A guide to school counseling programs and careers

HomeSchool counseling

What is school counseling? 

Working as members of the educational team, school counselors provide counseling to students regarding academic, personal, social, and career planning issues. School counselors typically work in elementary, middle, or high schools, or can consult with homeschooling associations. They can also work in postsecondary institutions. The field is an interesting mix of educational understanding and support combined with social and emotional guidance.  

A role in school counseling usually involves individual or group sessions, as well as assessments. School counselors typically help students develop plans and implement measures to improve their learning, behavior, social wellbeing, or career prospects.  

School counseling degrees can equip you with the necessary skills to play a vital role in a team of educational professionals. A program can cover diversity, different styles of learning, identifying interests and aptitude, as well as more traditional counseling skills. Some of these might be active listening, empathy, and unconditional positive regard.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of school counselors is predicted to grow by 8% between 2019 to 2029. Potential job growth isn’t the only benefit; school counseling is a rewarding field that allows you to impact the lives and successful futures of the next generation.  

Becoming a school counselor 

Becoming a school counselor begins with the completion of an undergraduate degree. It’s not necessary to pursue an undergraduate degree specifically in psychology. Related degrees like social sciences and biology may be applicable when taking the next steps. Most school counselor roles require a doctorate, especially if you’ll be working as a school psychologist. However, some institutions hire candidates with master’s degrees. 

Bachelor’s degree

Most schools offer psychology or counseling bachelor’s degrees with a concentration in school counseling. This format is more common than finding undergraduate programs that are solely dedicated to school counseling. At this level, programs are designed to provide a foundation in psychology and counseling concepts. 

Degrees typically take 4 years to complete. They’re usually focused on research and allow students to build a portfolio of data analysis and counseling skills. Generally, most of the content is taught through theoretical modules leading up to a capstone project. 

Courses can include: 

  • Theories of personality 
  • Learning and cognition 
  • Research methods in psychology 
  • Ethics 
  • Statistical reasoning 

School counseling electives could include: 

  • Educational psychology 
  • Child development 
  • Assessment and testing 
  • Counseling process and techniques 
  • Individual differences and special needs

Master’s degree

To specialize in school counseling, you’ll need to progress to a master’s degree in the subject. These programs bring together elements of education, psychology, and counseling to equip you to work in a school.  

Programs typically take 2 years to complete. They build on basic counseling skills, including the helping relationship, group work, and individual appraisal. Psychological concepts like the theories of personality are used to explore more advanced subjects, such as human development and careers. The majority of programs include a school-based practicum and a counseling internship.  

Courses can include: 

  • Multicultural aspects of counseling 
  • Career counseling and college preparation 
  • Assessment, measurement, and appraisal 
  • Research methods 
  • Special education 

Doctoral degree

Doctoral programs, culminating in degrees like doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) or doctor of education (Ed.D.), are the final step to prepare you to work in an educational or clinical setting as a counselor. Most programs are completed over 5 or 6 years. 

Formats typically follow a 3-year academic program involving courses in theory, current social issues, and educational practices. The following years usually include research, a dissertation, a practicum, and an internship.   

Courses could include: 

  • Advanced counseling practice 
  • Quantitative and qualitative research methods 
  • Education counseling supervision 
  • Leadership and advocacy in counseling 
  • Ethics 

Post-graduate certificates 

Another option for those who have earned a master’s degree in counseling and want to specialize in school counseling is to choose a post-graduate program. The certification you’ll acquire is usually designed with the state licensure in mind, which means it’s usually best to study at a school in the state where you want to practice.  

You can find many of these programs online, which is convenient for professionals who want to complete their studies around an existing work schedule. Typically, you need a certain number of credit hours to obtain certification, and post-graduate programs can help you achieve that.  

Topics might include:  

  • Advocacy 
  • Leadership 
  • How to conduct a school counseling consultation 
  • Learning theories 

Most programs include a supervised internship in an educational setting, which gives you crucial hands-on experience working with students.  

Program concentrations 

At different stages of your education, you’ll have a range of options on which to focus your studies. This is most true of undergraduate programs. That’s because most subjects at this level are broader and focus more generally on psychology and counseling.  

Electives that can help you progress toward a career as a school counselor include adolescent development, motivation and learning, and social development for children. At the graduate level, you might have an idea of a specialization that interests you. Often, this means you’ll be working closely with a member of the faculty who has expertise in this area.  

For your school counseling master’s degree or Ph.D., you’ll need to complete research and write a dissertation in your chosen concentration. Examples include measurement and assessment, rehabilitation, disability, and special needs, or socioeconomic education impacts. 

Requirements 

Each school counseling program will have different requirements for admission. For a bachelor’s degree, typically, you’ll need to provide your high school transcripts or your general equivalency diploma (GED). Accompanying this information, you may need to supply a letter of recommendation and SAT scores. 

Master’s degree applicants will need to have completed a bachelor’s degree in a related field. Typically, that includes psychology, biology, or similar subjects. As part of your application, you’ll usually need to supply your transcripts showing a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 2.5 or 3.0. You may also need to provide Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. Other requirements include 2 or 3 letters of recommendation and a professional statement summarizing your aims. 

