Make a Difference in the Lives of Others with an Online Master’s in Counseling

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Counseling is a wide-ranging field, one the American Counseling Association defines as a “professional relationship” designed to empower others (individuals, families and groups) to achieve goals in areas such as wellness, mental health, careers or education.

Counseling departments throughout the country have integrated the pillars of this statement into their various programs, creating curricula to train the next wave of professional counselors to carry out this mission. For prospective students looking to join those ranks, completing a graduate degree in counseling is the first step toward becoming a licensed professional in the field.

However, narrowing down myriad educational and career specialization options can be challenging – especially when considering online programs. Finding a degree program that offers the right mix of career specializations, license and certification preparation, and learning format takes time and research. The following guide provides an overview of the online master’s degree in counseling, specialization opportunities, curriculum, and potential career tracks.

Top Online Master's in Counseling

As an ever growing number of students choose to pursue their master’s degrees online, more programs are being created to keep up with this increased demand for online learning. All programs are not created equally, however; we’ve done the legwork to help students determine the very best schools offering online master’s in counseling degrees in 2015.

To see how we selected the Top Online Master's in Counseling programs, please visit our methodology page.


Students who obtain a Master of Education degree from Lamar University can specialize in one of two counseling areas: school counseling and clinical mental health counseling.

The curriculum for the concentration in school counseling has been crafted to prepare certified teachers to provide professional school counseling services. The clinical mental health counseling concentration is designed to prepare students to provide counseling services to a wide range of clients in a variety of professional settings, such as hospitals, schools and in private practice. Both degrees have accelerated formats allowing them to be obtained in less time than is traditionally expected.

  • MED in School Counseling
  • MED in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Students attending Lubbock Christian University may choose between a master's in human services and a master’s in clinical mental health counseling. The clinical mental health counseling degree prepares students to become professional counselors. Practicum and residency requirements are in place so that the student may become licensed upon graduation, and is offered in a hybrid online/on-campus format.

The human services degree may be completed wholly online, and provides the skills and knowledge students need to pursue a career providing services to individuals, families and groups. This degree is ideal for students who do not need to be licensed, as it does not contain a residency requirement, and can be completed in two years.

  • MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • MS in School Counseling
  • MS in Counseling

Aspiring clinical and school counselors can earn one of four online Master of Science in Counseling degrees from the University of West Alabama. The school counseling programs require those admitted to have two years of verifiable educational experience through teaching and instructional support.

Though coursework varies depending on the chosen program, students gain valuable experience in educational statistics; counseling children, families and groups; counseling techniques; psychotherapy and abnormal psychology. Students may begin coursework in one of five sessions offered throughout the year and classes are available in an 8-week format. This allows students to complete their degree at an accelerated rate.

  • MED in School Counseling (Certification)
  • MED in School Counseling (Non-Certification)
  • MS in Experimental Psychology

Missouri Baptist University’s online master’s degree in counseling is designed to be convenient for working students. The degree can be completed through full- or part-time attendance and classes are offered year-round. Full-time students can complete the program in two years.

Courses follow an 8-week schedule and focus on the content necessary for certification. The degree meets the requirements for elementary and secondary school guidance counselor certification in Missouri. Classes are taught by the same faculty as on-campus courses, and the degree and diploma earned will not indicate that the degree was earned online. Distance students are eligible for financial aid; students can contact their advisor for guidance on financial aid opportunities.

  • MA in Counseling (Elementary Counseling K-8)
  • MA in Counseling (Secondary Counseling 7-12)
  • MA in Counseling (Elementary and Secondary Counseling K-12)

The Chicago School’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program addresses counseling services in a variety of settings in the community. The program is 60 credits and can be completed in three years on a part-time schedule. Students learn about all aspects of counseling, including research, diagnosis and program evaluation. Classes address specific skills necessary for mental health counselors, such as prevention, early intervention, assessment and advocacy.

Coursework is completed online; however students must also complete residencies and supervised clinical training. Upon graduation, students should be prepared to provide counseling services for clients with common mental health issues including anxiety, grief, depression and stress.

  • MA in Behavioral Economics
  • MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • MA in International Psychology (Environmental Advocacy)

The University of Alabama’s Bama By Distance department offers two online master’s programs in counseling. Students learn to assist individuals and families with a variety of needs, including financial planning, vocational assessment and improved quality of life for people with disabilities. The programs range from 30 to 60 credit-hours, and full-time students can earn their degree in two calendar years. Students who live close to campus may be able to take several on-campus courses as well, allowing them to earn their degree more quickly.

Courses are held asynchronously, so students do not have to log on at a specific time. However, some courses may require daily participation on discussion boards or similar platforms; therefore students should be available to access course materials daily if needed.

  • MA in Educational Psychology (Learning and Assessment)
  • MA in Rehabilitation Counseling

Lock Haven University offers a 60 credit-hour online master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. Students have the flexibility to choose to finish their degree in three years (full-time) or four years (part-time). Of the 60 credit-hours, nine may be chosen by the students, which allows them to specialize in certain areas.

