Master’s in Counseling

A master’s degree in counseling is an advanced two-year degree studying psychology, therapy, and social and career issues. Practical, hands-on training gives students a set of tools to prepare them for jobs in mental health, school, rehabilitation, or other types of professional counseling. A master’s in counseling is considered the minimum level of education for clinical counseling work in every state.

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What Counseling Master’s Programs Can Offer You

How To Pick The Right Master’s in Counseling Program

Coursework Offered As Part of Master’s in Counseling Programs

How Much Does a Master’s in Counseling Program Cost?

What The Job Prospects Look Like with a Master in Counseling

A divorced woman with two children walks in to your counseling office with feelings of anxiety, recent weight-loss, and depression. She cries every day, she tells you, and daydreams about dying in her sleep. She has come to you because she needs help. She just wants you to tell her what to do.

But counseling doesn’t work like that. Instead, you dive deeper. Talk to her about her family history. You find she never felt valued by her family, and has low self-esteem issues stemming from that. After the divorce, she had to move back in with her mother and has been made to feel like a failure.

Over weeks of discussion, exploration, and gentle persuasion, you see her go up and down, with bad weeks and good weeks. Some career advice gets her a better job, eventually, enough income to move her and the kids to their own place. Some positive reinforcement helps her see her actions as an individual, out from the shadow of family criticism or a demeaning ex-husband.

It takes months, but eventually, you just get used to seeing her show up with a smile on her face and more good things to talk about than bad. Eventually, she stops coming at all.

You did exactly what a professional counselor is supposed to do. But how did you learn how to do all that?

Master’s Programs in Counseling Prepare Students to Help Individuals Going Through Difficult Times

Becoming the person who can make those deep changes doesn’t come without a lot of hard work. Both legally and ethically, you have to get the kind of training to become a counselor that can only come through an advanced level of college education.

When it comes to counseling degrees, master’s programs are where it’s at.

Master’s in counseling programs are available at universities all across the country, in both online and traditional formats. They are a crucial part of the licensing pipeline for professional counselors today. But the psychological study and therapy learning they bring can lead graduates into a number of different fields, ranging from corrections officer to social worker.

The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) report that while tens of millions of Americans suffer from mental illnesses each year, only around half receive treatment. One in five U.S. adults, or over 50 million, were found to have some sort of mental illness in 2019. Around 13 million suffered from severe mental illness.

As with many health and mental welfare services, there are big disparities between racial and gender groups. Additionally, cultural stigmas affect the willingness for many to seek treatment in the first place.

This is where people with a master’s of counseling degree can change the world. By putting together the heart that draws you to help with the knowledge and techniques an advanced two-year program delivers, a master’s degree in counseling puts you in the driver’s seat when it’s time to make a difference.

What Counseling Master’s Programs Can Offer You

Although there are a lot of unlicensed counselors in the U.S., who may not have gone through a master’s of counseling programs, there are certain roles that are legally required to earn that degree or an equivalent course of study. State laws regulate those jobs, and accredited master’s programs in counseling are specifically built to give you the skills needed to qualify.

In most states, that prepares you to deliver:

  • Mental health counseling and psychotherapy for issues like:
    • Mental disorders
    • Emotional disturbances
    • Behavioral issues
    • Addiction disorders
  • Offered at the level of:
    • Individuals
    • Groups
    • Organizations

A master’s in counseling program offers both the theoretical basis for understanding those services at a deep level, and the practical skillsets needed to perform the job ethically and effectively.

What Type of Future Professionals Choose Master’s in Counseling Programs?

Naturally, the biggest demand for master’s in counseling programs comes from people who intend to become licensed professional counselors (LPCs). For a professional counselor, master’s programs serve as training, an introduction to a kind of apprenticeship, and a place to shape the type of career they plan to have in the field.

