2021 Best Master’s in Counseling Degrees

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Counseling fosters human health and wellbeing through supportive talk therapy and referral to pertinent resources. These include psychiatrists, specialized treatments, and community resources. The field values compassion, equal access, and health. Counseling professionals typically possess high emotional intelligence, integrity, resilience, and empathy for suffering human beings.

Not all counseling careers pay well. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates a median annual salary of $42,840 for mental health counselors. However, counseling master’s graduates may meet educational requirements for licensure as professional psychologists. Clinical, counseling, and school psychologists earn a median annual salary of $78,200, according to the BLS.

Some counseling master’s program graduates eventually pursue doctoral degrees in related fields and become professors, researchers, or more advanced clinicians. The page below assists prospective counseling students by surveying available master’s in counseling programs, careers, curricula, and scholarships.


  • What is counseling?

    Counseling often involves providing talk therapy, psychoeducation, and resource referrals to clients. Non-clinical counseling professionals teach and/or conduct research.

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

    Earning a master’s in counseling usually requires two years of full-time study, but accelerated programs reduce graduation timelines considerably.

  • Can I study counseling online?

    Many counseling schools now offer online degree options. Online programs accommodate working professionals by allowing coursework completion during after-work hours.

  • Do I need a bachelor's in counseling to study for a master's in counseling?

    The best counseling master’s programs usually seek applicants already possessing relevant prerequisite coursework and/or professional experience. However, enrollees can sometimes complete the prerequisites during the master’s program.

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Career and Salary Outlook for Counseling

Master’s in counseling degrees support various clinical counseling careers, including mental health counselor, school counselor, substance abuse counselor, and counseling psychologist. The BLS currently indicates above-average job growth projections for all counseling fields. The BLS projects school counselor positions to grow 8% between 2019-2029. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselor positions enjoy even higher projections of nearly 25% job growth during the same decade.

School and career counselors typically work with K-12 or postsecondary students at public and private institutions. Duties vary widely based on employer and role. School counselors often work in K-12 schools, collaborating with parents, teachers, and administrators to improve student performance and wellness. Career counselors typically serve high school or college students by offering various aptitude and skills assessments, pertinent information, and internship and employment referrals.

Substance abuse and addictions counselors often serve clients in various healthcare and community settings, including treatment centers, mental health hospitals, and community health centers. These professionals may specialize in substance addiction or behavioral addiction issues. Counselors may also specialize in serving a specific population or context, such as prison.

Career Lowest 10% Median Annual Salary Highest 10%
School and Career Counselors Less than $34,380 $57,040 More than $96,090
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors Less than $29,520 $46,240 More than $76,080

Source: BLS

Accreditation for Counseling Degrees

Prospective students should first consider counseling master’s programs at regionally accredited schools. These schools meet academic standards set by Council of Higher Education Accreditation-approved regional accreditation agencies such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Accreditation status affects credit transfer and financial aid. Regionally accredited schools typically do not accept credits earned at nationally accredited schools since they apply less rigorous standards and usually serve for-profit career or religious institutions. Students enrolled at either nationally or regionally accredited schools can qualify for federal financial aid.

Good counseling programs may also maintain programmatic accreditation by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs or the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council.

Courses in a Counseling Master’s Program

Counseling master’s programs traditionally require 60-75 credits and take two years to complete. Enrollees take core courses in counseling ethics, diagnosis and assessment, group and individual counseling, and counseling theory. Popular concentration offerings or specialized electives include marriage and family counseling, school counseling, career counseling, and substance abuse and addictions counseling.

The best counseling master’s programs require supervised practicum and internship experiences that cultivate clinical counseling skills. Most master’s programs also require a capstone project, thesis, or comprehensive exam. The following five sample courses appear in many counseling master’s programs.

This core course familiarizes participants with the American Mental Health Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics. Enrollees learn foundational counseling principles, including respect, confidentiality, and boundaries. Counseling students learn to identify and avoid dual or exploitative counseling relationships. The course prepares learners for ethical clinical counseling careers.

Another foundational course in master’s in counseling programs, counseling theory surveys familial, cultural, integrative, and constructivist ideas and approaches. Learners study each theory’s history, context, thinkers, and advantages. This general counseling theory overview often serves as a prerequisite for more focused theory courses.

This course examines academic and behavioral health research types, methods, and trends. Enrollees learn various quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods research approaches. Participants practice critically evaluating counseling research. The course also covers needs assessment, program evaluation, and research proposal design. It prepares students to conduct and use research to inform counseling practice.

This course cultivates awareness, sensitivity, and effective strategies for approaching clients from various backgrounds. The class explores how differences such as race, culture, class, and religion may influence counseling dynamics. Enrollees also discuss unique issues and approaches related to clients’ gender, sexual orientation, age, and ability.

This course helps enrollees understand the physiology and psychology of addiction and related problems. Participants learn how to identify clients suffering from various substance abuse and behavioral addiction issues and provide them counsel. The course also acquaints learners with 12-step programs, treatment centers, and community resources that support clients in recovery. Given the prevalence of substance abuse and addiction issues today, knowledge and skill in this area serves counselors well in nearly any workplace.

