How to Choose a Program

Before enrolling in a college, all prospective students must learn how to choose a counseling program that suits their personal interests, academic needs, and career goals. Choosing the right counseling program is one of the most important steps in a counselor's professional life. The best counseling schools help students find internships, network with professionals, and prepare for licensure.

This guide walks through how to choose a counseling program, from researching program specializations to comparing counseling program costs. By considering these crucial factors when choosing a counseling program, students can start their professional journeys with the best education possible.

Program Delivery: Online vs. On-Campus

Deciding between online and on-campus learning should be one of the first steps when choosing the right counseling program. With more and more online options, many students find that online programs suit their needs better than on-campus programs. Especially helpful for working professionals and students with family obligations, online programs let learners earn degrees from top programs without moving or quitting their job.

As online options increase, more students benefit from the flexibility and convenience of distance learning programs. Online students can enroll in programs anywhere in the country, regardless of state residency. Online programs often cost less than on-campus programs; many schools offer tuition discounts for fully online students, and distance learners save money on transportation and housing costs. Online programs are just as academically rigorous as their on-campus counterparts. In many cases, online counseling programs follow the same curriculum as the institution's on-campus option. Graduates receive the same diploma, regardless of whether they took courses on campus or online.

However, online courses don't suit everyone. Online counseling programs require motivation, self-discipline, and organization. Students who do not succeed in an independent learning environment may struggle in an online program. Many students, especially those new to college, prefer the structure of an on-campus program.

Factors to Consider When Choosing an Online Counseling Program

Hybrid/Blended Learning: Some online counseling programs follow a hybrid or blended learning format. Under this model, students complete coursework both online and in person. Online courses allow students to meet other obligations while in school, and on-campus courses allow students to build relationships with their peers and faculty members. Hybrid programs may allow students to access internship options more easily.

Hybrid learning programs primarily appeal to students who live close to their preferred counseling program. Because students must attend at least some classes on campus, their choices may be geographically limited. Fully online programs, by contrast, let students enroll in the best programs from across the country.

Synchronous or Asynchronous: Online programs typically use one of two learning models: synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous classes require students to log in on a set schedule. For example, students may watch an online lecture and hold discussion on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. Synchronous courses allow students to interact with their cohort and faculty in real time. By contrast, asynchronous learning does not occur on a set schedule. Instead, students access course material and watch pre-recorded lectures whenever is most convenient for them. Students in asynchronous classes must still meet deadlines for assessments like exams or papers.

Students with work or family obligations may prefer the flexibility of an asynchronous learning format. Students who benefit from collaborative learning and real-time interactions such as video conferences may prefer a synchronous format. Some counseling programs also offer a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning formats, depending on the course and the class size.

Class Size: When choosing a counseling program, students should consider class size and student-to-faculty ratio. While some counseling programs enroll many students at the same time, other programs have much smaller class sizes. In an online learning environment, class size may affect the ability to collaborate with fellow students, the amount of attention faculty members can give each student, and the learning environment. Smaller class sizes can create a more personalized educational experience, while larger class sizes let students build a wider network while completing their degree. In a program with large class sizes, students may still have the opportunity to work with a faculty adviser.

Students may struggle to find information about class sizes for certain specialized counseling programs. Reaching out to an admissions counselor or a program adviser can help students gain valuable information on class size and student-to-faculty ratios.

Personal Learning Style: When comparing online and in-person counseling programs, students must also consider their personal learning style. Online learning environments may work better for certain learning styles. For example, self-motivated students are more likely to succeed in an online program than students who struggle to complete assignments. Students must have the discipline to complete their coursework without the structure of an on-campus program. Similarly, online students must excel at working independently, particularly in asynchronous courses. Driven students who finish what they start and can stick to a schedule thrive in an online learning environment.

Many online programs provide academic support services for students who struggle with one or more elements of the online learning experience. Academic advisers, faculty members, and school counselors can help students with a variety of personal learning styles succeed in an online program.

Clinical Components or Internships: Most counseling programs contain clinical components, usually in the form of an internship. Students in an online counseling program complete all internship requirements at an approved site near their location. Some students may be able to complete internship requirements at their current workplace. Online counseling programs work with students to identify qualified internship supervisors and appropriate facilities. Through internships, counseling students gain hands-on experience and work towards licensure requirements. An internship also helps online counseling students build a local network.