Despite the degree being offer fully online, the practicum and internship requirements must take place in person. With proper approval and supervision, the practicum and internship requirements can take place in the student’s local area. Upon graduation, students will have obtained the educational requirements for licensure as a professional counselor in Pennsylvania.

  • MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • MS in Sport Science (Sport and Exercise Psychology)

The University of Louisiana at Monroe has two online options for those seeking a Master of Science in Counseling, both of which have been accredited by the Counseling for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. Additionally, the state of Louisiana recognizes both programs as meeting the coursework requirements for state licensure. Residents of other states should check with the state licensing board to determine whether the programs align with their state requirements.

University of Louisiana at Monroe strives to create supportive and collaborative learning environments for students from diverse cultures, backgrounds and with different learning styles. eULM’s unique My Homework Application allows students to keep schoolwork organized online — from their computers or via a mobile device.

  • MS in Psychology
  • MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Students seeking a master’s level degree from Indiana Wesleyan University have several options, ranging from a degree in addictions counseling to marriage and family counseling/therapy. No matter which degree is chosen, students can expect to receive curriculum in accordance with Christian principles and ideals.

Each degree requires either 48 or 60 credit-hours and may be obtained as either a full-time or part-time student. While the degrees may be earned online, clinical experience will be required for degree completion. Indiana Wesleyan also offers a post-master’s degree certification for students who desire academic training in a certain specialty, but do not need a completed degree.

  • MA in Addictions Counseling
  • MA in Student Development Counseling and Administration

Individuals attending Fort Valley State University may obtain a Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling and Case Management. This degree consists of 52 semester-hours and may be obtained fully online, though students must also complete extensive field experience to earn their degree.

This degree is ideal for students who are interested in working with physically and emotionally disabled individuals and who enjoy helping these groups achieve independence and improve quality of life. Upon graduation, students are eligible to take the national certifying examination so that they may obtain their Certified Rehabilitation Counselors credential.

  • MS in Rehabilitation Counseling and Case Management

Medaille College offers an online Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling degree that is approved by the New York State Education Department and allows graduating students to meet the education-based requirements for becoming a fully licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor in New York.

Students who seek an expedited degree may obtain their master’s degree in under three years as long as they meet the 60 credit-hour requirements, which also includes internship and practicum requirements. Students may specialize in certain areas such as aging, addiction and substance abuse, as well as family and marital problems.

  • MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • MA in Psychology

The University of Central Arkansas’s online master’s program in school counseling is 48 credit-hours and can be completed in 18 months for full-time students. Part-time students may take up to three years to complete the degree. The program is centered on teaching students to integrate knowledge, skill and disposition in order to be effective counselors.

Students are challenged with experiences that combine theoretical concepts and ethical principles, teaching them reflective decision-making skills in a practical application. Students learn to work not only with their student population, but also with parents, teachers, administrators and the community. Distance students at UCA are eligible for financial aid. Courses are taught by UCA faculty and the university offers a low student-to-professor ratio.

  • MS in School Counseling

Luther Rice University and Seminary offers a fully-online and accredited Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling degree. This degree is designed to train students to become counselors at local churches or in similarly religious settings. However, this degree is not designed to train students for state licensure or otherwise become state-licensed counselors.

The curriculum consists of 36 credit-hours, although up to six credit-hours may be transferred from other institutions. Of the 36 required credit-hours, three credit-hours are designated for the practicum requirement which provides for direct, face-to-face student learning.

  • MA in Biblical Counseling

Seton Hall University offers two online master’s programs in counseling for distance students. These programs aim to prepare competent and effective counselors to work in a variety of settings and with a diverse range of clients. The programs range from 48-60 credits, consisting mainly of 3-credit courses that can be taken online. Students may also be required to complete on-site residencies or supervised internships, depending on their program.

Online courses follow the same curriculum and have the same rigor as on-campus courses. Students progress through the program in a cohort, taking each course with the same “learning team” of classmates, and building relationships that extend into professional contacts after graduation.

  • MA in Professional Counseling
  • MA in School Counseling

The Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling degree at Emporia State University is offered almost entirely online. The 48 credit-hour program has an on-site internship requirement that students can arrange to complete at locations convenient to their communities. ESU’s rehabilitation degree program has trained more than 500 professional counselors to date.

Courses run over seven consecutive semesters including two summers. The curriculum covers the field across many populations, including issues concerning veterans, the disabled, juvenile and adult offenders and persons with mental illness or developmental disabilities.

  • MS in Rehabilitation Counseling

The online Master of Education in Guidance and Counseling (MEd) program is tailored for students building careers as counselors at K-12 schools, community colleges, four-year schools and universities. Applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree, a Texas Teacher Certificate or equivalent and two years of classroom experience.

The degree is comprised of 36 credit-hours in studies such as curriculum development, testing, ethics and legal issues, group counseling and theory, career counseling and lifespan development. Six hours can be devoted to electives in the school counseling and guidance field.

