An online master’s in counseling gives learners the optimal knowledge base for client-facing careers in human services. Licensed counselors work in individual and group settings to help clients overcome personal challenges and improve their lives. Social workers, psychologists, and religious or spiritual community leaders also benefit from counseling-focused academic training.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates mounting demand for licensed counselors through the 2020s. The BLS projects a 25% job growth rate for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors from 2019-2029. Educational requirements vary among U.S. jurisdictions, but counseling roles often require a traditional or online master’s counseling degree.
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What Is a Master’s in Counseling Degree?
Counselors help clients navigate and overcome personal challenges so they can live more fulfilling and productive lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has created what many experts call a burgeoning mental health crisis, marked by sharp increases in substance abuse, mood disorders, and stress. Counseling professionals may play a key role in helping society heal and move forward.
Counseling emerged from psychology and psychotherapy, which first developed during the 19th century. Counseling evolved into its present form during the 20th century. Many historians credit U.S. psychologist Carl Rogers with shaping the field’s early foundations.
Counselors help clients navigate and overcome personal challenges so they can live more fulfilling and productive lives.
Educational institutions started offering counseling degrees as psychotherapy gained traction in the medical and cultural mainstream. Counseling programs and practicing professionals now specialize in specific issues like school, marriage and family, substance abuse, mental health, and grief counseling.
Online counseling degrees are available at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Master’s degrees typically provide deep, robust, and specialized training to help graduates earn their licensure. Most importantly, these degrees equip learners with the advanced knowledge and skills needed to make strong, lasting impacts on their clients’ lives.
Learn More About Counseling Programs
Why Get a Master’s Degree in Counseling?
The American Counseling Association notes that all U.S. states and some U.S. territories require professional counselors to hold valid licensure. Educational qualifications for licensure vary among jurisdictions. A master’s in counseling provides advantages, even if it is not a prerequisite for licensure. Graduate programs offer greater depth than their undergraduate counterparts, guiding learners to more complete knowledge.
Other important benefits of online master’s programs in counseling include:
- Increased Earning Potential: Professionals with master’s degrees tend to earn significantly more than those with only an undergraduate education. BLS data from 2020 shows that workforce participants with master’s degrees earn an average of 18.4% more than those with bachelor’s degrees.
- Improved Access to the Job Market: The BLS also reports significantly lower unemployment rates among professionals with master’s degrees. In 2020, just 4.1% of master’s degree-holders were unemployed, compared to 5.5% of those with bachelor’s degrees and 7.1% of those with an associate degree.
- Enhanced Specialization Opportunities: Not all undergraduate counseling programs offer area-specific concentrations. For aspiring counselors seeking to specialize in a distinct practice area, a master’s degree offers more opportunity.
What to Expect From an Online Master’s Program in Counseling
Master’s online counseling degrees typically consist of 60-66 credits (20-22 courses). Learners who commit to rigorous full-time schedules can usually complete them in two academic years. Those proceeding at a decelerated pace often graduate within three years, and some programs offer part-time students extended timelines of five years or more.
Most curricula emphasize a set of core classes, which usually comprise at least half of the overall degree requirements. Many master’s programs emphasize specializations, meaning that even core subjects cover a specific, concentrated area of focus. Electives delve deeper into niche topics relevant to the concentration.
Note that earning a master’s in counseling online often carries some in-person components. Some programs include limited campus residencies each academic year, while many others require students to complete an internship, practicum, or other field experience to qualify for graduation.
Best Master's in Counseling Degrees
Schools set their own admission standards, which vary from one institution to the next. Programs leading to master of science designations and those with a clinical psychology focus often require an undergraduate educational background in psychology, education, social work, behavioral science, or another relevant subject area.
In other cases, schools welcome applicants from broader academic backgrounds. However, institutions may expect posttertiary coursework in statistics, social science research methods, psychology, or other pertinent subjects. Candidates lacking these prerequisites may choose to complete a preparatory course sequence prior to entering the program.
Candidates for online counseling degrees must submit statements of purpose and letters of recommendation in most cases. In evaluating these documents, admission officials look for evidence of the candidate’s ethical standing and suitability for the profession as assessed by an authoritative figure.
How Do I Apply to Graduate School?
Counselors help their clients deal with complex problems in targeted areas of their lives. This demands specialized training. A person dealing with alcohol addiction needs a much different type of help than a person grieving the loss of a loved one. As such, online master’s in counseling degrees usually focus on specific areas of concentration.
Marriage and Family Counseling
Marriage and family counselors help clients improve domestic harmony and overcome challenges related to internal relationship dynamics.
These specialists hold advanced training in helping individuals overcome substance abuse disorders. The BLS projects an atypically strong growth rate of 25% in this specialization over the course of the 2020s.
Losing a loved one, especially suddenly or tragically, presents major emotional challenges. This specialization offers complete training in the special sensitivities needed to help grieving people heal.
Other niche concentrations include school and career counseling, education counseling, art and music therapy, spiritual counseling, and rehabilitative counseling, among others.