Before enrolling in an online counseling program, students should talk with admissions advisers about all possible local internship opportunities. Some programs maintain connections across the country with valuable internship sites. A handful of counseling programs may require students to complete internships in a particular state or area. Knowing about internship options may help students choose the best program for their career goals.

Choosing an Accredited Program

During the accreditation process, colleges and universities voluntarily agree to undergo review from an independent accrediting agency. If the institution meets the accrediting agency's standards, it earns accreditation. The process requires multiple reviews, peer evaluations, on-campus visits, and improvement plans.

Accreditation matters because it influences students' ability to transfer credits, receive financial aid, and apply for licensure after graduation. Accreditation also matters to potential employers who want to ensure that a candidate's education meets the standards for their profession. Most employers prefer regional accreditation, and many states only grant licenses to individuals who graduate from regionally accredited programs. Many states require students to attend a program approved by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Students must check the accreditation status of both the institution and the program. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation provides a database of institution and programs accredited by recognized U.S. accrediting agencies.

National vs. Regional Accreditation

Both national and regional accreditation evaluate an entire college or university. These accrediting bodies assess educational standards, faculty qualifications, and graduation requirements. Typically, regionally accredited institutions offer a liberal arts education, while nationally accredited institutions focus on technical and vocational education. In both cases, accrediting agencies act as independent, nonprofit agencies that measure an institution's standards and create improvement plans.

Regional accreditation requires higher standards than national accreditation. Consequently, employers, graduate schools, and licensing agencies prefer regional accreditation. Credits from a regionally accredited institution can transfer to almost any other school, while credits from a nationally accredited institution may not transfer. Some licenses also require a degree from a regionally accredited college or university. In addition, regional accreditation qualifies students for federal financial aid options.

Prospective students can search for a school's accreditation status online or use the U.S. Department of Education's database of accredited institutions.

Programmatic Accreditation

Unlike national or regional accreditation, programmatic accreditation assesses a specific program based on the best practices for that field. For example, teaching programs, social work programs, and business schools all have specialized accrediting agencies that measure educational effectiveness and student learning outcomes for each program. Because programmatic accreditation focuses on particular disciplines, accrediting agencies help set professional educational standards for graduates.

CACREP recognizes counseling programs that meet the discipline's standards. Founded in 1981, CACREP acts as a third-party, independent reviewer of counseling programs. In order to earn accreditation, programs must submit their clinical standards, specialty training, and faculty qualifications. Many state licensing boards use CACREP accreditation to determine whether a candidate's education fulfills state licensure requirements. For that reason, counselors need to research the CACREP accreditation status for all potential counseling programs.

Career Goals

Choosing the right counseling program means researching potential counseling careers before enrolling. By setting career goals before choosing a counseling program, students can find the best fit for their professional interests. While some students already have clear career goals, others benefit from researching the many career paths available to graduates with a degree in counseling.

Degree Level

Prospective counselors should research which degree they need for their chosen field. For example, mental health counselors must earn a master's degree, while other professions, such as rehabilitation counseling, may only require a bachelor's degree. Similarly, some states only issue licenses to counselors with a graduate degree, while other states license counselors with a bachelor's degree.

The following section can help prospective students determine which counseling degree best fits their career goals. The guide includes details on each degree, career possibilities, and salary potential.

Bachelor’s Degree: An undergraduate counseling program introduces students to the theory and practice of counseling. Counseling majors can work in mental health or counseling services, or earn a master's to qualify for specialized licenses.

Master’s Degree: Many professional counseling licenses and certifications require a master's degree, including school counseling and marriage and family therapy. A master's program blends research, case studies, and hands-on experience.

Doctorate Degree: A doctorate requires several years of coursework, research, and field experience. Doctoral students also write and defend a dissertation. With a doctorate, counselors can work as professors, clinical counselors, and therapists.

Counseling Specialities

Counseling professionals can specialize in several areas, and counseling programs typically offer one or more concentrations in these subfields. While bachelor's programs introduce students to multiple specializations, master's programs usually require students to hone in on a particular area of focus. When choosing the right counseling program, students need to consider the counseling specialties available at each school.