The LPC (or Licensed Mental Health Counselor, LMHC, a term that is equivalent in some states) covers a lot of ground in various types of mental health counseling, but a master’s degree in counseling also is becoming a standard credential in related counseling fields. Depending on your state, these may be covered by the LPC license, a different license, or not require licensing at all. But a counseling master’s degree offers excellent preparation for any of them:

  • Crisis Counselor – Crisis counselors specialize in critical care counseling, dealing with immediate health and safety needs. These are the professionals you find staffing suicide prevention hotlines, working with the Red Cross in disaster areas, or on call with women’s shelters and police departments.
  • School Counselor – A school counselor isn’t just the person who is nagging you to fill out college applications and take career guidance tests. Today, they are heavily involved with bullying prevention, screening kids for developmental disabilities, and serving as a friendly ear and resource for children having all kinds of problems that may impact their learning experience.
  • Rehabilitation Counselor – Rehab counselors typically work with patients who have been injured and need assistance both in recovering their physical and mental health, and putting their lives back on track after severe disruption. Rehab counselors often work to shore up job skills and help clients get in the right mental space to adapt to the circumstances that come with serious injury or long-term disability.
  • Substance Abuse Counselor – America is the in grips of a tremendous drug epidemic. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, over 40 million Americans over the age of 12 will have used an illegal drug in the past 30 days. Over 70,000 of them die of overdoses each year. That makes substance abuse counselors a key part of public health and lifesaving efforts. They work both to mitigate the effects of drug abuse and help users control the addictions that lead them down that path in the first place.

Master’s degrees in counseling are also an unconventional choice that some people make on the way to other types of careers.

  • Psychologist – Although becoming a psychologist ultimately requires earning a doctorate, certain types of psychology practice can benefit from picking up a master’s degree in counseling along the way. A valuable counseling perspective on clinical therapy can completment your psychologist training.
  • Therapist – For most people, the terms therapist and counselor are basically interchangeable. In most states, therapy as a legal term usually means marriage and family therapy. Although there are master’s program in marriage and family therapy specifically, many states define their licensure requirement in terms of course curriculum. It’s entirely possible to structure a counseling degree master’s to meet those standards. Additionally, it’s not unheard of for counselors to obtain both an LPC and LMFT license.

Other people with counseling master’s degrees go on to even more exotic careers. They have the right skills to excel in human resources, marketing, or even corrections work.

How To Pick The Right Master’s in Counseling Program

Most counseling master’s programs take between two and three years to complete. It may be the most intense two-year period in your life. What you learn here will be your toolset when you take on counseling clients. How well you learn it will decide how successful you will be.

It’s a lot of pressure, and that makes picking the right master’s in counseling degree hugely important.

What Are The Differences Between Counseling Degree Masters in Arts, Sciences, or Education?

You don’t have to look at counseling master’s programs for too long before you notice something curious about them: they come in different flavors.

But don’t worry! There are more similarities between these than differences. Some of the differences aren’t even things you are likely to notice. All three options provide you with pretty similar training, even identical in some respects. And all will qualify you for licensure, assuming you choose a CACREP-accredited program.

  • Master of Arts in Counseling – An MA is built around the traditional components of a liberal education: critical thinking skills, broad perspectives on society and culture, and discussion-based learning. Arts degrees are thought to be more general and accepting of students from a wider range of backgrounds. They may require less domain-specific knowledge for entry and may not offer a wide range of specializations. Degrees listed as Master of Counseling or similar are also usually the equivalent of MA degrees.
  • Master of Science in Counseling – An MS degree is supposed to be science-focused. Your should look in this direction if research and hard scientific knowledge are your jam. They may have more specialized course tracks within the counseling field, and offer less liberal arts coursework. You can find these also listed as Masters of Science in Education at some universities.
  • Master of Education in Counseling – Abbreviated as EdD, or sometimes MEd, these programs have the most differences from a standard MS/MA. Although much of the coursework will cover the same type of skills, like group therapy, ethics, and clinical diagnosis and therapy, all of them are more strongly focused on treating children and adolescents. You’ll often spend more time on lifecycle and personality development subjects and can expect your practicum to take place in school environments. Very rarely, you might also find a variation of this that is listed as a MSC, or Master of School Counseling.

