Online Master's in Counseling

Counselors work to provide invaluable clinical and support services to people in distress, helping to improve their lives. Counselors train in various specialties, acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to address the challenges facing various populations. The field best suits those interested in making a difference in other's lives. The specialties they choose might focus on schools, mental health, or marriage and family.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts a positive outlook in employment growth for counselors who specialize in treating substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health challenges. The Bureau's 23% projected growth in employment for these counselors between 2016 to 2026 outpaces the 7% national average for all occupations. Many colleges provide master's degree in counseling online programs so that students can complete the degree without disrupting work schedules and family life. As you consider this degree, make sure to learn more about the time and financial investment required for online counseling programs.

Online Master's in Counseling Degrees at a Glance

Length of Program 12 to 24 months
Cost of Program According to College Board's Trends in College Pricing for 2017-2018, students pay $8,670 per year for in-state tuition for a master's degree at public institutions.
Core Courses Psychopathology, test and appraisal in counseling, counseling theories, human behavior and the environment, research methods, and group counseling theory and practice
Specializations Mental health, marriage and family, substance abuse, rehabilitation, and school counseling
Internship Required? Programs require a practicum or internship that varies in length
Career Opportunities Mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, substance abuse counselors, and school counselor

What Can I Expect From an Online Master's in Counseling Program?

Master's in counseling programs vary depending on the school and chosen program. Many schools require 60 credits for completion of a master's in counseling. While counseling degrees share some common core courses, differences exist in the required speciality classes. Programs also differ in requirements for capstone projects and the breadth of practicum and internships. While most master's degree in counseling online programs prepare learners for professional credentialing such as state licensure, students should still ensure that the department provides you with the support needed for program completion.

Master's in Counseling Admission Requirements

Schools require that applicants hold baccalaureate degrees in counseling or similar fields such as psychology, behavioral science, sociology, or social work. Some programs require prerequisite courses in subjects such as human development, psychology, and research methods for applicants without closely related degrees. Master's in counseling programs typically require students to hold a minimum 3.0 GPA. Some remain strict in this requirement, while others allow students to make up for a lower GPA with GRE or GMAT scores.

An increasing number of schools no longer require standardized test scores such as the GRE or GMAT for entry into some graduate programs, though many still do. Students do not need to hold counseling licensure as a prerequisite for admission; master's-level online counseling degrees prepare learners for relevant licensure such as the National Counselor Examination. Many programs require that students undergo a background test, drug screening, or immunization in order to fulfil internship and practicum requirements. Others require students to hold professional student liability Insurance for all practicum and internship postings in concentrations such as counseling rehabilitation.

Courses in an Online Master's in Counseling Program

Students in master's in counseling programs take courses that vary depending on specialization and the program. Below lists a sampling of courses students can expect to complete.

  • Counseling Theories: Faculty acquaint learners with the major theories that inform the practice of counseling and psychotherapy. The course may include a population focus such as adults or adolescents.
  • Lifespan Development: This course explores social and emotional development throughout the lifespan and the appropriate interventions used for counseling children, adolescents, and adults. The course serves as a staple in the curriculum regardless of specialization.
  • Marriage and Family Counseling: This course examines how to treat couples and families as a whole. Students evaluate theory and practice models, examine some of the issues facing modern day marriages, identify and treat mental health problems that impact interpersonal relationships, and formulate intervention techniques.
  • Substance Use and Dependence: Students examine the theories of addiction, co-occurring disorders such as mental health issues, and the approaches to assess and treat alcohol and drug dependency. Students also learn about the risk factors for addiction and about the resources and referral systems available in communities for treatment.
  • Clinical Diagnosis and Treatment Planning: Students study the various manifestations of psychopathology, learn how to use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental and Emotional Disorders to evaluate and diagnose clients, and develop a treatment plan.