Scholarships for Counseling

Good grades, financial need, or special group membership may qualify students for scholarships. Commonly considered the best funding option available, scholarships do not require repayment and often serve undergraduate or graduate students within specific fields, such as counseling. Counseling master’s students may qualify for scholarships like the three described below.

Alpha Kappa Alpha Educational Advancement Foundation Graduate Scholarships

Who Can Apply: EAF grants both merit-based and need-based scholarships to full-time graduate students enrolled at accredited institutions who demonstrate community involvement. Merit scholarship applicants need a minimum 3.0 GPA, while need-based scholarship applicants need a minimum 2.5 GPA.
Amount: Varies

Ohio School Counselor Association Graduate Student Scholarship

Who Can Apply: OSCA offers two graduate scholarships to school counselor master’s students in Ohio. Eligible applicants need OSCA membership and successful completion of at least six hours of graduate study. Application requirements include a support letter, an essay, and official transcripts.
Amount: $1,000

Ruth G. and Joseph D. Matarazzo Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This APA scholarship supports graduate students enrolled in interim master’s programs and nominated by their psychology department. The nominating department must belong to the Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology.
Amount: $3,000

2021 Best Master’s in Counseling Degrees

The following ranked schools list highlights the best counseling master’s degrees of 2021. This list of accredited counseling schools is updated annually based on changes in counseling education. Prospective students can use this list to compare programs and choose wisely from the best counseling master’s options available.

  1. University of Wisconsin-Madison

    Madison, WI



    UW offers a master of science in counseling with a focus on counseling in community and agency environments. The curriculum emphasizes knowledge in ethics, multiculturalism, and social justice. Graduates leave the program prepared to work as fully licensed professional counselors in Wisconsin. 

    Course topics include abnormal behavior and psychopathology, the psychology of mindfulness, and advanced assessment techniques in counseling psychology. Students must complete 60 credits of coursework to earn their degree. As part of their coursework, students gain clinical experience through a supervised practicum and internships. 

    Students may complete the program on a part- or full-time basis, with full-time students typically completing the program in two years. Applicants must hold an undergraduate degree and complete three credits of introductory psychology. Graduate admission also requires a 3.0 GPA on the last 60 semester credits. UW is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

  2. Auburn University

    Auburn, AL



    A public university in Auburn, Alabama, Auburn offers a master of education in clinical mental health counseling. Students can complete the 60-credit program in as few as five semesters. The practice-based program readies graduates to treat patients in various settings, including inpatient, outpatient, and educational settings. 

    Course topics include advanced assessment and diagnosis in counseling, crisis intervention in counseling, and counseling diverse populations. Students then complete their 700-hour practicum and internship requirements at an assigned site, with options including correctional facilities, family and children services agencies, and substance abuse centers.

    Applicants must possess a minimum GPA of 2.7 to qualify for admission, but admitted students hold on average a 3.5 GPA. Auburn 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.

  3. Boston College

    Chestnut Hill, MA



    A private Jesuit research university in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, BC offers a master of arts in mental health counseling. Students develop a strong foundation in mental health theory, counseling skills, and best practices. The program also emphasizes social justice and multiculturalism. 

    Students hoping to earn licensure as a mental health counselor in Massachusetts must complete 60 credits of coursework, including a year-long practicum internship at a school, clinic, or other organization in the Boston area during their second year. Students seeking a foundation in counseling as they pursue other related careers may complete the program with 48 credits, including an internship component. 

    BC is regionally accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education. The school also boasts programmatic accreditation from the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council.

  4. Northeastern University

    Boston, MA



    Located in Boston, Massachusetts, Northeastern offers a master of science in counseling psychology. Students in the program choose from four concentration areas, including healthy psychology; early intervention; child and adolescent psychology; and culture, gender, and political psychology. Students can complete the program in about 2-3 years. 

    Required core classes include understanding culture and diversity, group counseling, and community counseling psychology. Elective courses include human sexuality, reality therapy, and advanced clinical interventions. Students also complete a 40-hour practicum consisting of supervised client contact and an internship providing 20 hours a week of field experience. 

    The counseling psychology program meets requirements for graduates to become licensed mental health counselors. Applicants need a minimum GPA of 3.0 and an undergraduate degree in psychology (or equivalent) to qualify for admission. 

    Northeastern is regionally accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

  5. Johns Hopkins University

    Baltimore, MD



    Located in Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins offers a master of science in counseling. Students may choose between two concentration options: clinical mental health counseling and school counseling. Students can complete the program in about 3-5 years.

    The clinical mental health concentration prepares students for service in clinical and community settings. The school counseling track helps counselors working in K-12 schools, with a focus on urban school settings. Course topics include diagnosis in counseling, diversity and social justice in counseling, and psychopathology.

    The school provides students with clinical experiences through its partnerships with school districts and other mental health settings. Students must also complete a 600-hour internship.

    Graduates gain the knowledge needed to become fully licensed clinical professional counselors in Maryland, as well as other states. Johns Hopkins is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

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