Contents

    Types of counseling degrees and how to choose

    Types of counseling degrees and how to choose
    Contents

      In the United States, a master’s degree is a minimum requirement for becoming a professional counselor.

      State licensure requirements for professional counselors vary considerably – consult a state licensure board directly to stay up to date.

      As many counseling master’s degrees produce lower-than-average earnings after graduation compared to all master’s degrees, choose your school and specialization wisely.

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      If you’re considering pursuing counseling as the next step in your career, you’ll need to understand the different types of counseling degrees available on the market. Making the right choice enables you to step into the field with credentials that align with your career aspirations (and without crippling debt).

      Luckily, there is no shortage of job openings in the professional counseling sector. In fact, the job outlook for mental health counselors is brighter than most: the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) reports counseling professions are projected to grow by 18% by 2032 – well above average compared to other occupations.

      To help you find the right counseling degree, we’ll outline the types of counseling degrees available and the best programs for each with respect to their cost and earning potential.

      » Read more: Counselor vs. therapist: what’s the difference?

      What degree do you need to be a counselor?

      The road to becoming a professional counselor can involve several educational avenues, each allowing distinct points of entry into the field. While a psychology bachelor’s can be a good steppingstone for a counseling career, you’ll likely need a master’s degree in counseling or a related field to become a professional counselor, as most states require this for licensure.

      Note that it is possible to get into a master’s in a psychology-related field even if you studied something else at the bachelor’s level, although pre-requisites vary from program to program.

      Beyond the degree: counseling licensure requirements

      Earning a degree in counseling is often just the first step towards becoming a professional counselor. To practice independently (e.g., without the supervision of other practitioners) and accept private patients, you’ll need to obtain a state license.

      While counseling licensure varies widely by state, the process typically involves educational training, practical training, and an exam:

      Steps to becoming a licensed counselor

      Obtain a master’s in counseling or a similar field with an internship/practicum component equivalent to 48-60 credits, depending on state requirements.

      Complete a certain number of hours of supervised clinical experience within a given timeframe.

      Pass the licensure exam – the type varies by state – and a jurisprudence exam in some states.

      For the most up-to-date information on state licensure requirements, reach out to the state’s counseling licensure board directly.

      » Read more: Clinical supervision in counseling

      Counseling degree types to choose from

      Counseling degree types vary depending on the kind of mental health services provided and the populations served.

      Here we’ll outline some of the most common counseling degrees by specialization, what they involve, and, because master’s degrees are typically a minimum requirement in the field, the best-value master’s programs for each.


      Marriage and family therapy/counseling

      Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are mental health professionals who diagnose and treat individuals, couples, and families coping with interpersonal issues.

      MFT counseling focuses on helping patients improve their intimate relationships and their mental health by extension.

      While the MFT approach can pull in various psychotherapy models, it’s based on the premise that patients are understood and treated in the context of their relationships with others, rather than as standalone individuals.

      Some areas marriage and family therapists address in their sessions include:

      • Marital problems
      • Child-parent challenges
      • Anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders
      • Other challenges impacting relationships such as poor self-image or maladaptive behaviors such as addiction

      A master’s in marriage and family therapy or an adjacent field in psychology, an internship, and state licensure are typically needed to become a licensed marriage and family therapy counselor.

      The title for a licensed marriage and family therapist is ‘Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist’ (LMFT), whereas the general title is Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT).

      Best marriage and family therapy master’s programs – by value for money

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      Substance abuse therapy/addiction counseling

      Substance abuse and addiction counselors help patients identify and treat problems relating to alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, or behavioral addictions such disordered eating or gambling.

      These counselors can work in various public and private institutions like hospitals, rehabilitation centers, government agencies, and other facilities.

      On a typical day, a substance abuse and addiction counselor might:

      • Support patients, individually or in groups, in addressing and overcoming their addictions with alternative strategies
      • Evaluate patient dependency levels and recommend treatment
      • Work in prevention programs to preemptively reduce risk associated with drug use
      • Evaluate treatment progress of outpatients
      • Administer drug tests

      To become a substance abuse counselor, a bachelor’s degree at minimum is required, and a graduate degree is needed for licensure – for example, a master’s in psychology, counseling, social work, or a comparable field.