  • Master of Education in Guidance and Counseling (MEd)

Prairie View A&M University’s distance program in educational leadership and counseling is designed for both full-time students and full-time working professionals. The program centers on training students to become facilitators of learning and effective decision makers who meet the needs of all learners while leading the school community.

The program is 36 credit-hours, and students must maintain a 3.0 GPA throughout their tenure. Students taking nine credits per semester will complete the program in one year and one semester. Online courses use the eCouses web-based learning system. In addition to supporting course materials and communication between instructors and students, this platform also provides access to university resources for distance students such as the writing center, the library, and the school bookstore.

  • Master's in Educational Leadership and Counseling

Accredited through the Council on Rehabilitation Education, University of North Texas’s Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling is a 48-hour program offered completely online. Students are actively engaged with one another on a cohort schedule, and complete collaborative projects through video and audio tapes, email and online chats.

The program requires a practicum in a rehabilitation agency and students can complete the program in about two years if taking six hours per term. UNT’s rehabilitation counseling program is ranked in the top 20 in the country and is the top-ranked program in Texas.

  • MS in Rehabilitation Counseling

The online Master of Arts in Rehabilitation Counseling degree offered by Assumption College can be completed in three years or less over an 8-semester program tallying 60 credits. At graduation, students are considered prepared to sit for the national examination for The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC).

Classes are delivered virtually via the Blackboard software program. Each summer, students must attend a 5-day residential component on campus in Worcester, MA to participate in experiential and practice sessions. The clinical component of the program is comprised of 100 hours, a semester-long practicum and a 600-hour internship spread over two semesters.

  • MA in Rehabilitation Counseling

The Adler Graduate School offers an online Master of Arts in Adlerian Counseling and Psychotherapy based on the holistic breakthrough work of philosopher and psychiatrist Alfred Adler. The program is comprised of 48 graduate credits. Students complete 15 courses and a master’s project as part of the distance education degree.

The program includes a student commitment to one residential weekend. Students can augment their learning through optional hybrid courses that provide seminars, case presentations and forums. Curriculum includes studies in research methods, abnormal and developmental psychology, ethics and working with diverse communities. The admissions process includes a Skype or telephone interview with the program director.

  • MA in Adlerian Studies

Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling is a flexible program that requires two intensive one-week skill development courses. The remainder of the courses are online and asynchronous — allowing students to complete required coursework at a time convenient for them.

Students learn counseling theory and techniques, environmental assessment for both individuals and groups, human development, psychosocial and medical aspects of disability, ethics in rehabilitation, implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and more. VCU takes pride in its online programs and recently formed an online task force to ensure that it meets the goals of support, access, growth and exploration within all its programs.

  • MS in Occupational Therapy (Post-Professional)

University of Cincinnati’s online master’s in foundations in behavior analysis is a counseling-based degree program that gives students a working knowledge of human behavior. This degree enables graduates to develop and implement strategies to change human behavior in both educational and clinical settings.

Coursework focuses on behavioral assessment, intervention for academic and behavior problems, ethical standards for practice and research methodology. The online master’s degree consists of three 10-credit classes that follow the traditional university calendar. Students must pass a comprehensive exam prior to graduation.

  • MED in Foundations in Behavioral Analysis

Faulkner University’s blended Master of Science in Counseling degree program is comprised of 61 credit-hours, 85% of which are taught entirely online. Students must meet on campus twice in Montgomery, AL to participate in week-long, hands-on clinical courses. In addition, graduate students must undertake a counseling practicum and complete internship field experience components at locations approved in their communities.

The focus of the degree program is in incorporating curriculum on practical and theoretical counseling and mental health with a Christian-based worldview. Electives include counseling studies in fields of marriage and family, substance abuse and suicide intervention counseling.

  • MS in Counseling

Students who wish to become practitioners or administrators in vocational rehabilitation will benefit from the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s online Hawaii Rehabilitation Counseling (HRC) program. This three-year, hybrid program leads to a 48-credit Master of Science degree in Kinesiology and Rehabilitation.

The HRC program is fully accredited by the Council on Rehabilitation Education and graduates are eligible to take the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor exam. The university prides itself on the fact that all graduates from this program have been successful in finding employment within six months of graduation.

  • MS in Rehabilitation Counseling

The University of Texas at Tyler offers an online master’s program in school counseling through its College of Education and Psychology. The 36-credit program can be completed in 18 months and may prepare students for the TExES professional school counselor certification examination.

The program focuses on teaching students the fundamentals of counseling skills and allowing them to apply them in creative and effective ways. Students learn about current educational and psychological trends and research in school counseling, and are taught how to recognize and respect cultural differences in their clients. The degree requires a supervised practicum in a school setting, including 200 hours of on-site counseling experience with one hour of supervision each week.

  • MA in School Counseling

A spiritual foundation lies beneath the online course offerings in counseling at Amridge University. The online catalogue includes major graduate studies in fields of human services and pastoral counseling, developing career-focused skills.