Unspecialized counseling degrees often maintain a strong clinical focus intended to complement existing training in psychology or behavioral science. These study opportunities support careers in clinical, research, forensic, and/or behavioral psychology.
Read About the Branches of Counseling and Psychology
Popular Counseling Courses Online
Course offerings vary widely, as specialized online counseling degrees cover many different areas of focus. Programs for future career counselors feature different classes from those for grief or addiction counseling. Even so, many programs offer comparable courses on core topics. Most counseling programs also include a field practicum, allowing students to apply developing skills in a real-world setting as they prepare for licensure examinations.
Examples of commonly offered courses include:
How Much Will a Master’s Degree in Counseling Online Cost?
Public institutions tend to offer more affordable tuition rates, especially to in-state learners. Research activity, private standing, and prestige impact degree pricing. Schools that attract recognized leaders in the field and schools with robust, active research wings tend to include higher fees.
The most affordable online counseling degrees cost between $300-$700 per credit. However, online learners tend to save money in multiple ways. Some colleges offer advantageous fees to distance learners, and flexible program structures allow students to hold jobs as they work toward degree completion.
Degree-seekers may qualify for many options to bridge shortfalls in their education funding. Nonrepayable forms of financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, and bursaries help the most. Federal loans and reserve private loans constitute a last resort, as they do not offer borrowers the same advantages as government-issued student aid.
Most Affordable Online Master's in Counseling Degrees
Jobs for Master’s Degree in Counseling Graduates
An online master’s in counseling primarily qualifies degree-holders for client-facing roles in human services. Most counseling specializations require professional practitioners to hold proper licensure. State-level authorities issue these licenses. Eligibility guidelines vary, so research the standards that apply to the jurisdiction where you plan to work.
While most learners plan to become licensed counselors, a master’s degree opens up other career paths. Explore some popular options beginning with these examples:
What Are the Requirements for a Career in Counseling?
School or Career Counselor
School counselors mainly work in high schools and help students build strong academic habits, identify aptitudes, and improve their educational outcomes. Career counselors usually work for posttertiary institutions and guide clients to potential career paths that match their skills, interests, and talents.
Required Education: Master’s degree; most school and career counselors also require state licensure
Job Outlook (2019-29): +8%
Median Annual Salary: $58,120
Clinical Social Worker
This specialized social work discipline involves case assessments, during which the social worker aims to identify and diagnose possible mental or behavioral health issues. They also counsel clients in individual and group settings.
Required Education: Master’s degree plus at least two years of supervised clinical experience and state licensure
Job Outlook (2019-29): +13%
Median Annual Salary: $51,760
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, or Mental Health Counselor
These specialists lead client-focused interventions that treat drug and/or alcohol abuse, behavioral disorders, or mental illnesses. Practitioners typically specialize in one area, though overlap becomes possible with accrued professional experience.
Required Education: Varied; some positions require little posttertiary training, while others require a master’s degree plus licensure. Candidates with master’s degrees generally experience fewer barriers to entry.
Job Outlook (2019-29): +25%
Median Annual Salary: $47,660
Marriage or Family Therapist
Marriage and family counselors apply their advanced insights to domestic dynamics affecting couples, parents, and children. They help clients identify, manage, and move past the issues that contribute to persistent relationship problems.
Required Education: Master’s degree plus licensure
Job Outlook (2019-29): +22%
Median Annual Salary: $51,340
Choosing the Right Counseling Graduate Program
Ranked lists offer valuable insights to degree candidates weighing their options. Yet, they mainly consider quantitative factors in determining the inclusion and positioning of represented schools. Other, more qualitative factors not accounted for in the rankings may hold high importance to individual learners.
Thus, prospective students should take more personal factors into close account when researching programs and consider program attributes such as:
- Available Concentrations/Specializations
- Some specializations, such as art and music therapy, are rarer than others. Fewer schools offer them, often prompting interested candidates to expand their program searches beyond simple rankings.
- Program Philosophy or Culture
- Some counseling programs adhere to an underlying program philosophy, set of foundational principles, or religious affiliation. Ensure these align with your personal and professional goals.
- Experiential Learning Opportunities
- Research the field settings available to students fulfilling practicum requirements. Some may hold particular appeal, making them worth extra consideration.
Above all, ensure that any institution under your consideration holds current national or regional accreditation. Optional endorsements from specialized accreditors like the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs carry additional prestige and value.
What Is Accreditation and Why Does It Matter?
Why You Should Get Your Counseling Degree Online
Online education has matured considerably since its initial introduction. Programs closely replicate the traditional classroom learning experience, and counseling degrees online provide as much educational value as their campus-based counterparts.
Most online master’s programs in counseling use asynchronous formats to deliver courses: Students can access pre-recorded lectures anytime and anywhere, enhancing their scheduling flexibility. As such, many graduate students work while they study, which eases their financial burdens and helps them emerge from their programs with less debt.
However, not all learning styles and personal preferences align with the virtual classroom. Succeeding in an online program requires independent self-direction. Peer and faculty exchanges also take place in digital spaces, potentially making traditional environments a better match for learners seeking enriched, interactive learning experiences.