Prospective Ph.D. candidates will need to have completed a master’s degree in counseling, school counseling, or psychology at an accredited institution. Proof of supervised hours and internships will also demonstrate your knowledge, skills, and experience, along with your aptitude for becoming a professional counselor. Transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a short statement should be included with the application. 

Licensing

Licensure, or certification, as it is called in some jurisdictions, is necessary to practice in most states. The requirements differ, so it’s best to check the state licensing board. Typically, you’ll need to demonstrate that you have earned a master’s degree and that you’ve completed a relevant internship with a minimum number of supervised practice hours.  

You usually need to undergo a background check. Most states require candidates to pass licensure examinations. An example of this is Praxis, which is the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) National Counselor Examination (NCE). In some states, your school might provide the option to apply for the license through them.    

School counseling career options 

Depending on how far you pursue your school counseling education, there are varying opportunities that may be available. For those who earn an undergraduate degree, it’s unlikely that you’ll meet the requirements to be a school counselor. However, there are closely related jobs in the field that you may qualify for: 

Working in an elementary, middle, or secondary school, you could use your understanding of youth psychology and education to facilitate learning. The role would focus more on the organization of student intake, classes, and extracurricular activities.

The average annual salary for a school administrator is $64,022. 

Your experience in psychology and youth could qualify you for this role with a company that is developing educational services or products. You would help predict and test the market conditions, discovering, for instance, what people want and what price they will pay for it.

The average annual salary for a market researcher is  $56,641. 

Similar to a school administrator role, this position focuses on early childhood education. You might work at a preschool to oversee and implement educational programs for children under 5.

The average annual salary for this role is $50,000. 

If you have a graduate degree, including a doctorate, you’ll have more options to practice as a traditional school counselor: 

This role is based in elementary, middle, or high schools. It involves guiding and supporting individual students in academic, social, and emotional aspects. You might also implement plans and measures for groups of children.

The average annual salary for a school counselor is $50,831.  

For this position, you’re based at a college or university. The role includes supporting students with professional and educational goals and could also include supporting them with personal issues like being away from family for the first time.

The average annual salary for college counselors is $47,953. 

Completing a Ph.D. could put you in a position to teach others about school counseling. Typically, that would be at a university or higher education institution and might also involve a research role.

The average annual salary for a professor is $88,221. 

Online and campus-based programs 

If you’re looking to study school counseling, there are several formats available. The bachelor’s degree can be completed online, as a hybrid course, or on campus. As most programs focus on counseling and theory, it’s easy to attend classes and complete assignments remotely. This digital learning environment could suit you if you are working or have family commitments, as it allows the flexibility to fit your studying around other responsibilities. 

Online master’s degree programs also exist. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that many of them involve a supervised practicum and school internship. You might be able to complete one as a hybrid program and attend some sessions on campus or make independent arrangements. 

Ph.D. programs are typically taught on campus. They involve a research aspect, a practicum, and an internship, which requires input from faculty members and must be undertaken at qualified locations. However, you can find some online programs that offer in-person mentoring experiences. While these have the benefit of being convenient to fit around work 

Costs of school counseling degrees

According to college pricing trends, costs can vary widely by state. However, the average annual in-state tuition for a bachelor’s degree is $10,560 and $27,020 for full-time out-of-state students. Online programs for in-state students average around $9,500. 

Annual tuition for master’s degrees in school counseling can cost between $14,000 and $16,000, although some online programs can be found for around $13,500. It’s also possible to pay per credit at some institutions. In this case, the cost for out-of-state students might run around $905 per credit. 

Tuition for an online Ph.D. in school counseling may also be charged per credit, which can cost around $710 plus other fees. Campus-based courses may cost around $1,500 per credit, and there are different set fees for each semester of your dissertation.  

Financial aid 

Seeking financial aid is not uncommon. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) states that 86% of undergraduate students in full-time programs were awarded financial aid between 2017 and 2018. In many cases seeking financial aid is a necessary step in the process of earning a degree.  

One of the first resources a prospective undergraduate student can check to determine eligibility for financial aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website. There’s an application form to fill out, and it’s free. 

Other options to help you with the costs of studying include grants and scholarships. Many of these are aimed at graduate students specializing in school counseling as there’s a need to fill these roles. For example, the American School Health Association (ASHA) offers several awards, including one to a school health researcher and one to emerging professionals.  

Doctoral students could apply for the Esther Katz Rosen Fund grant. The award is up to $50,000 and is given to those who are working to support the development of gifted children and to encourage psychologists to continue research in this area. 

Accreditation 

If you’re trying to decide where to earn your school counseling degree, then finding an accredited school could help you refine your search. Accreditation is a process carried out by an independent body through peer review. It evaluates a program’s content and student services.  

Choosing an accredited school gives you the benefit of knowing that it meets certain quality standards. You can see if a school has accreditation by looking for the logo or initials of the accreditation council on its website. 

School counseling degrees are typically certified by 1 of 3 organizations. They are the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), the American School Counselor Association Specialized Professional Association (ASCA-SPA), and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). 

American Psychological Association (APA) 

The APA provides up-to-date information about the psychology field in the U.S. and has dedicated sections for school counselors. 

American School Counselor Association (ASCA) 

This membership organization has resources for best practices as well as ethical standards in the field. 

Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) 

Accreditation council for master’s and doctoral degrees in school counseling.