Because of CACREP standards and the fact these are all usually two-year programs, the fact is that there is very little difference between MS and MA degrees in terms of specific coursework that is available. You are better off focusing on the specifics of an individual program rather than the type of degree it represents.

Getting Into a Master’s In Counseling Degree Program

Although a master’s is your end goal, you have to earn a bachelor’s degree to get into one of those programs in the first place.

When you get to the point of earning a master’s degree, counseling is the right field to pick for a clinical counseling license. But at the four-year level, you have a lot of options for different majors to study. Just about any kind of human services degree is going to work. You can pick fields such as:

  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • Social Work
  • Nursing
  • Education
  • Behavioral Science

And, naturally, a bachelor’s in counseling is always a solid pick.

Admissions committees also usually want to see some kind of commitment to the field in your background. You’ll stand out if you have volunteer hours working in mental health or a related area, or if your current job involves working in the field. You may be asked to write an essay that describes yourself, your motivations, and what you hope to get from a career and education in counseling.

Letters of recommendation are sometimes required but always a good idea. Anyone who can sing your praises, particularly in terms of understanding, empathy, and caring is going to help make your case for admissions.

Not many counseling master’s programs require an entry exam, but some will require a minimum undergraduate GPA level or an acceptable score on the verbal and quantitative sections of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE).

The Importance of Specialty Accreditation in Selecting a Master’s of Counseling Degree

We’ve already mentioned CACREP, the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs, a few times, so you probably got the idea it’s an important part of a counseling degree master’s education.

That’s because CACREP, since its foundation in 1981, has been building up a critical kind of expertise and experience in evaluating and certifying counseling education programs. As a specialty accreditor, counseling is the only subject they deal with. The organization is made up of both practicing professional counselors, educators, and the schools themselves.

Working together, they accomplish two goals:

  • Establish a strong set of national standards that every master’s-level counselor should be able to meet at graduation
  • Evaluate schools to determine whether or not they are meeting those standards

CACREP only accredits master’s-level and above programs. There are just over 880 programs with their stamp of approval as of 2021.

Picking a CACREP-accredited program not only ensures you get an education that meets the needs of the community, but also one that will meet the requirements of your state licensing agency. The NBCC, or National Board for Certified Counselors, relies heavily on CACREP’s core standards to designate program that are accepted for licensure. And since most state license boards follow NBCC’s lead, that means CACREP-accreditation is also your ticket to an LPC or other professional counseling license.

Do Other Accreditors Review Master’s in Counseling Programs?

There’s another new kid on the specialty accreditation block in counseling to keep an eye on, though. That’s the Master’s in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC).

MPCAC was established in 2011 to fill a gap that some people though existed in counseling and psychology licensure accreditation. That’s because, while psychology and counseling have a lot of overlap in the education world, CACREP only handles counseling degrees and psychology programs are exclusively accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Because NBCC leans on CACREP, that left some psychology degree programs that might be perfectly good preparation for professional counselors out in the cold, license-wise. MPCAC will evaluate both counseling and psychology master’s programs and offer the kind of specialty accreditation that gives licensing boards warm and fuzzy feelings about educational quality.

With a relatively recent start in the game, MPCAC doesn’t have the kind of traction as CACREP just yet, and licensure isn’t as easy with an MPCAC degree. But that may change in the coming years, so it’s worth keeping an eye on MPCAC.

Choosing a Counseling Specialization in Your Master’s Degree

It’s not required to pick a concentration in most master’s in counseling programs, but it can help you develop your skills to fit to perfection the part of the field you want to practice in. Not all master’s of counseling programs offer the same concentrations, either, so you may have to hunt around to find the right program for you.

