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Helping others with substance abuse and mental health disorders is a challenging and rewarding career. Depending on experience level and location, the average counselor makes $49,710, with hospitals paying higher salaries. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics forecasts 18% growth in the counseling field over the next decade. While a master’s in counseling degree program can cost anywhere from $12,394 to $26,621, the average is $19,749. Most programs take 18 months to three years to complete, depending on the required credit and clinical hours.

How to Choose a Master’s in Counseling Degree Program

Choose your area of study

People come to counselors for support on a broad range of issues, from substance abuse to behavior disorders. To offer the most knowledgeable assistance, consider focusing on a particular age, type of individual, or problem. For example, many programs provide additional coursework on treating children or adolescents. Counselors who work with substance abusers may benefit from elective classes in pharmacology or criminal justice. If you have a preferred work setting, such as a hospital or private practice, review job search sites to see what employees want regarding education and experience.

Research schools and programs

Now that you know what you want to study, it’s time to see how various schools align with your goals. Review the program(s) each school has to offer, comparing:

  • Requirements
  • Coursework, including electives
  • Number of credit hours
  • Scheduling flexibility, in-person and online
  • Clinical or internship opportunities
  • Tuition and assistance options

Remember to check licensure requirements for the state where you plan to work; some states only license counselors who have attended an accredited program. Other factors influencing your decision include research and clinical opportunities, career guidance, and the school’s overall culture and environment.

Prepare for tests and applications

Entry requirements can vary between schools and even programs within a school. Start by reviewing the college’s application procedure, and pay careful attention to deadlines. Unless you’re applying for a combined undergraduate/graduate program, you’ll need a prior bachelor’s degree from an approved institution. Master’s in counseling programs may or may not stipulate a related undergraduate degree; it depends on the college. Next, look at the program requirements, such as essays, transcripts, and required test scores, particularly the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and English language proficiency. Allow time to gather and transmit all the necessary information, including letters of recommendation.

Select your program

Many colleges have more than one master’s in counseling degree program, ranging from accelerated versions to those with a specialized focus. If your undergraduate degree was in an unrelated field, you may wish to take coursework that provides background training in psychology.

When choosing a program, consider the time you have available, especially if you plan to work while pursuing a degree. Counseling graduate degrees often require in-depth internships to fulfill mandated clinical hours. Look into the possibility of online class attendance for some, if not all, classes. Finally, check into any electives that improve marketability with employers.

Determine how you’ll pay for your degree

While a graduate degree can enhance employability and increase salary potential, it does come at a cost. Fortunately, there are ways to subsidize a master’s program. Start with the college’s financial aid office to see what is available for the school and department. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can help programs determine your eligibility.

Research and graduate assistantships can help cover costs and provide valuable experience in the field. If you’re looking for a student loan, check federal and private organizations, comparing interest rates and payback terms. Many companies reimburse college expenses, especially if you plan to remain with your current employer.

Best 50 Accredited Master’s in Counseling Degree Programs

Best Master's in Counseling Degree Programs 2024 Badge
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JHU School of Education
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Northwestern University
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Boston College
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California State University, Long Beach
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University of Pennsylvania
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NYU Steinhardt
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Northeastern University
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University of Wisconsin - Madison
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CUNY Baruch College
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Yeshiva University
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CUNY Brooklyn College
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Minnesota State University-Mankato
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UNC School of Medicine
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San Diego State University
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University of Florida
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USC Rossier School of Education
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Marist College
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Rutgers University - Newark
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Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis
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James Madison University
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Indiana Wesleyan University
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Texas A&M International University
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Illinois Tech
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Gannon University
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University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development
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University of Iowa
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University of Rochester
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Eastern Illinois University
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Boston University
01

Southern Methodist University
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University of Colorado Denver
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Wake Forest University
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Saint Cloud State University
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Clemson University
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Missouri Valley College
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Cambridge College
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Ohio State University
01

CUNY Queens College
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Oklahoma State University
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North Carolina State University
01

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
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University of Missouri - St. Louis
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Indiana University - Purdue University - Indianapolis
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Florida State University
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East Carolina University
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Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
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UMD College of Education
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Touro University

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How we rank schools

This list features some of the best master’s in counseling programs at top colleges across the country. Each school featured is a nonprofit, accredited institution — either public or private — with a high standard of academic quality for postsecondary education. The programs on our list are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), a national organization that assesses counseling programs for educational excellence.