      According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for substance abuse counselors is notably good, projected to grow 18% from 2022-2032 – higher than the average of all occupations.

      Best substance abuse therapy/addiction counseling master’s programs – by value for money


      School psychology

      School psychology programs prepare individuals to work with children and young adults in schools to address learning and behavioral difficulties, often in collaboration with other school-based roles. They might advise students individually or involve their families.

      Apart from providing psychological support to students and their families, school psychologists are tasked with some of the following responsibilities:

      • Evaluating student test results and assessing their eligibility for special services
      • Designing educational programs with other school-based roles and evaluate progress
      • Administering standardized psychological tests

      School psychologists might also train to work with specific student populations that have historically struggled to adjust in a school setting, such as students with autism or bilingual students.

      A master’s degree is typically a minimum requirement for becoming a school psychologist. To work in public schools, school psychologists typically get licensed through their state’s Department of Education. And, depending on the state, other steps like completing an internship and/or passing the Teacher Certification Test may be required too.

      Uncharacteristically for most counseling specializations, school psychology pays relatively well: the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of May 2022, school psychologists make a mean annual wage of $87,550, well above the average median salary.

      (If you like the idea of a psychology field that is often applied in school environments to assist people with autism or learning disabilities, check out our guide to the best master’s in applied behavior analysis.)

      Best school psychology master’s programs – by value for money


      Clinical pastoral counseling

      Pastoral counselors provide psychological and spiritual support to patients in diverse environments – hospitals, prisons, the military, hospices, to name a few. The discipline is unique in mental health counseling in its faith-based approach, offering a spiritual dimension to psychological care.

      Some issues covered in clinical pastoral counseling sessions include:

      • Working through grief and loss
      • Overcoming substance abuse and behavioral addictions
      • Struggling with identity

      Due to their clergy exemption, pastoral counselors don’t always need licensure to practice in the field, although this varies by state jurisdiction. That said, typically a graduate-level degree in a relevant field, such as pastoral counseling, and a predefined number of supervised pastoral counseling hours, are needed to become a clinical pastoral counselor.

      The American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) is a good point of reference for an in-depth exploration of requirements for pastoral clinical counseling.

      Best clinical pastoral counseling master’s programs – by value for money


      Rehabilitation counseling

      Rehabilitation counselors support people with disabilities (emotional, physical, and developmental) in leading independent lives.

      They might practice in rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, hospitals, and other healthcare institutions, serving diverse populations such as the elderly, returning veterans, and people with autism, learning disabilities, or substance abuse problems.

      An accredited master’s degree, in rehabilitation counseling or a similar field, is typically required to become a rehabilitation counselor. Additionally, some states may require certification/licensure.

      Unfortunately, this counseling specialization is among the lowest paid of the counseling professions, with a 2022 BLS-reported average median pay of $39,990.

      Meanwhile, job growth for this specialization is projected as slightly below average – just 2% by 2032 – compared to 3% for all occupations and 9% for other counseling professions.

      Best rehabilitation counseling master’s programs – by value for money

      General types of counseling degrees to consider

      Counseling master’s programs that cater directly to counseling specializations (such as marriage and family therapy or substance abuse counseling), are good options for those who have a clear idea of where they’d like to go in their counseling career in the long term.

      However, others may want to cast a wider net and explore more ‘general’ counseling degree types to enable professional flexibility in their future counseling career.

      We’ve compiled a few general counseling degree types below, what they’re good for, and the best value schools for those programs (note that while some of these paths involve a doctoral degree, finishing at the master’s level often enables entry into the counseling field).


      Mental health counseling

      Mental health counselors are concerned with improving the mental well-being of their patients, often using talk therapy as a primary treatment method. In practice, a master’s degree in mental health counseling prepares students to conduct patient evaluations, screenings and referrals, and other short-term counseling services.