Those concentrations can be unique to the school, but CACREP (Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs) lists eight different areas of counseling specialization, and many concentrations will align closely with those definitions:

  • Addiction Counseling – Although addiction counseling is important in substance abuse treatment, it deals with all types of behavioral and process addictions as well. That can range from gambling to video game addictions.
  • Career Counseling – Career counselors handle issues that impact the well-being and the living of clients at work. They both work to get people into the types of careers they are well-matched with, and also to help individuals adjust to the workplace environment.
  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling – Mental health concerns can come at clients from every angle, so clinical mental health counseling comes with the full arsenal of diagnostic and treatment techniques used by professional counselors. A strong psychological grounding is typical in these concentrations.
  • Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling – Clinical rehab work has the same psychological treatment perspective as clinical mental health work, but focuses on the specific needs of individuals recovering from trauma or disease. They learn to work closely with other healthcare providers as part of interdisciplinary care teams, handling mental health recovery in tandem with physical health care.
  • College Counseling and Student Affairs – A strong grounding in lifecycle psychology and the issues of the day in the lives of young adults are covered in college counseling concentrations. That means a broad understanding of addiction issues, sexual assault, bullying, and developmental delays that can impact kids on their own for the first time.
  • Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling – Working with an individual on mental health issues can be complicated enough, but when you throw in interpersonal and romantic relationships, you need an extra degree of specialization to get the job done. These concentrations closely resemble marriage and family therapy degree content.
  • School Counseling – School counselors focus on lifecycle development and working cooperatively with other educators to assist students with extra needs. They serve as spotters in schools for kids showing signs of trouble at home, or who show symptoms of developmental disabilities. Their training focuses on the needs of PreK through high school aged children.
  • Rehabilitation Counseling – Unlike clinical rehab counseling, pure rehabilitation counseling is mostly aimed at the practical aspects of recovery or adjustment to long or short-term disability. Those can come through developmental issues, workplace injury, or other accident. Rehab counselors focus on the vocational and independent living needs of their patients, so they get an education in workforce development and adaptive arrangements to help clients back on their feet.

Coursework Offered As Part of Master’s in Counseling Programs

Every master’s in counseling degree will have a different blend and emphasis of coursework. That’s exactly what makes it meaningful to choose between them. You’ll search for the school that has the best match of expertise and content to fit the course you are charting in your own career.

But because of the nature of the profession, there are strong expectations about certain subjects that every counseling master’s program will include. In fact, if they are CACREP-accredited, they must cover specific topics from eight common areas that are considered the core of counseling education:

  • Professional Counseling Orientation and Ethical Practice – Maybe the heart of that education is in the subject of ethics and professionalism. You study how the role of the counselor developed and the theory of counseling as treatment. These courses also teach about the legislation and regulations that govern counseling practice and the process of licensing that goes with it. Finally, you learn about the professional standards and code of ethics you will be expected to follow in the field.
  • Social and Cultural Diversity – NIMH data shows that serious mental illness levels are highest in multiracial adults, but that services offered to Blacks and Hispanics run ten percent or more behind white Americans. This is just one factor that points to the importance of a counseling education in social, economic, gender, and cultural diversity. A master’s programs ill take you through the environmental and societal forces that lead to these disparities and give you the tools in cultural competency you need to be part of overcoming them.
  • Human Growth and Development – The psychology of individuals changes over time and the social and neurological changes every person goes through is a big part of that. Counseling master’s programs walk you through psychosocial development at every stage of the human lifecycle and cover different techniques for addressing mental issues at different stages.
  • Career Development – Career development and the importance of a well-adjusted workforce are bread and butter stuff to rehabilitation counselors, but every master’s in counseling program covers this subject. You will learn about career selection and decision-making models at different stages of life. Assessment and evaluation of skills and the work-life balance are also covered. With the importance of a job to the identity of most people, this information can be crucial to any counselor treatment mental health issues.
  • Counseling and Helping Relationships – These classes not only teach the mechanics of clinical therapy but go through the more difficult concepts in relationship and family counseling. Counselors get the basic tools of fixing human mental health issues in a variety of contexts. Today’s coursework in this area includes not just the traditional in-person counseling routines, but also the cutting-edge subject of telecounseling services.
  • Group Counseling and Group Work – These classes teach the theory and structure of group counseling sessions and how to develop processes to offer help to groups, not just individuals. It’s a critical area of knowledge for anyone going into substance abuse or corrections counseling, where group meetings are common. But the cultural and leadership skills that are trained here are useful to every kind of counselor.
  • Assessment and Testing – Before you can fix problems, you have to be able to establish what the problems are. Classes in assessment and testing teach you how to get a baseline reading on mental states using both subjective and objective assessment models, such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). You’ll learn how to factor in career, social, environmental, and personal factors in your assessments, and to make a diagnosis that will serve as a baseline to understand the progress your treatment programs make.
  • Research and Program Evaluation – Counseling is an evidence-based profession, so every counseling student gets training in the basics of research in counseling techniques and psychological science. You will student research design and qualitative and quantitative assessment techniques that will help you weigh different approaches to professional counseling over the course of your career.

