. A bachelor’s degree is the typical requirement for an undergraduate certificate. Some programs will accept applicants with no degree based on subject-matter knowledge and experience in drug addiction treatment. Students should carefully review certificate program requirements.

Certificates focus on specialized areas of counseling such as mental health, marital counseling, or school counseling. Coursework is usually short, intensive, and focused on the specialty field. Students can find undergraduate and graduate certifications in the below-listed fields and more.

  • Substance Abuse Counseling
  • Mental Health Counseling Certificate
  • School Counseling Certificate
  • Marriage and Family Therapy Certificate

Post Graduate Certificates

Graduate counseling certificates can help master’s graduates meet state licensing requirements, expand their depth in their field, or help them move to a different specialty. An experienced, licensed counselor can use graduate certificates to become a dual-licensed professional practicing in two or more specialties. Certificates demonstrate capability; employers and educational rely upon accredited education programs.

Academic Standards

Traditional counseling programs and online counseling degrees have similar requirements for admission. Associate programs ask for a high school diploma or GED, though students will benefit from high school courses in science and mathematics. Bachelor’s degree programs require high school completion and, while schools prefer students with high GPAs, nearly every student with passing grades will find a program.

ACT and SAT scores, like GPAs, will help students succeed in competitive admissions. Low scores should not discourage applicants. If not accepted at a four-year school, students can gain admission to a community college and then move up to a four-year school.

Exam or Experience Needed

Counseling positions require education and experience. Each state sets out specific requirements for certification to practice, and independent practice requires a license. In addition to coursework, accredited counseling programs require practical experience under the supervision of a certified instructor. Bachelor degree programs and master’s level each will require specific credit hours of coursework and clock hours of supervised experience.

Each state sets counseling license requirements. Most fields require a master’s degree, a specific level of experience, and passing one or more standard examinations. Every state conducts background checks and add exams to qualify in the major areas.

Popular Counseling Major Concentrations

Well-rounded curricula must also equip graduates with hands-on experience through a counseling internship, community health counseling assignment, or other types of direct counseling hour experience. Students can focus on specific areas to develop depth of knowledge, such as the following.

Online Associate's Degree in Counseling

Associate degrees can provide an entry into the field of counseling. The associate degree typically requires about sixty credit hours of coursework and full-time students can complete it within two years. Useful majors include counseling, psychology, and human development subjects like health services.

Graduates can enter the field as technicians or assistants. In some states, associate degree graduates can qualify as substance abuse counselors when combined with supervised experience and training.

Sample Coursework

  • Psychology Theories and Models
  • Personality
  • Human Development
  • Psychology Foundations
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Online Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling

Undergraduate studies in the overall field of mental health provide an excellent academic base for work or further study in counseling. Psychology, social work, and behavioral health are well-established subject areas. Mental health counseling, and drug addiction studies are relatively new fields for undergraduate majors. The below-listed majors combined with practical experience can help prepare students for master’s degree programs or entry-level counseling jobs.

  • Counseling
  • Social Work
  • Behavioral Health
  • Drug Addiction
  • Mental Health Counseling
  • Psychology

Sample Coursework

  • Human Anatomy and Physiology
  • Behavioral Development, Personality, and Abnormal Psychology
  • Family and Marriage Relationships
  • Ethnic Groups and Social Change


Well-rounded curricula must also equip graduates with hands-on experience through a counseling internship, community health counseling assignment, or other types of direct counseling hour experience. Students can focus on specific areas to develop depth of knowledge, such as the following.

  • Family, Marriage, and Relationships
  • Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Counseling Theories
  • Human Services
Best Online Bachelors in Counseling Programs

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Online Master’s Degree in Counseling

A master of arts type degree may be best to equip graduates for counselor positions. The master of science might better for those seeking to enter research and teaching roles. Online counseling degrees require additional credit hours for a master’s degree in counseling.

Sample Coursework

  • Human Growth and Development Theories in Counseling
  • Social and Cultural Foundations in Counseling
  • Assessment in Counseling
  • Research and Program Evaluation
Best Online Masters in Counseling Programs

Psychology Fields in Counseling

Clinical psychology helps people resolve mental disorders. The field of psychology is broad and far-reaching. Clinical psychologists work with depression, addictions, and serious mental disorders. The work of clinical psychologists can affect individuals, communities, and organizations. Clinical psychology services are essential to government social programs, business, and it affects people in all parts of society. The list below describes clinical psychology focuses or concentrations.