For example, the Master of Science in Human Services degree at Amridge University can be completed in as little as four semesters, dependent on the student’s enrollment as a full-time or part-time scholar. The program is comprised of 30 semester credit-hours, with no less than 18 hours completed in Amridge’s online graduate program. The degree includes studies in the human services major (15 credits), electives (12 credits) and a three-credit capstone project.

  • MA in Marriage and Family Therapy
  • MA in Professional Counseling
  • MS in Pastoral Counseling

Winston-Salem State University’s online master’s in rehabilitation counseling aims to provide students with the “knowledge, skills and disposition necessary to work with persons who have physical, mental or emotional disabilities.” Students take a total of 60 hours of coursework online and complete the National Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Exam as well as a thesis or capstone project.

The degree is a two-year, full-time program (plus one 10-week summer session) and requires a 100 clock-hour practicum and 600 clock-hour internship. Classes begin three times during the school year.

  • MS in Rehabilitation Counseling

Southern California Seminary offers two online master’s degrees in counseling that students can complete through distance means. The programs teach both popular family systems theories and other current, empirically-validated theories of psychology and therapy to create well-rounded and effective therapists. Students will learn about counseling strategies for individuals, couples, families and children in a variety of settings.

Coursework can be completed at any time of the day, with no set time that students must log on. The school offers video demonstrations of online courses for prospective and new students, which allows them to learn more about how they will obtain course material and submit assignments online.

  • MA in Counseling Psychology
  • MA in Marriage and Family Therapy

Amberton University’s online Master of Arts in Christian Counseling is a 36 semester-hour program designed for individuals interested in combining contemporary research and theory into a counseling practice based on Christian principles. The program may be especially pertinent to ministers, congregation members and church leaders seeking to counsel others.

Courses include studies in Christian ministry, professional and spiritual ethics, Christian counseling and family studies. Elective online courses are available in stress management, love and healing, human development, school counseling, addictions, aging, play therapy and leadership. Courses are presented in four, 10-week intervals and are formatted to be self-paced.

  • MA in Christian Counseling

Texas A&M University’s online counseling program prepares prospective school counselors who can advise students on personal, academic and career needs. The program is fully-online and can be completed in two years. There are no residency requirements for admission.

Distance courses in the degree are taught in several formats, including asynchronous classes where students can view course materials and complete work at their convenience, and synchronous classes where students must log on during a particular day and time. In addition, the program includes practicum placements in the second year, in beginning and advancement placements. No thesis is required.

  • MED in School Counseling

The University of the Cumberlands’ online master’s in counseling is a flexible program with rolling entry throughout the calendar year. Students may start in one of its five bi-semesters (two in the fall, two in the spring and one in the summer).

In the 60-hour program, students take courses in addiction counseling, etiology and diagnosis of abnormal behavior, human growth and development, grief and crisis and counseling theories and techniques. As an added bonus, students may attend abroad seminar classes in Oxford. Admission requirements include a 500-word statement of purpose for graduate study as well as letters of reference.

  • MA in Professional Counseling

The online Master of Arts in Counseling degree program at Criswell College allows students to choose from a licensing or non-licensing path. The licensing path is comprised of 48 graduate-hours with a concentration on developing research skills, building an advanced foundation in psychology theory and practice with a Christian perspective.

Graduates of the licensing path are trained to serve in both Christian and secular counseling settings and are should be prepared to take the National Counselor Exam and the Texas Jurisprudence Examination. To work in Texas, graduates must also complete a supervised internship of no less than 3,000 hours. Courses are eight weeks long and self-paced, with deadlines for completing progressive modules.

  • MA in Counseling

Full-time online students enrolled in the 60-unit Antioch University Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health program can complete their degree in three years. All coursework is delivered online, but students are required to attend a 6-day residential colloquial held each of the two summers of their program.

In addition to courses, students must complete a total of 900 hours in three years of experiential counseling internships arranged at facilities convenient to their location. Students can also elect to complete a Substance Abuse and Addictions Counseling (SAAC) concentration, with their internships arranged at treatment centers or counseling practices.

  • MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Inside the Online Master’s in Counseling Degree Program

The online counseling degree is one of the most versatile, yet comprehensive graduate degree programs. Blending online learning with hands-on clinical experience, these programs are designed to provide students with a complete academic and experiential background in their chosen concentration area.

The goal of online master’s programs are to deliver the same rigorous curriculum that’s offered through their on-campus counterparts. Most online master’s in counseling programs use online learning platforms that allow students to connect with faculty and peers through face-to-face meetings and classes via various online and video technology systems. Depending on the specific institution, students may complete their coursework synchronously (requiring scheduled, live participation in learning sessions) or asynchronously (self-paced).

From the moment one enters online master’s counseling programs, they become immersed in both classroom and clinical-based work. The clinical component is the crux of these programs, complementing the academic, theory-based experience of the core curriculum. Under clinical supervision, students complete a set number of practicum and internship hours to satisfy the clinical requirements of their degree program, as well as licensing requirements set by state boards of counseling.

In addition to the practicum or internship, prospective students should also be aware there may be residency or immersion experiences required. Residency or immersion learning sessions require the student to travel to the campus to participate in face-to-face meetings with faculty and peers.