Together, these topics lay out the firm foundation you need to practice in any type of counseling. Just as important, they give you the kind of preparation that you will need if you also choose to specialize in any single concentration in the field.

You will also get a lot more specific instruction in one of those concentrations if you do choose to specialize. For example, addiction counseling tracks build on your core knowledge with extra classes in your second year that go into the dynamics of addiction, addiction disorders, and family-based treatment for substance abuse. Additionally, your practicum and internship placements will be heavily weighted toward positions dealing in that specialized practice area. For example, in an addiction counseling track, you might spend your time shadowing an actual substance abuse counselor on the job.

A Thesis or Capstone Project Puts the Finishing Touch on Your Master’s in Counseling

All that study in any general or specialty type of counseling is important, but a master’s degree needs a bigger effort to cap it off. That comes through your master’s thesis or capstone project.

A master’s thesis is the traditional finishing point for a graduate degree. It’s a scholarly paper of between 40 and 80 pages, representing original ideas and research that you develop. You pick the topic with the help of your faculty advisor, and they give you input along the way, but the hard work is all yours.

You then defend the paper in front of a thesis committee of faculty and sometimes other professional counselors, fielding questions on every point. Only when they are satisfied with your ideas, effort, and conclusions will you be allowed to graduate.

Recently, the practical nature of counseling has pushed some schools to offer a more action-oriented alternative to the thesis. The capstone project can involve research and some writing, but it is intended as more of a demonstration of your ideas and skills in a real-world setting. You might come up with an after-school counseling program for children from military families, or develop an innovative alcohol counseling treatment and put it in practice.

The idea in either case is the same: to put together everything you have learned, and all your experience, and show your professors that you’ve got what it takes to be a professional counselor.

How Instructors Can Make Or Break Your Counseling Master’s Program

By the time you get to a graduate program, you already know one of the biggest secrets in education: the students with the best instructors get the most knowledge.

For counseling degrees, master’s programs need to have professors with not only rugged real-world experience under their belts, but also strong academic credentials. That often means instructors who have gone on to earn doctorates in the field. Those PhD studies give them research and teaching skills beyond what a regular counselor could be expected to have.

You work closely with professors in master’s programs, not least because you have a thesis or capstone requirement to meet. Your advisor will be critical to your success or failure with that project. But all your professors have a huge impact on your training, so it’s important that you pick a program where you are comfortable with who you will be learning from.

Internship and Practicum Gets You Into Hands-On Practice Early in Your Counseling Degree Master’s Program

CACREP also has a strong requirement for practical experience built in to its standards. Any accredited program will have 700 hours or more of supervised field experience as an integral part of your education through both practicum and internship placements. Many schools offer even more hours than that. They also may offer placements in a rotating variety of settings to help you get a taste for the different types of specializations you might choose after graduation.