Finally, keep in mind that most master’s programs in counseling include a practicum, internship, or other field experience. Candidates must complete these in person, even if all their other coursework features digital delivery.
Frequently Asked Questions
What should I major in to become a counselor?
Accredited colleges offer counseling programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and these are ideal for aspiring counselors. Candidates can consider majoring in psychology, behavioral science, social work, or another discipline that informs your planned area of professional practice.
Is getting an online counseling degree worth it?
Yes. Online counseling degrees provide the same rigor and educational value as traditional campus-based programs. They also offer additional advantages: Asynchronous course delivery enhances scheduling flexibility, and online learning leads to significant cost advantages.
How long are online master's programs in counseling?
Curricula typically cover about 60 credits, or the equivalent of approximately 20 courses. Graduation timelines depend on scheduling: full-time learners can usually complete programs in about two years, while part-time students may need three years or longer.
What can I do with an online counseling psychology master's?
An online counseling psychology master’s leads to career paths in counseling, psychotherapy, and psychological research. Most people who earn this degree go on to obtain counseling or psychotherapist licensure, then proceed into professional practice.
What are counseling courses I can take online?
Institutions vary in their course offerings, but schools increasingly offer both core and elective counseling courses in digital delivery formats. Note that in-person requirements apply to most online counseling programs, especially regarding internships and practicums.
Best Online Master’s in Counseling Degrees 2021
See our rankings methodology page.
A private Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia, Liberty offers an online master of arts in clinical mental counseling. The 2.5-year program consists of 60 credits and provides the training required to receive state licensure as a licensed professional counselor.
Core courses include psychopathology, crisis counseling, and human growth and development. Candidates complete all coursework online while completing the required hands-on practicum and internship fieldwork in their local area.
Applicants must possess a bachelor's degree with a 2.7 or higher cumulative GPA. The school does not require applicants to submit test scores. Transfer students may transfer up to 50% of the required credits from another institution.
Liberty is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The school also boasts programmatic accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.
A private Lutheran university based in Irvine, California, CUI offers an online master of arts in counseling that emphasizes clinical mental health. Students can complete the program in about 24-36 months. Students take one or two seven-week classes at a time, earning a total of 60 credits.
Core courses include clinical psychopathology and diagnosis, foundations of crisis and trauma counseling, and foundations of addiction counseling. Clinical mental health coursework includes a class on the foundations and contextual dimensions of mental health counseling, as well as a 100-hour supervised practicum and two 300-hour supervised internships.
Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited college or university to qualify for admission. Applicants must also possess a cumulative GPA of 3.0. The program leads to licensure as a counselor in most states, but students should verify whether the program satisfies the licensure requirements in their state.
CUI is regionally accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission. The school also boasts programmatic accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.
Located in Longview, Texas, LETU offers an online master of arts in clinical mental health counseling. LETU follows an interdenominational Christ-centered approach to instruction.
The 66-credit program develops ethical decision-making skills, spiritual counseling techniques, and an understanding of contemporary issues, such as those related to gender and addiction. Core courses include group counseling methods, psychopharmacology, and counseling diverse populations. Students must also complete a 100-hour counseling practicum and two 300-hour, field-based internships.
Graduates leave the program ready to sit for the state licensure exam in Texas and other states. Applicants must possess a bachelor's or master's degree with a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5. Candidates must also complete 12 credits of undergraduate psychology courses, or nine credits of psychology courses and three credits of statistics, prior to enrolling in the program.
LETU is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
Concordia University Wisconsin
Located in Mequon, Wisconsin, CUW offers an online master of science in education in school and professional counseling. The program integrates evidence-based counseling theories and techniques into a professional practice curriculum aimed at creating gifted counselors.
Graduates completing certain coursework leave eligible to become licensed substance abuse counselors in training. Another degree option for students to pursue includes the school counselor (K-12) track. Students may also obtain a Christian counseling certificate upon completion of the required coursework.
Required counseling courses include human growth and development, social and culture foundations, and helping relationships. The 45- to 60-credit program provides a pathway for graduates to become guidance counselors, vocational counselors, and counseling psychologists.
Applicants must possess a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0. CUW is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
University of the Cumberlands
A private Baptist university located in Williamsburg, Kentucky, Cumberlands offers two online counseling degrees: a master of arts in clinical mental health counseling and a master of arts in addiction counseling. These programs take a modern and practical approach to the latest research and advancements in counseling.
Core courses for the clinical mental health counseling degree include marriage and family counseling, private practice and clinical supervision, and advanced counseling theories and techniques. Core courses for the addiction counseling degree include psychopharmacology and addictions, family therapy in addiction treatment, and spirituality and values in counseling.
Students in both programs participate in a 100-hour practicum and two 300-hour internships. The program has a foundation in Christian leadership and emphasizes empathy, personal responsibility, and leadership through service.
Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree with a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0. The school does not require applicants to submit standardized test scores. Cumberlands is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The school also boasts programmatic accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.