Counseling Degree & Career Guide

What to expect from a counseling degree program

A counseling degree offers a transformative academic experience that equips students with the necessary skills to positively impact individuals’ mental health. Known for being a rewarding field, careers in counseling provide salaries that surpass the national median, with considerable growth projected over the next decade. Graduates have several career options, including Mental Health Counselors, School Counselors, and Marriage and Family Therapists, which are all expected to grow significantly. Other paths include Rehabilitation Counselors, Addiction Counselors, and Trauma Counseling. With opportunities to enter the field with an associate or bachelor’s degree and the potential to advance with a master’s or doctoral degree, it’s possible to enter this field at any level and build a rewarding career.

Types of counseling degrees

Associate degree

An associate degree in counseling is designed for students seeking an entry point into the field of mental health support. This program is geared towards empathetic and compassionate students and equips them with foundational skills to assist others in overcoming challenges. The curriculum covers psychology fundamentals, communication techniques, and basic counseling theories. Some programs may include opportunities for students to gain practical experience through internships or supervised sessions. Graduates often find opportunities as community outreach workers or in entry-level roles within rehabilitation centers, and many pursue higher qualifications in counseling with further education.

  • Degrees available: Associate of Science (AS), Associate of Arts (AA)
  • Minimum credits: 60
  • Average length of program: 2 years full-time

Bachelor’s degree

Ideal for those seeking a deeper exploration of counseling theories, human development, and therapeutic techniques, a bachelor’s degree in counseling prepares graduates for many unique careers in the field. Career opportunities include counselor positions in schools, community centers, or rehabilitation facilities. Many students use this degree as a foundational education, intending to pursue an advanced degree in counseling in the future.

In addition to coursework, most undergraduate programs in counseling encourage students to engage in practical experiences, honing their skills through internships or supervised sessions, which allows students to gain the knowledge and valuable tools necessary to make a meaningful impact on the well-being of others.

  • Degrees available: Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS)
  • Minimum credits: 120
  • Average length of program: 4 years full-time

Master’s degree

A master’s degree in counseling is designed for those committed to advancing their expertise in mental health support and intending to become licensed counselors or therapists. The curriculum explores advanced counseling theories, assessment techniques, and specialized interventions. All graduate programs include supervised clinical practicums or internships, providing hands-on experience in therapeutic settings. Graduates often pursue careers as licensed counselors, marriage and family therapists, or clinical mental health counselors.

  • Degrees available: Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS)
  • Minimum credits: 60
  • Average length of program: 2 years full-time

Doctorate degree

Doctoral programs are for licensed counselors seeking advanced roles or individuals committed to research and academia. Curriculums are comprehensive, encompassing advanced research methodologies, in-depth counseling theories, and specialized clinical applications. Unique to doctoral programs are extensive dissertation requirements, allowing students to contribute original research to the field. Graduates often pursue careers as counselor educators, clinical supervisors, or directors of counseling programs. With a focus on leadership, advocacy, and advanced clinical applications, this degree prepares students to shape the future of counseling practice and make profound contributions to the mental health profession.

  • Degrees available: Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)
  • Minimum credits: 60
  • Average length of program: 5 years full-time

Specialization options

Whether pursuing an associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate, counseling offers several specialization options to help you tailor your educational pursuits to your professional goals. From foundational support at the associate level to advanced research and practice at the doctoral level, each concentration has something unique to offer aspiring counselors.

  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Perhaps the most popular concentration, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, focuses on providing therapeutic interventions and support for individuals with mental health challenges. Graduates may work in various settings — including private practices, community mental health centers, or hospitals.
  • School Counseling: Another common specialization, School Counseling prepares individuals to work in educational settings, addressing students’ academic, social, and emotional needs. School counselors are crucial in fostering a positive and supportive school environment.
  • Marriage and Family Therapy: This concentration addresses relational and familial dynamics. Professionals in this field typically work with couples and families to navigate challenges and improve communication.
  • Rehabilitation Counseling: This specialization assists individuals with disabilities in achieving personal and vocational goals. Rehabilitation counselors may work in healthcare, government agencies, or private rehabilitation services.
  • Addiction Counseling: Centered around helping individuals struggling with substance abuse issues, graduates with this specialization often work in rehabilitation centers, outpatient programs, or community health organizations.
  • Trauma Counseling: This area of study is dedicated to helping people cope with and recover from traumatic experiences. Trauma counselors may work in crisis intervention, counseling centers, or specialized trauma clinics.
  • Art Therapy: This concentration integrates counseling with the expressive arts to facilitate therapeutic processes. Art therapists use creative methods to help clients explore emotions and promote healing.
  • Counselor Education and Supervision: Typically reserved for doctoral candidates, this specialization is designed for individuals interested in teaching and training future counselors. Graduates often work in academia, training the next generation of counseling professionals.