Practicum placements are part of actual college courses that also put you out in an on-site setting. You tend to be very closely watched by both instructors and actual counselors at these sites. Many of the early courses may simply include observation hours, so you can watch counselors at work. Later on, you may participate more in patient contact and treatment.

An internship functions more like a part-time job. You will still be placed at an outside agency offering counseling services, but it’s a more independent role. You’ll take your orders from qualified supervisors on staff, building clinical assessment skills and learning how to development treatment plans with their input.

The CACREP standards call for 100 clock hours of practicum with at least 40 hours of direct patient contact. Internships must include at least 240 hours of direct service experience relevant to your area of specialization with 500 hours total.

All those hours have a direct impact on your skills and abilities in the field, so look for programs that make the most of them. You want placements at locations that see the right kinds of patients, with enough volume you will see a variety of them but not so busy that there’s no time to learn.

Deciding Between Online Versus On-Campus Master in Counseling Programs

Online programs are popular today in a whole new way. Although remote learning has been available through some master’s in counseling programs for decades, there’s nothing like a global pandemic to really kick-start awareness of how flexible and effective those programs really are.

Online studies in counseling master’s degree programs are virtually identical in content to what you get sitting in a lecture hall on campus. Where they differ is in structure. You might get that content through lesson modules, streamed video content, posted lectures, or through virtual discussion boards. You can typically study and review that content on your own time, from whatever location is convenient. Maybe you get some time to yourself each day after you put the kids to bed, or on your lunch break. Maybe you mix it up and study at different times each day. The point is, it’s entirely up to you.

That type of flexibility also makes it easier for online programs to offer either part-time or accelerated study, letting you progress faster or slower than average. It’s a perfect opportunity to customize your schedule around your real-life demands.

With resources like virtual libraries and 24/7 telephone assistance available at some schools, you get the full backing you need to put resources to work for your education. You can interact with instructors and fellow students on message boards or by email or even Zoom. It’s better to look at online classes as a big expansion in flexibility in just about every way over on-campus courses.

That doesn’t mean everyone learns just as effectively either way. Some people definitely need the discipline that comes with having to show up at a classroom on a fixed schedule.

But you can also find programs with the best of both worlds, those that offer hybrid mixtures of online and on-campus courses. And, of course, any practicum work or internships are coordinated with local clinics and happen in-person… although the rise of telehealth may eventually change even that.

How Much Does a Master’s in Counseling Program Cost?

Since you already paid through the nose to earn a bachelor’s degree, we don’t have to tell you that college in America is not cheap these days. You might have spent over six figures on that four-year degree, if averages from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) are to be believed.

NCES also tracks costs for graduate programs. The average tuition, fees, and other expenses for a two-year advanced degree in 2019 ran to almost $39,000.

Considering the kind of training and preparation you get, it’s hard to quibble about the cost. But if you are already paying down the price of your bachelor’s program, you’re probably going to think long and hard about paying for a more advanced degree.

How to Pay For a Master’s Program in Counseling

Not everyone has got a rich uncle who can cover the costs of your master’s degree in counseling. If you’re like most students, you’re probably going to have to turn to a different uncle to help pay: Uncle Sam.

The federal government is the single largest provider of student loans in the United States. According to the Congressional Budget Office, around $96 billions in loans were issued in 2017. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau says more than half of that comes directly from the Department of Education, and much of the rest through schools backed by the department’s Perkins Loan program.

The feds are heavy in the loan game because almost everyone is eligible for federal aid. Low interest rates and generous repayment terms may it a no-brainer if you have to borrow money for school.