So, in turn, what comprises a good online master’s in counseling program? There are several factors, outside of cost or internship opportunities, that impact the quality of a program. Here are five areas specific to online degrees in counseling that students should review to determine if the program could be a fit for their educational and future career goals.

CACREP Accreditation

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Occupations is the main accrediting body for graduate degree programs in counseling – both master’s and doctorates – in the U.S. Before choosing a program, students should check the accreditation status of the specific degree, as attending an accredited program is typically required for post-graduation licensure, certifications and credentials.

Faculty Mix and Background

The quality and success of any degree program is driven by the faculty. For online programs, the strength of the faculty is paramount as they have to deliver rigorous, comprehensive training in the counseling disciplines via non-traditional learning formats. Students should review faculty members to get an understanding of their backgrounds, their professional experience, educations, licenses and certifications.

Clinical Experience

Most counseling master’s programs require a student to complete an internship or in-person practicum to develop clinical skills and experience. Students should be familiar with the practicum requirements, the site selection and training process for this portion of their education, with special consideration to where in their local areas they may accomplish these within the guidelines of their chosen programs.

Residency Requirement

Online counseling master’s programs may require students also to fulfill residency requirements. Residencies are alternative methods to create personal interaction within a program. Depending on the institution, students may be asked to complete one or a series of residencies – which may last a week or longer at a time.

Career Preparation

Counseling is a broad, complex field with a variety of specialization areas to consider. Selecting a concentration that fits a student’s interests and future career goals is important. The program of study within the concentration area should align with three future career considerations: clientele (e.g., inner-city students, families or married couples), work environment (e.g., private practice, schools or mental health organizations) and service area (e.g., marriage counseling, career counseling or career counseling).

Concentrations & Coursework

One of the goals of master’s programs in counseling is to teach students how to foster efficient, effective relationships through a variety of professional intervention areas (e.g., marriage counseling) while working with a variety of individuals, youth, families, groups and communities.

Interventions are divided into four major areas of practice, according to the American Counseling Association: Individual, Couples, Family and Group Counseling.

  • Individual counseling is provided in a one-on-one setting, where counselors assist individuals to identify and develop coping and treatment plans for a range of issues, from depression to substance abuse.
  • Couples counseling is provided to both married and unmarried couples, helping them to resolve conflicts, rebuild relationships, establish healthy boundaries and more.
  • Family counseling addresses emotional, relational and psychological problems in family environments, from parenting issues to academic problems, parenting problems to marital strife.
  • Group counseling sessions are driven by a lead counselor who engages participants in a variety of intervention areas, including substance abuse, anger, anxiety, depression and self-esteem.

In turn, the specializations within online master’s in counseling programs prepare students to recognize and treat a spectrum of psychological difficulties, the foundational psychological theories behind those problems, historical and modern methods used to research those theories and the practical techniques counselors use to support and care for individuals who struggle with those difficulties.

Under the four major areas of practice – individual, group, family and couples – exist a variety of specialized subsets of counseling. These concentration areas typically map to future career practice areas, and degree programs in these concentrations provide students with a blended (conceptual and clinical) education to eventually offer care and counseling to specific populations.

Below is a list of common concentrations offered through online master’s programs in counseling. By no means is the list exhaustive; it is meant as an introductory overview to potential academic and career specializations available to students.

Marriage, Couple and Family Therapy

Human behavior is interrelated and interwoven within larger social and cultural contexts. Programs of study in Marriage, Couple and Family Therapy focus on teaching students how to understand the dynamic between the relationship of human behavior and interaction within those contexts (e.g., race, social class, gender or cultural background). Students learn to identify and treat a diverse range of emotional, psychological and relational issues, including learning problems, depression, abuse, work anxiety or difficulties and marital breakdowns.

  • Marriage and Family Therapist

    Direct-practice professionals in the counseling field, Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT) assess, diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders of individuals in the context of marriage, family or couples settings. As mental health professionals, the work of MFTs is regulated as a core mental health profession, just like psychiatry, social work or psychology. All 50 states require licensure to practice as an MFT.

Professional Mental Health Counseling

The central principle behind mental health counseling is change: the goal is to equip students to become agents of change in the lives of individuals, families, children and couples alike. Programs in this concentration introduce a multifaceted curriculum based on the study of mental health theories, philosophies of human development, psychology, mental health disorders and cognitive coping strategies.

  • Mental Health Therapist

    A distinct clinical counseling profession, mental health therapists provide assessment, diagnosis and treatment of individuals suffering from mental health disorders. Areas of practice include psychotherapy, crisis management, prevention and psychoeducational programs. A regulated profession, mental health therapists are licensed at the state level, but can earn Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) designation from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC).

Addictions and Substance Abuse Counseling

Training in this specialization is practice-oriented, teaching students how to work effectively with a host of individuals dealing with addiction problems, such as drugs and alcohol, gambling or eating disorders. Developing a complex understanding of the history and root of addictions problems, students explore the undercurrents of addictive behaviors within a larger context of family dynamics, genetic and personal traits and physiological issues.