  • Clinical psychologists assess patients and diagnose and treat mental illness and psychological stress. Working in a range of settings, including hospitals and mental health clinics, they can often specialize in specific types of disorders or populations. Clinical psychologists apply several types of psychotherapy and develop treatment plans.
  • Health psychologists focus on behavior, social groups, and psychology influence wellness. The field considers overall health and illness and work with patients to improve mental and physical health.
  • Cognitive psychology studies the way people think. It involves studies of the brain and behavior. Cognition studies the ways people process information, learn new things, use facts, and store information. Topics include decision-making and problem-solving.
  • Community psychologists research community health issues. They focus on education and prevention activities. They promote change in communities and at individual levels. Community psychologists often work in organizational settings like universities or community organizations. This field can produce actions and solutions to current issues.
  • Biopsychology studies the brain and behavior. This field examines the neural basis of individual behavior. They study biological factors that affect the way people act, think, and feel.
  • Childhood development is the study of biological and cognitive development from early childhood to adult age. The field includes developmental disabilities, social factors, and behavior issues that affect development.
  • Organizational psychology focuses on the workplace and the study of employee interactions with their occupational environment. The study of organizational psychology contributes to worker safety, satisfaction, and productivity.
  • Abnormal psychology studies deviations from the standard of normal personalities. This field covers mental disorders and treatment methods. Students learn to identify and treat mental disorders.
  • Social work is a field of study that understands human conditions and needs in terms of the application of societal resources. Students study mental illness and chronic issues that create barriers to life goals.
  • School psychology involves child mental development and biological changes. School psychologists counsel students, detect possible mental disorders, and behavioral issues. The field also covers child abuse at home and bullying in school.

Graduates Potential Careers and Earnings

Counseling requires skillful listening and a strong capacity to empathize with others. To provide meaningful care, effective counselors must have knowledge and understanding, objectivity, and critical thinking. Online counseling degrees help graduates find the proper balance of objective assessment and empathy.

Through educational programs, counselors gain insights into mental illness and behavior analysis. Counselors must listen to patients, show interest in their problems, and not judge or dismiss them. Successful counseling applies unconditional respect for human dignity and positivity to form trust with patients of all ages, economic, and cultural backgrounds.

The basic coursework occurs at the associate and bachelor’s degree levels. Students acquire core counseling knowledge and basic skills in communications, human development, and planning a course of care. The master’s degree provides coursework on assessment, care management, treatment strategies, and advanced research methods.

Listening and communications are essential skills for a successful counselor. Non-judgmental listening supports human dignity. Every person is entitled to respect and consideration without regard to sex, race, social status, wealth, or any other trait or condition. Communications play a key role when working with patients, collaborating with family members, and engaging the patient’s support network. Counselors must communicate with other professionals, officials, and the public. The criminal justice system may also use counselors and psychologists to evaluate patients/criminals.

Counseling degree holders enjoy good salaries and benefits. Bachelor’s degree holders in counseling and related fields earn above average salaries. Some fields, like community psychology, pay in the range of $75,000 per year. Associate degrees can enable entry into fields like drug addiction counseling.

Master’s degree holders make higher average salaries than bachelor’s degree graduates. According to BLS, the median wage for school and career counselors was about $58,000, with the highest 10% earning about $97,000 per year. PayScale reports that master’s degrees in counseling can yield upper range salaries of $130,000 per year.

Master’s degrees in counseling support roles in independent practices, counseling-based business organizations, and counseling services agencies. As business owners or entrepreneurs, master’s degree holders can achieve high levels of success and income.

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Important Questions to Ask (FAQ)

How long does It take to earn a counseling degree online?

The journey from high school graduate to certified counselor can take about seven years of full-time study. Students must get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and perform thousands of hours of supervised clinical work. However, there may be ways to shorten the process and complete it online.

Students can take extra classes in summer sessions to reduce the time needed for a bachelor’s degree. One can shorten graduation time by combining a bachelor’s degree with a master’s degree program. Students can take two graduate courses during the senior year. This combination can cut one year from the overall time required.

Using a simultaneous BA/MA approach, students can finish in six years rather than seven years. Each year reduced is advantageous for getting into the field faster and saving educational costs.

How much does a counseling bachelor’s degree cost?

The costs of a counseling degree online can range from about $300 per credit hour to $450 per credit hour. Based on a 120-credit hour course of study, students can pay from 35,000 to $55,000 in tuition. Students can reduce the cost by attending in-state schools and using community colleges for the first two years of study.

Does the school have the counseling major(s) you’re considering?

Professional counseling requires a master’s degree and state license. Most professionals specialize in one or more fields of counseling. Undergraduate majors can help set the stage for a master’s degree in counseling and specialization. High school students can prepare for counseling in college by taking biology, communications, and statistics. College students can prepare for the master’s phase through majors and course selection.

Counseling is a helpful major for future counselors. Other useful majors that can prepare students for counseling careers are psychology, education, sociology, and social work. Concentrations can bridge from undergraduate majors to the master’s degree studies by adding depth of knowledge and perspectives from important related fields.

How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?

The national trend is towards five to six years. About 44%, on average, graduate in four years and about 59% finished in five years, while 60% need six years. The time needed is not a critical issue by itself, however each year adds about 25% to the costs of a bachelor’s degree.

What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?