Master's in Counseling Specializations

  • Mental Health Counseling: Counselors treat many of the same conditions that psychologists treat, including PTSD, depression and anxiety, bipolar disorder, and personality disorders. They use treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and humanistic therapy.
  • Marriage and Family Counseling: This specialization trains counselors to help couples and families improve their relationships. They help them address marital conflicts caused by issues such as depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, infertility, and adolescent behavioral problems.
  • Substance Abuse Counseling: The curriculum in this concentration prepares counselors to diagnose and assess individuals with addictions. They learn how to customize treatment plans for each client and help them alter attitudes and develop coping strategies.
  • Rehabilitation Counseling: Helping the disabled integrate into society remains the focus of this specialization. Counselors help them cope with physical, mental, or emotional disability; acquire skills such as job training; and educate employers and companies about the rights of the disabled.
  • School Counseling: These counselors work with students at the elementary through postsecondary levels, helping them deal with challenges that impair their performance. These include bullying, academic shortcomings, and psychological problems.

Skills Gained in a Master's in Counseling Online Program

  • Listening and Observing: Students learn the three types of listening necessary in the therapeutic relationship: attending, which requires undivided attention and nonverbal cues; active listening with all the senses; and verbal listening, which requires nonverbal cues that encourage more exploration between counselor and client.
  • Reflection: Counseling students learn how to assess clients' verbal and nonverbal cues to determine their state of mind. They use feeling reflections to allow clients to hear their stated feelings, restate or rephrase a client's statement to reaffirm and gain clarity about what the client says, and use affirmations to encourage positive behaviors and changes in clients.
  • Problem-Solving: The counselor plays an integral role in helping clients identify negative thought patterns. Counseling programs immerse students in classroom and field work experiences that fine-tune problem-solving skills integral to the success of the therapeutic relationship.
  • Empathy: Learning to walk in the shoes of clients allows students to better understand their feelings about the circumstances they face and strengthen the client-to-counselor relationship.
  • Individual and Group Counseling: Students lead and participate in sessions that require the application of learned concepts and techniques used in clinical practice.

Master's in Counseling Internship Requirements

Most programs require some level of advanced field experience in the form of an internship. This component occurs at the end of the master's in counseling program. During this experience, the student assumes the role of counselor at a relevant facility, including a human services agency, school, or healthcare facility. Participants spend 20-24 hours a week providing direct counseling to clients, often completing up to 600 hours. They regularly meet with a clinical supervisor to go over cases, and some programs require that students participate in group learning. Online programs often allow learners to fulfill this component in their communities by identifying a preceptor and location willing to accomodate them.

Online Master's in Counseling Program Length

On average, online counseling programs require 60 credits for completion, though some require as few as 36 credits. Schools expect students to complete the degree in two to three years. The length of the program depends entirely on the school and factors such as practicum and internship requirements, which vary from 200 hours to 600 hours. However, some programs provide accelerated degrees that students complete in as few as 18 months. Students who choose a cohort complete a predetermined sequence of courses with a group of students through an online counseling degree.

Online Master's in Counseling Program Cost

The cost of an online counseling degree varies depending on a number of factors. Shopping around for a program that fits your academic, career, and financial aims remains paramount. Consider that a master of education in educational, school, and counseling psychology at Mizzou Online costs $14,160.66. A similar program, a master of arts in counseling and guidance program, costs $79,680 at New York University. While students complete both programs completely online, tuition changes relative to regional differences, school name, and in-state tuition options.

In general, some institutions charge extra fees that add up compared to other institutions that charge a flat per-credit tuition. The concentration students choose for a master's in counseling also impacts tuition costs. Whatever the case, online students pay less tuition than their on-campus counterparts and save more money in transportation, accommodation, and other costs affiliated with in-person learning. Students should expect to pay an average of $600-$700 per credit for online counseling programs.

Is Online Learning Right for Me?

Many students in counseling master's programs online work full time or part time. Online learning provides students with the opportunity to pursue a degree while juggling work and family obligations. Students sacrifice nothing in terms of program quality when they pursue an online degree. They also benefit from great flexibility, academic rigor, and tuition savings since online programs tend to cost less and omit the cost of transportation and childcare.