  • Substance Abuse Counselor

    Provides clinical treatment, support and case management to clients dealing with alcohol and drug abuse issues in individual, family or group therapy sessions. A regulated profession, licensure occurs at the state level. Some of the different types of certified counselor titles are Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC, Levels 1 and 2), Certified Recovery Mentor (CRM) and Master Addiction Counselor.

School Counseling

This concentration is rooted in the fundamental need to help youth succeed both in and out of the school setting. In turn, programs introduce graduate students to the social, emotional and cognitive needs of children and adolescents. Degrees in school counseling develop communication and relational skills, help students learn about observation and assessment and hone consultation and observational abilities to provide a host of support counseling within educational settings to students, teachers, administrators, families and the community.

  • School Counselor

    Professional school counselors address academic, social, personal and career development by establishing and implementing school counseling programs. Requiring a minimum of a master’s degree, school counselors are certified and licensed at the state level, but may also earn national certification from the NBCC and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).

Child & Adolescent Counseling

This specialization is designed to develop advanced clinical skills in graduate students to work with children, youth, adolescents and their parents. Training is broad, covering areas such as family therapy, group approaches to counseling, assessment and prevention or play therapy. Students gain practical insight into emotional, behavioral and academic interventions, developing professional strategies and techniques to address issues ranging from ADHD to depression, trauma to loss.

  • Child Therapist

    Specializing in assessing and providing therapy to children and adolescents (ages 3–18), child therapists help children, youth and their parents deal with a range of challenges and problems – from learning disorders to behavioral issues. A variety of specialized certifications, such as play therapy, are available from organizations such as the Association of Play Therapy or the National Institute of Relational Enhancement.

Career Counseling.

Career counseling is nested within the intersection of counseling and career development. Concentrations in this area introduce students to the role career counselors play not only within the lives of clients, but in organizations as well. Topics of study include career engagement, performance management, workplace stress, career transitions, team leadership, employee orientation and training and employee retention.

  • Career Counselor

    Provides specialized counseling services to assist individuals through career decision making, career development and identifying the personal factors (e.g., interests, abilities) that influence future career success. Requiring a master’s degree, career counseling is also licensed at the state level. Career counselors can pursue National Certified Counselor designation from the NBCC, as well as professional development resources from the National Career Development Association.

Because the counseling profession is so closely associated with degree specialization, students should also review the specific curriculum of their chosen concentration to ensure it provides comprehensive instruction in both conceptual, knowledge-based areas and practical, real-world application. Below is a table that includes a list of courses in each of the major counseling concentrations.

Human Growth and Development

A survey course into personality development, including the study of psychological, organic and social factors that impact growth. Through an inclusive study of environmental dynamics, psychopathology, normative and abnormal behavior, students develop an understanding of human behavior.

Theories of Counseling

This class offers an intensive review of counseling and psychotherapy theories, including the history of counseling theory, foundations of empirical research and philosophy of counseling.

Introduction to Counseling

This class serves as an introduction to the broad field of counseling, including school, community and marriage and families counseling, as well as studying the history of counseling, strategies, ethics, licensing processes and more.

Developmental Foundations of Counseling

In this class, student receive an overview of cognitive, emotional and social development in individuals.

Group Counseling

This course focuses on the study of the fundamentals of group therapy and group counseling, with topics ranging from group guidance to ethics, theoretical models of group counseling to nonverbal communication skills.

Couples and Families: Systemic Interventions

This course is designed to provide students with an understanding of assessment tools and interventions in the family dynamic, which sets the foundation for instruction in therapeutic interventions in issues such as divorce, illness and remarriage.

Career Placement and Development

This class offers students the opportunity to learn about the principles and practices of both career development and placement, including the knowledge required to assist individuals to secure employment and develop skill sets to remain competitive in the workplace.

Case Management

Students in this class learn about the fundamentals of case management, including case management systems. Topics of study include assessment, referral processes, agency coordination, time management, billing and intervention strategies.

Family, School and Community Counseling

This course examines the dynamics of counseling for families, schools and communities in school settings. Topics of study include counseling consultation, academic support and developing integrative, collaborative counseling models.

Counseling Ethics

This class introduces students to the American Counseling Association’s ethical standards, including the legal issues that impact and influence counseling practice.

Substance Abuse Counseling

This course serves as an overview of addictive behaviors, including the biological, social and psychological components of substance abuse. Theories of and treatment strategies for addictive behaviors are introduced.

The Timeline for an Online Master’s in Counseling Program

Developing an understanding of educational concentrations and curriculum is only one step in selecting a program of study. As they build a list of potential universities to consider, students should continue to ask probing questions about each program that focus on non-academic areas, such as the procedures for applying, how online programs are taught and the required number of credits to graduate, as well as licensing or certification requirements needed after completing a program.

Setting expectations for the graduate school experience is important. Students need to be equipped to deal with the rigors of online learning in order to stay on track to graduate. One way to establish those expectations is to create a graduate degree timeline that includes information starting with the application process and ending with graduation. Because of the diversity of institutions and specializations in counseling, completing an online graduate degree in counseling may require between two to three years of study.