Accreditation is an essential question for students to ask when selecting a counseling program. Federal student aid can only go to accredited institutions. Regional accreditation assesses the entire institution, and this is an important guarantee of quality education.

In the field of counseling, program accreditation is also important. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs or CACREP is the leading source of accreditation for counseling education. A program accreditation from CACREP is a valuable consideration when selecting a program.

Software, Technology and Skills Needed

Counseling will use computer skills, research skills, and communications. Professional counseling involves tracking events, patient issues, questions, and progress reports. In an organization, counselors must meet requirements for reports and records. Patient privacy is also a constant concern and counselors must use due care to protect sensitive information.

Counseling requires extensive record-keeping. Counselors develop notes of sessions, research, and updates. They must often prepare records for review by other professionals including referrals to specialists or other resources.

Professional counselors and therapists must keep careful accounts of time and effort needed to work with patients or groups. Enterprise software or other types of software can assist in keeping appointments, notes, and communications. Counselors must be able to quickly adapt to software systems and to improvements or adjustments over time.


  • AAMFT- Minority Fellowship Program-Youth
    Amount: $36,500
    Deadline: January 31

    The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy offers several scholarships including the MFT-Youth award. Aimed at multicultural approaches to family therapy, this award focuses master’s candidates that will provide services to minority youth.

  • Behavioral Health Academic Scholarship
    Amount: $10,000 ( three awards of $5,000,$2,500, $2,500)
    Deadline: TBA

    Essay competition for academic program in counseling, psychology, marriage and family therapy, or other studies on treatment of mental health, drug addiction, and substance abuse disorders.

  • Sharon Stephens Brehm undergraduate Psychology Scholarships
    Amount: $5,000 - Seven awards
    Deadline: July 1

    The Brehm scholarships are highly competitive; eligible students must be enrolled in psychology at an accredited school and have a 3.50 GPA. Scholarship can cover direct costs such as tuition, books, and fees.

  • 2022 NBCC Minority Fellowship Program for Mental Health Counselors (Master's)
    Amount: $10,000 plus travel expenses
    Deadline: January 16

    The NBCC Foundation sponsors thirty master’s-level counseling fellowships for mental health counseling students. For program purposes, minorities include members of racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. Eligible diverse groups also include those based on gender, sexual orientation, rural residence, and military groups.

Professional Organizations

CACREP is the leading accreditation agency for online, hybrid, and in-person counseling degree and certificate programs. It is a global organization promoting quality education standards. CACREP accreditation is a widely accepted indication of quality education.

  • The National Board for Certified Counselors
    provides testing and standards for counselor certification. The NBCC ensures that certified counselors meet high standards of education, experience, and ethical conduct.
  • American Mental health Counselors Association
    promotes standards for mental health counselors, certification programs, and continuing education. The AMHCA promotes developmental, wellness, and diagnostic approaches to client services.
  • American Counseling Association
    supports licensed professional counseling in fifty states. The association promotes continuing education and legislation to expand access to counseling services, telehealth, and medical insurance coverage.

Choosing an Accredited College

Accreditation is a guarantee that a counseling degree or certificate program meets a high standard of quality education. Accreditation reviews examine the quality of resources, instruction, and student academic support systems. Employers and educational institutions rely upon accreditation as evidence of quality education at accredited institutions.

There are two types of accreditation: regional accreditation and program accreditation. Regional accreditation examines the overall college or university and award approval for all educational programs. Programmatic accreditation looks specifically at the counseling departments. This specialized accreditation is valuable for endorsing the quality of counseling education.

Accreditation is essential for recognition by employers, educational institutions, and the federal government. For example, federal student loan programs work with accredited institutions.

Picking an Online vs. On-Campus vs. Hybrid Program

Students have many options when selecting the type of learning that works best for them. Schools offer counseling degree programs online, in-person, and in a combination called hybrid. Students can get maximum benefit ion either of the three formats. The benefit of remote learning can help students get counseling degrees that might otherwise not have an opportunity for an in-person degree program.

In-person learning is fully on campus. Students attend at designated times and places. When learning in a group- or synchronous learning, students can interact with the teacher and other students. The online type can be synchronous or asynchronous.

Students can attend online at the same time or use classroom content at their convenience individually. Synchronous online learning can support interaction with teachers and students. The hybrid is a combination of online learning (synchronous or asynchronous) and some in-person sessions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does the college have post-graduate job placement help & assistance?

College-based post graduate job placement assistance is an important feature. Graduates can control their effort and produce strong transcripts, papers, and other academic achievements, but they cannot control the availability of jobs or the shape of the economy at graduation. College-based job placement assistance provides a key advantage for graduates entering the job market.

Why do you need to consider how rating/accreditation can affect your salary?

College ratings and accreditation can affect salaries of graduates. Like reputation, the value of an education depends in part on the value placed by employers and educational institutions. A degree from a highly rated school with programmatic accreditation adds value to the employer’s workforce and support a hire with a top salary.

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