Key issues to consider when deciding if online learning suits you include your confidence with technology, learning style, self motivation, and organization. Given the technological requirements of online learning, students should possess some computer skills. Many programs incorporate technologies such as flash animation, interactive presentations, and simulations to immerse students in the content. This format addresses the needs of kinesthetic learners, and many programs offer ample opportunity for interaction with peers and faculty. Still, online learning requires that students relish self-discipline and self-motivation since they learn independently and must complete assignments on time. Organization and time-management remain keys to successful online learning.

Counseling Careers for Master's Graduates

The field of counseling offers a great deal of diversity in opportunity. Students choose a program based on their area of interest, which includes helping people keep their marriages together and helping disabled individuals integrate into society. The work settings range from private practice to school settings. Counselors provide invaluable support services to people in distress, those seeking to rebuild their lives, and those planning for their future well-being. Regardless of the concentration or specialization, counselors all share one thing in common: they help others lead better lives.

  • Marriage and Family Therapists: Therapists in this speciality help individuals overcome marital and family relationship challenges. They listen to clients, guide them through decisions, help them hone coping skills and strategies, and refer them to resources available in the community. A master's degree serves as the minimum requirement, and states require counselors to meet licensure or certification requirements.
  • Mental Health Counselor: These counselors provide a number of services to help individuals deal with mental health challenges. They diagnose mental health issues and provide treatment planning or therapeutic support to youth, adolescents, and adults. They complete at least a master's degree and an internship in addition to state licensure or certification requirements.
  • School Counselor: School counselors at elementary, middle, or high schools guide students through the academic process, providing them with information about academic and career opportunities. They help students address behavioral and developmental issues in early grades and guide those suffering from challenges such as bullying. Most states require school counselors to hold a master's degree and licensure or certification.
  • Rehabilitation Counselor: These specialists help individuals with physical, developmental, mental, or emotional disabilities live independent lives. They help them adjust to living with a disability; assess clients' interests, skills, abilities, and education; consult with doctors, psychologists, and therapists to help develop treatment plans; and work with various agencies to help clients secure jobs. Rehabilitation counselor positions require a master's, and some jobs require certification or a license.
  • Substance Abuse Counselor: Counselors diagnose addiction problems and customize treatment plans for clients. They work with clients to address attitudes and belief systems that contribute to addiction while helping them develop strategies to cope during recovery. This occupation requires a master's degree and state licensure or certification.
Position Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate
Marriage and Family Therapists $48,790 23%
Mental Health Counselor $43,300 23%
School Counselor $55,410 13%
Rehabilitation Counselor $34,860 13%
Substance Abuse Counselor $43,300 23%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Salaries for Counselors by Experience

  Entry-Level (0-5 years) Mid-Career (5-10 years) Experienced (10-20 years) Late Career (20+ years)
Mental Health Counselors $38,000 $41,000 $44,000 $46,000
Substance Abuse Counselors $34,000 $38,000 $41,000 $44,000
School Counselors $43,000 $49,000 $57,000 $63,000
Marriage and Family Therapists $45,000 $51,000 $59,000 $66,000
Source: PayScale

Certifications and Licensure

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC): This counselor specializes in psychotherapy, treating clients with mental health, behavioral, and substance abuse challenges -- often in direct practice. They treat individuals, families, and groups. The counselor must complete a master's degree, practicum hours, and supervised professional counseling experience. They must then pass the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) exam.
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC): This counselor serves as a psychotherapist with a wide scope of experience in treating clients with mental health issues. They treat individuals, families, and groups. For LPCC licensure, counselors must hold at least a master's degree, complete practicum hours, and complete postgraduate supervised clinical experience. The counselor must also pass the NCE or NCMHCE exam.
  • Licensed Professional Counselor of Mental Health (LPC-MH): This counselor specializes in the treatment of mental health issues. For LPC-MH licensure, the counselor must hold a master's with practicum hours, have professional clinical counseling experience, and National Certified Counselor certification. The counselor must also pass the NCE or NCMHCE exam for LPC-MH licensure.
  • Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT): This counselor specializes in treating married couples and families. While other counselors treat individuals, MFTs treat couples and their families as a system. Licensure requires at least a master's degree, practicum hours, and supervised clinical counseling. The counselor must pass the NCE or NCMHCE exam.
  • National Certified School Counselor (NCSC): Counselors work with students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels to optimize academic performance and address challenges such as social or behavioral problems. School counselors must complete the NCSC, offered by the National Board for Certified Counselors. To qualify, they must hold a master's, possess two years of post-graduate experience as a school counselor, and hold the National Certified Counselor credential.