  • Mental Health Counseling: Mental health counselors assist patients coping with issues such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. Some may specialize in clinical mental health, while others provide individual or group counseling.
  • School Counseling: School counselors help students manage academic, behavioral, and social challenges. They may offer support services and career guidance.
  • Substance Abuse Counseling: These counselors assist patients struggling with opioids, alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive substances. They offer counseling, support, and rehabilitation resources to both individuals and groups.
  • Marriage and Family: Marriage and family counselors help couples and families build relationships and communicate with each other. They work with both children and adults.
  • Rehabilitation Counseling: Rehabilitation counselors help clients manage physical, mental, developmental, and emotional disabilities.
  • Counseling Psychology: Many counseling students pursue careers as therapists. Most of these positions require a graduate degree and a license.

Explore Counseling Careers

The following career pages provide in-depth information on different counseling careers, including the required education and training for many common counseling jobs. By researching careers before choosing a counseling program, prospective students can find programs that offer specializations in their chosen field.

Marriage and Family Therapist: Counselors specializing in marriage and family therapy help couples and families address problems and build stronger relationships. They help clients handle divorce, a family crisis, or stresses in daily life.
Degree Required: Master's Degree

School Counselors: School counselors work in educational settings. They help students manage academic and social problems. School counselors conduct assessments and evaluations, and may offer career counseling services.
Degree Required: Bachelor's or Master's Degree

Mental Health Counselors: Mental health counselors diagnose patients, treat mental illness, and provide clinical counseling support. They may provide cognitive therapy and work with other healthcare practitioners.
Degree Required: Master's Degree

Addiction and Substance Abuse Counselors: Counselors who specialize in addiction and substance abuse help clients struggling with drug abuse and other addictive behaviors. They may work in the public sector, in healthcare services, or in private practice.
Degree Required: Bachelor's or Master's Degree

Rehabilitation Counselors: Rehabilitation counselors assist clients with disabilities, including those with developmental delays, illnesses, or injuries. Counselors in this area work in vocational rehabilitation, family services, or residential care.
Degree Required: Bachelor's or Master's Degree

Spiritual Counselors: Spiritual counselors emphasize spiritual growth. They often provide religious guidance as part of their counseling, and may help clients understand their place in the world.
Degree Required: Bachelor's or Master's Degree

Geriatric Counselors: Geriatric counselors work with elderly individuals and their families. They provide support for retirement, health issues, and end of life care. They may also address other issues related to the aging process.
Degree Required: Master's Degree

Veterans Counselors: Veterans counselors help their clients transition back into civilian life. These counselors also help patients manage grief or trauma related to their service. In some cases, veterans counselors diagnose and treat PTSD.
Degree Required: Bachelor's or Master's Degree

Domestic Violence Counselors: Domestic violence counselors work both with victims of domestic violence and the perpetrators of violence. They may work for domestic violence crisis centers, social service organizations, the justice system, or private practice.
Degree Required: Bachelor's or Master's Degree

Child Pediatric Counselors: Pediatric counselors help children manage trauma, mental illness, and social and family problems. They may use talk-based therapies or play therapy.
Degree Required: Master's Degree

Child Abuse Counselors: Child abuse counselors help children and adult victims cope with the long-term effects of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. They often use a variety of methods to assist their clients.
Degree Required: Master's Degree

Community Mental Health Counselors: Community mental health counselors work at clinics and community agencies. They provide counseling services for individuals and groups facing a wide variety of issues. These counselors also help clients access community services.
Degree Required: Bachelor's or Master's Degree

Suicide Counselors: While all counselors receive training in suicide and suicide risks, suicide counselors specialize in counseling at-risk patients and survivors.
Degree Required: Master's Degree

Depression Counselors: Some mental health counselors specialize in depression and related disorders, including anxiety. Depression counselors diagnose depression, create treatment plans, and provide services like cognitive behavioral therapy.
Degree Required: Master's Degree

Transformational Counselors: Transformational counselors help clients make significant changes using talk therapy, mindfulness, and body-centered therapies. They help clients put their beliefs into action.
Degree Required: Bachelor's or Master's Degree

Grief Counselors: Grief counselors assist people dealing with loss, including the death of a spouse, parent, child, or loved one. They offer both individual and group counseling.
Degree Required: Bachelor's or Master's Degree

Board Certified Behavior Analysts: Behavior analysts work with patients that have unique behavioral patterns, including autistic patients and patients with brain injuries. These analysts create treatment plans, design interventions, and assess behaviors and environmental influences.
Degree Required: Master's Degree

Cost and Financial Aid

For many students, cost is the most important factor when choosing the right counseling program. The cost of a counseling program depends on several factors, including degree type, program length, and enrollment status. On top of tuition costs, prospective students should research required fees, commuting costs, room and board, and other associated expenses.