      Mental health counselors, unlike traditional psychologists, are typically concentrated in community settings like hospitals, schools, or correctional facilities.

      Typically, a master’s degree is required for mental health counseling, and, depending on the state, completing supervised clinical experience and passing the state license exam.

      Some common titles to work towards in professional mental health counseling are Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), depending on the state.

      The Department of Education’s CIP system, which categorizes degree programs in U.S. higher education, registers this degree type as a Mental and Social Health Services degree rather than a Psychology degree. That said, there is considerable overlap in these two academic disciplines with respect to the skills attained for addressing and improving the mental wellbeing of individuals and groups.

      Best mental health counseling master’s programs – by value for money


      Clinical psychology

      Clinical psychologists are specialists in psychopathology, or the study of mental illness. They are trained to assess, diagnose, and treat a wide range of mental and behavioral disorders such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse disorders.

      While psychologists are both researchers and mental health practitioners, in practice they may lean more into one camp. Practice-focused psychologists often integrate talk therapy into their treatment of patients, which can blur the line between the roles of clinical psychologists and mental health counselors.

      Clinical psychology programs are unique in their comprehensive coverage of mental health issues and integration of a wide range of disciplines within the realm of psychology and beyond.

      To become a clinical psychologist, state licensing boards require a doctoral degree in psychology at minimum. Apart from satisfying the educational requirements, a future clinical psychologist would need to:

      • Complete a certain number of supervised clinical hours, ranging from 1,500-6,000 hours, depending on state requirements
      • Pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) – in addition to a jurisprudence exam, if the state requires it
      • Satisfy the requirements of the state licensing board

      As few doctorate programs have disclosed their data to the Department of Education, for the purpose of this article, we’ve compiled the best-value master’s in clinical psychology programs that enable students to go on to practice as counselors.

      Best clinical psychology master’s programs – by value for money


      Counseling psychology

      Counseling psychology programs prepare individuals to independently provide therapeutic services to patients with psychological problems. Counseling psychology, while similar to clinical psychology, is generally more holistic in nature, and often takes place in community and institutional (rather than private) settings.

      A counseling psychology program provides students with a comprehensive set of skills to work in psychological counseling, including:

      • Therapeutic intervention strategies
      • Marriage and family therapy
      • Child and adolescent therapy
      • Group therapy
      • Ethics and regulations

      Similarly to clinical psychology, a doctorate degree is required to become a counseling psychologist. However, many counseling psychology master’s programs enable students to become licensed counselors, such as Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC).

      Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) is a common title to work towards in the counseling psychology discipline.

      As we’ve mentioned, as IPEDS data is incomplete at the doctorate level, a ranked list for counseling psychology doctoral programs isn’t possible. Below we’ve compiled the best-value counseling psychology master’s programs that enable students to practice counseling professionally.

      Best counseling psychology master’s programs – by value for money

      How we define ‘best’ counseling degree programs

      The master’s programs we’ve named in this article offer the best return on investment (ROI). In other words, compared to other counseling programs, these offer the best long-term payback for their upfront cost.

      To identify counseling programs with the best ROI, we considered a few factors in our methodology, namely:

      • the average annual net price of a school* (i.e., cost of tuition, housing, books, and other expenses after federal financial aid)
      • the average student earnings 4 years after graduation

      » Read more: Degreechoices methodology: how we rank colleges

      A program’s cost-to-earnings ratio expresses its economic score, which serves as the basis for our school ranking system. And the lower the economic score, the better the educational investment pays off.

      Our methodology uses government-provided data only. Some sources include the U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS, College Scorecard (CSC), and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

      *This is an average cost considering all full-time students receiving financial aid. Public schools consider the average cost for in-state students only.

      Is a counseling degree worth it?

      To decide whether a counseling degree is worth it for you, you may want to take a step back and weigh out your long-term professional goals together with your financial goals.