Earning a Doctorate Degree in Counseling

Once students complete a master's in counseling, many consider earning a doctorate to open up career options and improve earnings. A master's degree fulfills most state licensure requirements for counseling careers. However, individuals who plan to move into research, academia, or high-level administrative positions at hospitals or other medical settings require a doctorate. Further, some counselors set sights on a Psy.D. in counseling psychology or a Ph.D. to work as clinicians in a variety of settings. The investment of between four and seven years for a doctorate pays off with enhanced earnings and career opportunities. Students should assess the academic requirements of the career they plan to pursue, the financial investment required, the career opportunities available, and the return on investment through earnings over the lifespan.

Accreditation for Online Master's in Counseling Degrees

Individuals pursuing master's degrees in counseling online should ensure accreditation of the school and program by an accrediting agency. Accreditation by a national or regional accrediting agency ensures the school passes a strenuous evaluation process that occurs every few years. Regional accreditation sets the gold standard in accreditation in the U.S., though some schools hold national accreditation. Regional accreditation ensures that the institution enforces rigorous academic standards, qualifies for federal financial aid programs, and ensures that credits transfer. Regionally accredited schools only accept credits from other regionally accredited schools.

Several agencies confer regional accreditation to schools in the nation, each focusing on states in a particular region. This includes the Higher Learning Commission, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

In addition to regional accrediting agencies, other organizations confer programmatic accreditation to ensure that programs meet standards established in the field. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational programs (CACREP) accredits master's and doctoral programs in counseling in the U.S. and worldwide. Make sure the program you choose holds CACREP accreditation.

Financing Your Online Master's in Counseling Degree

Once students commit to pursuing a master's degree in counseling online, they must consider how to pay for it. Some students pay out of pocket, but most pursue some form of financial aid. The federal government's portfolio of loans, grants, and work-study programs offer diverse options to fund your education. To start, students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). All colleges use the FAFSA to determine students' eligibility for federal financial aid.

Graduate students qualify for the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, which allows them to borrow up to $20,500 per school year. Those who need more money than this maximum unsubsidized amount may qualify for Direct PLUS Loans. Some graduate students take advantage of the federal work-study program in which they work part time in exchange for pay. Schools also use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for this program. Many opportunities exist for students to secure loans from private institutions such as Sallie Mae.

Scholarships, meanwhile, provide students with the option to secure tuition without needing to pay money back. Some organizations provide scholarship opportunities to students in specific fields to increase the workforce. For instance, many colleges around the country partner with the federal government's Rehabilitative Services Administration to provide scholarships to those pursuing careers in rehabilitation counseling and therapy. Some more options follow below.

Scholarships for Counseling Students

National Board for Certified Counselors Foundation
Who Can Apply: NBCC awards five scholarships to students living in rural areas enrolled in a CACREP-accredited counseling master's program. Students must commit to provide mental health services in rural areas for two years after graduation.
Amount: $8,000

American Psychological Foundation
Who Can Apply: The American Psychological Foundation offers several scholarships to graduate students in psychology programs, including counseling psychology. Students must provide a research proposal for a thesis that reviewers rate based on a number of criteria.
Amount: $2,000 to $5,000

American Counseling Association
Who Can Apply: The ACA provides scholarships to student members enrolled in accredited graduate counseling programs. Applicants must write an essay on the designated topic in counseling.
Amount: $1,000

Pi Gamma Mu
Who Can Apply: Pi Gamma Mu awards 10 scholarships for members to pursue graduate degrees in the social sciences. Judges consider the statement of purpose in the application an integral part of the consideration process.
Amount: $1,000 to $2,000