This section explores some of the factors that influence program cost. Prospective students should research financial aid opportunities, including federal funding, private scholarships, and state grants.

Public vs. Private Schools

Students pursuing a degree in counseling may choose to attend either a public or private school. Type of school plays a major role in the cost of the degree. Public universities typically charge lower tuition rates than private universities. Public universities receive a significant percentage of their funding from state governments, allowing them to charge students less money. However, as the amount of state funding decreases, student tuition costs have increased. In spite of this, public school tuition rates remain significantly lower than private school tuition.

Public and private schools also differ in other ways. Public universities tend to enroll more students and provide more degree options. Private schools boast lower student-to-faculty ratios and often specialize in certain areas. Both public and private schools offer financial aid packages for students. Some private schools offer funding that lowers the cost of tuition to an equivalent rate as public schools. Many public schools offer full-tuition scholarships to a few outstanding students. Prospective students should research funding options at their potential institutions.

In-State vs. Out-of-State Schools

When choosing a counseling program, prospective students should also consider in-state versus out-of-state schools. In general, in-state tuition costs significantly less than out-of-state tuition. On average, in-state colleges charge slightly less than $10,000 a year in tuition. By contrast, out-of-state schools cost over $25,000 a year. Private schools rank as the most expensive option, at nearly $35,000 a year.

Prospective counseling majors must research financial aid options at any out-of-state school they plan to attend. Students should keep in mind that out-of-state admissions can be competitive, especially in states such as California and New York. The following table compares average in-state and out-of-state tuition rates.

In-State vs. Out-of-State College Tuition Prices

  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public Four-year In-State College $9,670 $9,970
Public Four-Year Out-of-State College $24,820 $25,620
Private Four-Year Nonprofit College $33,520 $34,740

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Schools

On average, two-year colleges charge significantly lower tuition rates than four-year school. Earning an associate degree before transferring into a bachelor's counseling program can save students thousands of dollars. In fact, the average cost for two years of tuition at a community college remains lower than a single year's tuition at a public, four-year in-state school. Students planning to complete a bachelor's in counseling benefit from considering associate degree programs as a cost-saving first step.

Many four-year public colleges and universities offer transfer agreements with local community colleges, which let students easily transfer their credits toward a bachelor's degree. In many cases, an associate degree may fulfill the general education requirements for a bachelor's program. As shown in the table below, opting for two years at a community college before transferring to a bachelor's program can save nearly $20,000.

Two-Year vs. Four-Year College Tuition Prices

  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public Two-Year In-District College $3,470 $3,570
Public Four-Year In-State College $9,670 $9,970

Online vs. On-Campus Programs

When evaluating counseling programs, delivery format -- online or on-campus -- can also affect the total cost of a degree. In many cases, online students pay lower tuition and fees than on-campus students. Some colleges and universities offer tuition discounts for fully online students or provide in-state tuition to out-of-state distance learners. These discounts can easily save students thousands of dollars a year. However, some schools do not lower tuition for distance learners. Online students may also have to pay additional technology fees.

Online students also spend less on commuting costs, parking, on-campus facility fees, and other associated expenses. They may also avoid paying for childcare. As more and more colleges require on-campus housing for freshmen, online students also save on room and board fees. These expenses often exceed $10,000 a year at both public and private colleges.

Both online and on-campus students qualify for financial aid and scholarships. However, some financial aid packages require students to attend full time in order to receive funding.

Room and Board Fees

  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public Four-Year In-State/Out-of-State College $10,480 $10,800
Private Nonprofit Four-year College $11,850 $12,210

Program Reputation

When choosing a counseling program, the school or program's academic reputation can also play an important role. For example, some programs hold strong regional or national reputations in particular concentrations, such as school counseling or mental health counseling. By graduating from a prestigious school, students may have an easier time securing jobs or networking with notable alumni.

Graduate Job Placement Rate: Academic reputation often closely relates to a program's job placement rates. Ask programs about their job placement rates for the past five to ten years.

Teacher Credentials: Professors' credentials also speak to the program's reputation. Learn how many professors hold Ph.D.s, check their publication records, and ask about faculty teaching or research awards.

Accreditation Status: Counseling students need to check accreditation status. Accreditation influences the licensure process, transfer credits, graduate admissions, and eligibility for federal financial aid. Some reputable institutions hold several different kinds of accreditation.