      If earning a salary that goes a lot farther than covering the bare essentials is important to you, the average salary for a professional counselor will likely prove disappointing.

      According to IPEDS program-level data, holders of master’s degrees in mental and social health services earn an average of $49,845 4 years after graduating – 28% less than the national average for all master’s holders. This educational category includes subdisciplines like mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy (MFT), substance abuse counseling, and clinical pastoral counseling.

      Additionally, the average debt for master’s degree holders in this category is $55,699 – 20% higher than the national average.

      Below are earnings data by state and growth projections for mental and social health services, the category for most of the counseling specializations outlined in this article.

      Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists salary information by state

      When available we provide the latest and current state level salary information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile earnings to provide the range of salary experienced by each career. Salary data is aggregated from the actual reported income of the US labor force, and is considered the most trustworthy data source for salary information.

      Nominal
      Real salary

      The nominal salary is the unadjusted salary paid.

      The real salary is adjusted to consider the purchasing power by state. We multiply the nominal salary by a state purchasing parities index to indicate the relative value of salaries by state. For instance, while New York or California might pay the highest nominal salary, these states are relatively expensive and so the real value of the salary is often less than a cheaper to live in state with a lower nominal salary.

      Alabama

      • 10th percentile: $45,760
      • 50th percentile: $61,000
      • 90th percentile: $94,170

      Highest salary states

      1.

      California

      $107,470

      Average salary

      2.

      Colorado

      $95,890

      Average salary

      3.

      Hawaii

      $91,910

      Average salary

      4.

      District of Columbia

      $91,140

      Average salary

      5.

      Connecticut

      $90,820

      Average salary

      6.

      Oregon

      $89,930

      Average salary

      7.

      New York

      $89,740

      Average salary

      Future outlook

      Future Outlook Projections are taken from the Projections Management Partnership (PMP). The PMP is funded by the Department and Labor, Employment and Training Administration, with direct support from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The PMP provides data-driven projections of future workforce needs.

      111,320

      Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists total employment

      9,400

      Annual openings include jobs available due to both an increase in demand, and regular employee turnover (retirees, career switchers, etc.).

      Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists annual openings

      10.4%

      The estimated increase in jobs (2020-2030) is the increase in total jobs expected and does not consider employee turnover.

      Estimated increase in Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists jobs (2018-2028)

      To provide context to estimated job growth, we employ a “fire and ice” system, which compares projected career growth to the national average of 5.2%, as follows:

      <-10% = 3 ices
      Btwn -5 to -9.9% = 2 ices
      Between -5% to-.1% = 1 ice
      between 0- 5.5% = neutral
      Between 5.5%-10% = 1 fire
      Between 10-20% = 2 fire
      >20%=3 fires

      At the state level, we simply sort the states from fastest growing to slowest within the particular career, or 1st to 50th.

      Very high job growth

      So no, if financial prosperity is the goal, many counseling degree types are not generally ‘worth it’ from a return-on-investment perspective.

      However, as we’ve seen, some counseling specializations bring in higher salaries than others – take the stark difference in median wages between school psychologists ($87,550) and rehabilitation counselors ($46,020) as an example – so it may be a question of choosing your counseling niche strategically.

      Financial considerations aside, the promise of a high salary is rarely a pull factor for entering a helping profession like counseling.

      If you’re the right fit, you may find that putting your empathy, problem-solving, and analytical skills to work in the service of others proves rewarding enough on its own.

      » Read more: How to choose a college that’s right for you

      Final thoughts

      As we’ve seen, pursuing a degree in counseling has its obvious rewards and trade-offs.

      Predictably, while lower-than-average pay bears the brunt of those downsides, working in a field that offers the rare opportunity to play a direct role in improving the life circumstances and mental well-being of others may just offset the lower return on investment of counseling degrees.

      Due to the complexity of the field, the search for the right counseling degree type for you may prove incredibly stress-inducing.

      To put your best foot forward, consider taking our quiz to narrow down the best counseling degree options for your professional goals.

      www.degreechoices.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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