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Research and Education Foundation
Who Can Apply: AAMFT awards the Diversity Scholarship for Emerging Leaders to minority graduate students pursuing counseling degrees with an emphasis in MFT. Students submit an application in September.
Amount: $3,000

National Association of Junior Auxiliaries
Who Can Apply: Graduate students who live in a state with a Junior Auxiliary Chapter receive scholarships to fund graduate programs in fields such as school counseling that specifically prepare them for work with children and youth.
Amount: Unspecified

Resources for Master's in Counseling Students

Professional Organizations

Professional organizations provide recent graduates and students with resources and services that contribute to career development and lifelong learning. Each organization provides unique benefits that include networking events, professional development opportunities, annual conferences, job postings, and career services. They also provide members with access to scholarly journals and other publications that include research, innovation, and developments in the field. Most offer a discounted membership rate to attract and retain student members.

  • American Counseling Association: The ACA sponsors 20 specialized divisions to reflect different concentrations in the field. The organization's journals include the Journal of Counseling and Development and Counseling Today. In addition to annual conferences, the ACA provides professional networking opportunities, liability insurance, and discounts such as hotel rentals.
  • American School Counselor Association: Student membership in the ASCA provides invaluable opportunities to keep up-to-date with the latest developments and networking opportunities. The ASCA publishes a number of publications, including the Professional School Counseling journal and ASCA School Counselor magazine.
  • American Mental Health Counselors Association: AMCHA promotes advocacy and education initiatives that benefit members and the field at large. The organization publishes The Advocate Magazine and the Journal of Mental Health Counseling. It also offers members various networking opportunities, numerous discount programs, and liability insurance.

Internship and Career Opportunities for Master's in Counseling Students

Internships remain an integral part of counseling master's programs online, and schools work with human services agencies, hospitals, and other organizations to provide students with these invaluable experiences. Programs also work with online students to find internship sites close to their communities. Students should coordinate internship placement opportunities with faculty, school advisers, or their school's career services department. Professional organizations, such as the ACA, oversee a career center with job postings for members, which may include postgraduate internships. Traditional job sites provide other, more limited, opportunities to identify postgraduate internships.

  • Mentalhealthwork.com: This free and comprehensive job board focuses exclusively on jobs posted by agency recruiters and healthcare facilities in areas such as counseling, therapy, and psychology. Students or recent grads can also access industry news and other resources.
  • University Counseling Jobs: This site features a variety of positions in behavioral and mental health at postsecondary institutions. Employers submit postings for jobs such as counselor, therapist, and mental health case manager.
  • PsychologyJobs.com: This site provides job seekers access to a list of counseling jobs. The site also allows job seekers to freely post their resumes in a database accessible to employers and provides career advice and information about salaries.

Additional Resources for Master's in Counseling Students

  • Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational programs: The CACREP accredits graduate programs in counseling. The organization provides students with information about how to choose a graduate program, the counseling curriculum, and licensure.
  • Chi Sigma Iota: An international honor society for professional counselors, CSI promotes scholarship, research, and professionalism in counseling. In addition to a global network of peers, CSI provides information about research, grants, publications, and other resources. The organization admits counselors in training, professional counselors, and counselor-educators.
  • National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors: Graduate students interested in a specialization in addictions counseling should join NAADAC, which boasts a student membership category. The organization provides continuing education; news about the field; conferences, webinars, and publications; and other resources vital to addiction professionals.
  • Association of Child and Adolescent Counseling: This information and support network helps counselors and counseling students understand the unique needs of children and adolescents. Members access position papers, the Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling, and educational materials that outline standards and best practices in the specialization.
  • National Education Association: Those pursuing careers in school and guidance counseling benefit from NEA's robust resource center. The center includes research and literature on issues such as behavior intervention, bullying, and the effective use of technology. The organization provides member benefits including professional development, discussion forums, and a discount program.
  • National Association of Graduate-Professional Students: This organization provides a repository of resources for graduate students in any field. This includes financial aid information, a list of grad schools, and assistance with thesis development.