The hypothetical timeline below describes a degree plan for a 24-credit, 24-month program.

Step 1

Finding a Program

The graduate school experience begins with research. Prospective students should start the planning process early in order to be prepared for any required standardized tests, and to collect and arrange application documents. Students should create a list of potential online master’s programs, collecting common information about each program, including the following:

Counseling degree concentrations (not all programs offer each concentration of study)

Background of faculty in the desired concentration (e.g., marriage and family therapy, substance abuse counseling)

Tuition, fees, books (the total cost of the online program)

Online learning technology requirements

Residency requirements (some online programs require students to participate in on-campus learning experiences)

Number of credits required to graduate

Application deadlines

Standardized test score requirements (GRE)

Application fees

Practicum or internship requirements

Step 2

Starting the Application

Admission requirements vary by program and, in some cases, by academic concentration. Students should take the time to review the individual requirements for each program before applying. Graduate schools in counseling may require all or some of the following information for admission:

Official transcripts from undergraduate institution

Resume or CV

Personal statement

Essay or writing sample

Undergraduate coursework in counseling (e.g., minor or major study)


GRE or Miller Analogies scores

Three letters of recommendation

Year 1

Year 1 (Standard Curriculum & Practicum)

The first year of study is designed for students to complete 12 credits of study in core curriculum coursework, in areas such as counseling methods, counseling and psychotherapy, human growth and development and group dynamics. In addition, this year is dedicated to developing clinical experience through a practicum experience. Working with an advisor or site placement representative, students will complete a required number of supervised clinical hours (typically around 300), which usually includes direct client contact.

Year 2

Degree Concentration and Internship (Year 2)

In the second year of the program, students transition to a curriculum that focuses on their degree concentration area (e.g., marriage and family therapy) and prepare to complete an internship component. The internship is conducted at an external field site where students complete approximately 400 to 600 hours of supervised clinical experience, including direct client contact. Prior to graduating after year 2, students also complete a comprehensive examination to satisfy program requirements.


Bethany Earl earned a Master of Arts in Counseling online, and currently works with a Christian-services center to guide and counsel women in crisis situations due to domestic violence. Earl offers three important tips for finding success in a counseling master’s degree:

Get licensed

When students graduate, they should immediately seek out a path to becoming Licensed Professional Counselors and receive board certification in their specialties, because without it, the advanced job options are few.

Choose carefully

No matter which school or program is ultimately chosen, always consider what the job outcome will be, and make sure the online program is reputable enough to impress future employers.

Consider the necessary emotional fortitude

It can be a hard road, helping people work through emotional and mental issues. Self-care can make it a rewarding career, instead of a draining job.

Career Potential for the Online Master’s in Counseling

The diversity of counseling makes it a flexible, customizable educational option for students considering an online master’s degree program. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 43,000 counseling master’s degrees were awarded to students nationally in 2013. The most popular specializations included clinical counseling, student counseling and mental health counseling. Below is a table with the top six concentration areas for master’s degrees in counseling:

Area of Interest Number of Degrees Conferred
Clinical, Counseling and Applied Psychology 19,087
Student Counseling and Personnel Services 13,820
Mental Health Counseling/Counselor 4,110
Marriage and Family Therapy/Counseling 3,122
Pastoral Counseling and Specialized Ministries 1,208
Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling/Counselor 1,121

The tuition of master’s programs ranges from approximately $9,000 to $21,000 according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Prospective students considering graduate school should be mindful regarding the return on their educational investment when selecting an online master’s program in counseling. As degree specializations are tied to career outcomes, completing an online master’s degree can greatly influence future earnings.

Master’s Area of Concentration Average Tuition
Genetic Counseling/Counselor $21,492
Mental Health Counseling/Counselor $14,670
Marriage and Family Therapy/Counseling $14,451
Clinical, Counseling and Applied Psychology $13,151
Clinical Pastoral Counseling/Patient Counseling $12,688
Pastoral Counseling and Specialized Ministries $12,317
Substance Abuse/Addiction Counseling $10,705
Student Counseling and Personnel Services $10,513
Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling/Counselor $9,093

Because counseling is a diverse professional field with numerous concentration areas, work environments and licensing/certification requirements will vary from specialty to specialty. Within the larger counseling field are interrelated factors that can influence career earnings, including educational background, geography, professional experience and area of specialization. In turn – as noted above – students should give careful consideration to their area of concentration, location and future career goals to get a solid understanding of the potential salary range available upon graduation.

Overall, the national median salaries for counselors as a group was just over $44,000 in 2013. The table below outlines the national salary range for counselors in 2013:

Top 10 % $75,240
Median (50%) $44,270
Bottom 10% $25,750

In 2014, the American Counseling Association conducted a survey of 9,000 counselors from across the country, asking questions about compensation, work settings, education, employment benefits and more. Counselors were divided into four major specialization areas: Mental Health, Rehabilitation, School and Counselor Educator.