Federal loans are also eligible for loan forgiveness initiatives like the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and the National Health Service Corps Substance Use Disorder or Rural Community forgiveness programs that counselors are often eligible for. By signing up to work in high-need areas or working for either government agencies or non-profits, you can have some or all of your outstanding loan balances written off.

But your best bet is to borrow as little is possible.

Scholarships Help Cover the Cost of Your Master’s in Counseling

That means scholarship money or grants. These give you tuition and expense money that you never have to pay back, assuming you stay in school.

The feds are an important source of grants for tuition, too, with the Pell grant program offering up to $6,495 in 2021 to qualifying students. The standards for grants are a little tougher than loans. You and your family must show that you aren’t able to afford tuition on your own, for instance. And there is a lifetime cap on how many terms you can apply, so if your undergrad degree ran long you may be up against the wire.

Many private and non-profit organizations also offer scholarships. The variety of different scholarships that are available makes it almost a sure thing that you will qualify for some of the offers out there.

Scholarships usually reflect the aims of the organization that offers them. Universities themselves hand out a lot of them, and in some cases you just have to be a suitably underprivileged student at the school to qualify. Organizations like the American Addiction Centers and the National Board for Certified Counselors have an interest in more counselors being trained, so they offer awards up to $10,000 for people in that line of study. And outfits like the Hispanic Scholarship Fund don’t care what you are studying, as long as you are of Hispanic heritage.

The more money you get free and clear, the less you have to pay back in the long run.

What The Job Prospects Look Like with a Master in Counseling

Jobs for master’s of counseling program graduates are going through a hot phase in the United States right now. In fact, they’re going to be a pretty hot commodity for most of the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their estimates for 2019-2029 job growth for counseling positions in various areas are all above the average rate of growth for jobs in the country:

  • Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors – 25%
  • Rehabilitation Counselors – 10%
  • School and Career Counselors -8%

There are different kinds of salary expectations depending on which of those fields you pursue. For 2020, BLS tracked the median pay levels for each of them as:

  • Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health – $47,660
  • Rehabilitation Counselors – $37,530
  • School and Career Counselors – $58,120

Of course, it’s possible to do considerably better than that with the right education and experience. In the top ten percent of all counselors, salaries range between $80,000 and $100,000 per year. That’s a fast path to paying off those student loans.

Positions for Master’s in Counseling Graduates Often Require State Licensure

For the most part, getting those jobs is going to require getting a license, too. Your master degree in counseling is the biggest part of qualifying for that license, but there will still be a few more hoops to jump through.

The biggest of those will be passing the required exam in your field. There are four, all of which you’ll be well-qualified to take through your master’s studies:

  • National Counselor Examination (NCE) A 200-question multiple choice exam covering nine content areas that line up closely with the CACREP common core standards. Offered by NBCC.
  • National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) – Also from NBCC is a more clinically-oriented exam, based around 12 to 14 case studies that test your practical clinical counseling skills.
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRCE) – The exam is offered by the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification and focuses on rehabilitation counseling. There are 175 multiple choice questions testing 12 knowledge domains.
  • Professional School Counselor – This exam is by Educational Testing Service, the same folks who brought you the SAT and GRE. It’s the primary test states use for school counselor licensure, although many states and regions use some variation specific to their rules. It’s a 120 question test that focuses on four areas of study outlined by the American School Counselor Association’s National Model.

You’ll also have to build up to around 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience after graduating from your master’s in counseling program, as well as meet certain ethical standards.

You’re going to need every bit of that experience and all the professional skills your master’s in counseling program delivered to help that divorced woman, and thousands more like her. And it will be worth every minute you spent preparing and every dollar you put into it.


May 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and job growth figures for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors, Rehabilitation Counselors, and School and Career Counselors and Advisors represents national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary.

Tuition data provided by College Scorecard and the National Center for Education Statistics, services of the U.S. Department of Education, using data collected for the 2019 school year. NCES loan and scholarship data comes from an April 2017 report published by the Department of Education.

Data Accessed June 2021.