We evaluated each school’s program on admission, retention, and graduation rates as well as tuition costs, faculty, reputation, and the resources provided for on-campus students. Then, we calculated the Intelligent Score on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more about our ranking methodology.

Next, we compared this comprehensive list of master’s in counseling programs to a list of aggregated college rankings from reputable publications like U.S. News & World Report, among others, to simplify a student’s college search. We pored through these rankings so students don’t have to.

What Can You Expect From a Master’s in Counseling Degree Program?

Whether pursuing a counseling graduate degree online, in-person, or in a combination setting, you’ll receive a comprehensive education on mental health disorders and clinical practices. Most programs use a blend of teaching methods, from individual instruction to group sessions and real-world case studies. Class topics often include an in-depth look at psychopathologies along with a discussion of various counseling methods for individuals, groups, and family units.

Due to the clinical requirements for a counseling license, you’ll need to spend several hours per week in face-to-face interaction with clients. Some schools operate an in-house clinic, while others sponsor you at a nearby hospital or institution. Two years is the average time spent on obtaining a master’s in counseling degree if attending full-time. However, working toward a specialty focus, such as childhood counseling, can take longer. You’ll participate in a supervised internship toward the end of the degree program.

Potential courses you’ll take in a master’s in counseling degree program

  • Introduction to Counseling. Most programs offer an introductory course that covers the objectives and mission of a counselor. Other topics to address include counseling ethics, treatment methods, and established theories.
  • Psychopathology. This core requirement enables you to recognize many common mental health disorders. It explains how to assess and evaluate clients using established testing procedures and discusses intervention techniques.
  • Multicultural Counseling. During this course, you’ll explore client diversity, including how to develop an approachable, non-judgmental counseling method. You’ll also discuss how spiritual beliefs, social heritage, and other cultural factors affect viewpoints. After completing this course, you’ll be better able to communicate with individuals from various social and cultural backgrounds.
  • Group Counseling. Many counselors use group sessions in their treatment regimen. This course explains how and when to use group counseling as a therapeutic intervention. You’ll discover how individual personalities can affect group dynamics and learn how to develop positive interactions between members. You’ll also cover the ethical guidelines for leaders.
  • Addiction and Treatment. Substance abuse can be a contributing factor to mental health and relationships. By studying addictive substances, you’ll be better prepared to recognize the symptoms of addiction, both physical and psychological. You’ll learn standard treatment methods as well as prevention strategies.

Master’s in Counseling Degree Program Frequently Asked Questions

How do I apply to a master's in counseling degree program?

Start with a visit to the college’s website. Most have a dedicated page with application info, including deadlines. Each program will have a start date, which can vary between colleges. Pay attention to undergraduate requirements, such as a minimum GPA or degree in a related field. If transferring to a college, you’ll need transcripts and records of completed tests. Make an appointment with an admissions counselor before starting the process to help avoid timing issues and ensure eligibility for the program.

How much does a master's in counseling degree cost?

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics places the average cost of graduate degree tuition at a little over $19,700 (during 2020-2021), with public institutions coming in much less at around $12,400. Tuition is usually based on credit hours, so the more credit hours required, the more expensive the program. A shorter program can save money, but first, make sure the classes and clinical skills match your goals. Don’t forget to consider associated expenses as well. These include books, transportation, food, lodging, and time off work. Online degrees may help reduce some of these extra costs.

How long does it take to earn a master's in counseling degree?

The length of a graduate degree program can vary between colleges, and many offer more than one curriculum option. Some states have credit hour requirements for licensing, so consider that aspect before choosing a shorter program. Another factor influencing completion time is whether you will be attending online or in person and whether it will be full or part-time. In general, you can achieve a master’s in counseling degree in around two years, including coursework and clinical field experience. If you want to specialize, the additional classes will add to the finish time.