The Best Counseling Degree Programs

This list features some of the best counseling degree programs in the U.S. The schools on this list are non-profit, accredited institutions, either public or private, with high standards for post-secondary education.

We evaluated each degree program on tuition costs, faculty, reputation, and student resources as well as admission, retention, and graduation rates. We also compared our picks to a list of aggregated college rankings from reputable publications, including U.S. News & World Report. Using this data, we calculated an Intelligent Score for each program on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more about our ranking methodology.

Online Counseling Degrees

What Can I Do With a Degree in Counseling?

A counseling degree unlocks opportunities for rewarding careers in various fields. Graduates can become licensed counselors, offering therapeutic support in areas such as mental health, addiction, or family dynamics. School counselors play pivotal roles in educational settings, fostering students’ well-being. Advanced degrees provide opportunities for leadership positions, with doctorate holders contributing to academia or guiding future counselors as educators. The flexibility of these degrees allows students to explore various professional sectors, emphasizing the importance of empathetic, well-trained counselors in fostering mental health outcomes for individuals and communities.

Mental Health Counselor

Median annual salary: $49,710
Job outlook: 18% increase through 2032

Ideal for empathetic individuals with active listening skills and a non-judgmental approach, a career as a mental health counselor involves employing therapeutic techniques to help clients navigate issues such as anxiety, depression, or interpersonal conflicts. They conduct assessments, develop treatment plans, and guide clients toward healthier coping mechanisms.

School Counselor

Median annual salary: $60,140
Job outlook: 5% increase through 2032

Individuals with strong communication skills and a genuine interest in the holistic development of students will excel as school counselors. Professionals in this field are essential figures within the educational environment, focusing on students’ academic success and emotional well-being. These professionals guide students in academic planning, career exploration, and personal development. They often support students facing challenges such as bullying, family issues, or mental health concerns.

Marriage and Family Counselor

Median annual salary: $58,570
Job outlook: 15% increase through 2032

Marriage and family counselors specialize in helping couples and families navigate challenges and improve their relationships. These professionals address communication breakdowns, conflicts, and transitions, fostering healthier dynamics. Effective marriage and family counselors are skilled communicators, able to navigate sensitive conversations and create a supportive space for clients to express their concerns.

Student Resources and Organizations

Pursuing a degree in counseling is a significant decision, and it’s essential to conduct thorough research to ensure it’s the right choice for you. Below is a curated list of pages covering various facets of counseling degrees. Whether you’re considering an associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral-level degree, these resources provide insights into program options and career paths.

High school students looking to explore counseling as a career may benefit from joining pre-professional programs, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA). Participation in these initiatives can provide additional perspective into the field, helping students assess their interest and aptitude for counseling before committing to a degree program. In addition, many high schools have psychology clubs that can provide a platform for students interested in counseling or psychology to discuss relevant topics, host speakers, and participate in related activities.

For those seeking alternative educational routes to a career in counseling, consider exploring certificate programs, workshops, and online courses focusing on counseling fundamentals. These alternatives offer flexibility and a targeted approach to gaining foundational knowledge and skills without pursuing a traditional degree.

Frequently Asked Questions: Counseling Degrees

Should I get a counseling degree in person or online?

Choosing between an in-person or online format for a counseling degree is a personal decision, and both options offer valuable benefits.

Recent advancements in online education technology have allowed counseling programs to provide high-quality virtual learning experiences. Meanwhile, in-person classes can appeal to those who thrive in structured, face-to-face learning environments, fostering direct interaction with instructors and peers.

Ultimately, your decision should align with your preferences and lifestyle. Whether in-person or online, a counseling degree provides a solid foundation for positively impacting mental health and well-being.

Is a counseling degree worth it?

A counseling degree is often worth pursuing for individuals passionate about helping others navigate mental health challenges. The field offers fulfilling career paths with salaries above the national median, and the demand for mental health professionals continues to grow.

However, it’s crucial to consider personal commitment, as counseling often involves ongoing learning and emotional resilience. The rewarding aspect of positively influencing lives and contributing to clients’ fulfillment makes this degree a meaningful and worthwhile pursuit.

How much does a counseling degree cost?

The cost of a counseling degree will depend on the institution and degree level. On average, undergraduate tuition for the 2021-2022 academic year was approximately $26,903, while graduate tuition averaged $19,749 for the 2020-2021 academic year, as the National Center for Educational Statistics reported.

It’s important to note that these figures are general estimates, and actual costs can differ significantly. Additional charges include whether the institution is public or private, residency status, and other fees or expenses like textbooks, materials, or clinical training.

Interested in a degree instead?

Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.