According to the survey, “State of the Profession: Counselor Compensation,” the average salaries for those four groups (and “other”) fell into a range of $40,000 to $66,000:

  • Clinical Mental Health/Mental Health/Community Counselor: $40,421
  • Counselor Educator: $66,405
  • Rehabilitation Counselor: $53,561
  • School Counselor: $53,299
  • Other Counselor: $51,074

A review of occupational data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals Genetic Counselors had the highest average salaries in the counseling profession in 2013. Below is a table that shows the national average salary and salary range (bottom 10 percent to top 10 percent) by counseling profession in 2013:

Counseling Specialization Average Salary Salary Range
Counselors $47,820 $25,750 - $75,240
Counselors, All Other $46,330 $24,960 - $71,580
Counselors, Social Workers and Other Community and Social Service Specialists $44,690 $23,790 - $72,170
Educational, Guidance, School and Vocational Counselors $56,160 $31,850 - $86,870
Genetic Counselors $62,800 $33,160 - $91,210
Mental Health Counselors $43,700 $25,840 - $67,020
Rehabilitation Counselors $37,660 $21,170 - $60,020
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors $41,090 $25,200 - $60,160

Salaries also vary by location. For example, the top three paying states for mental health counselors in 2013 included Alaska ($57,040), Wyoming ($53,570) and Oregon ($51,670), while the top states for substance abuse counselors included Michigan ($50,890), Utah ($49,760) and New Jersey ($49,560).

Online master’s students should also factor location into their degree specialization, as it can significantly impact career earnings.

Career Projections for Online Counseling Master’s Students

In what should be welcomed information to prospective graduate students, the career outlook for the counseling profession is projected to be above average between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The entire industry is expected to see 20 percent employment growth during that time, with genetic counseling (41.2 percent), substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling (31.4 percent) and mental health counseling (28.5 percent), expected to be the fastest growing specializations.

Counseling Specialization
Career Growth Rate
Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors
Mental health counselors
Rehabilitation counselors
Counselors, all other
Counselors, social workers and other community and social service specialists
Educational, guidance, school and vocational counselors

Counselors are employed across a gamut of work environments in both the public and private sectors. Data from the American Counseling Association survey found the top employers for survey respondents were the following:

  • Private practice/self-employed: 20%
  • K-12 education: 19%
  • Higher education: 15%
  • Private rehabilitation/counseling agency: 14%

Geographically, between 2012 and 2022, employment opportunities are projected to be the best in Georgia (30.6 percent), Utah (28.6 percent), Texas (27.2 percent), Colorado (26.9 percent) and Kentucky (26.8 percent), according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor and individual state employment security agencies and departments of labor.

Occupation Location Career Projections
Educational, Guidance and Vocational Counselors
State Georgia Utah New Mexico Texas Arizona
% Growth 30.9% 26.7% 25.2% 22.0% 21.2%
Genetic Counselors
State Nebraska Texas Oklahoma Colorado Iowa
% Growth 50.0% 47.9% 46.4% 44.0% 43.1%
Mental Health Counselors
State Georgia Utah Kentucky North Carolina South Carolina
% Growth 48.0% 40.8% 37.4% 37.1% 29.0%
Rehabilitation Counselors
State North Carolina Arizona Virginia Utah Colorado
% Growth 29.7% 28.0% 26.7% 26.0% 25.7%
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors
State Kentucky Georgia Utah New Hampshire
% Growth 42.1% 40.9% 37.5% 35.9%

Applying Counseling Skills to Different Career Opportunities

For any number of reasons, graduates of online master’s in counseling degree programs may want to explore employment opportunities outside of the profession. Educational programs in this area develop a series of general, widely applicable skills that translate seamlessly from counseling to other career areas. For example, five core skills developed in master’s programs that could be used in new professions are:

  • Active listening
  • Critical thinking
  • Social perceptiveness
  • Decision making
  • Problem solving

Here are three professional arenas outside offering counseling services that holders of master’s degrees in counseling from online programs may want to consider.

  • Public Administration

    At the highest level, public administration is simply the development and implementation of policy in local, state and federal government organizations. Civil service could be a natural skill fit for an individual with a background in counseling, as the roles in this field require a blend of programmatic thinking, assessment, project management and program design and implementation. An extremely varied professional field, counselors could move into positions in nonprofit management, human resources, city or county management, nonprofit fundraising, public affairs and communications or urban planning.

  • Social Services

    Counseling falls into the social services sector, an area of public services designed to support and better the lives of individuals in the community. For counselors desiring to make a difference, social service is an opportunity to heed that call. From social work to working in health care policy, community management to local legislative lobbying, social services is ripe with an assorted number of career options.

  • Teaching

    Very closely aligned to counseling, teaching is dedicated to the betterment and enrichment of the lives of youth. The skills gained in an online master’s degree program in counseling transition nicely into the classroom. Working with diverse populations of students with varied learning needs means counselors have an opportunity to put their communication, problem solving, patience and management skills to work on a daily basis.

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