Online counseling degrees translate well to the virtual classroom by allowing students to utilize the latest area-specific technology as they receive the core knowledge needed to enter or advance their understanding in the field. The best programs allow students to learn counseling techniques through real-world scenarios while maintaining affordability, accreditation and other criteria. We’ve ranked the top online counseling degrees and programs by using a wide range of metrics. Find out who made the cut for our 2016-2017 list here.
Counseling can appear to be a complex, esoteric career to describe. The American Counseling Association (ACA), a group of 31 counseling organizations, gathered to develop the following definition:
Professional counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.
This apt statement has been adopted and integrated into the curriculum of counseling degree programs across the country. For the prospective student, making sense of the various educational options available while in the pursuit of a counseling degree and the intricacies and requirements of online programs is challenging. The high-level overview provided on this page will explain everything from the degrees themselves to an interview with a current online counseling student.
Educational paths to a counseling degree are nearly as varied as the myriad positions within the field. With so many options when it comes to degree level and area of specialization, students can sometimes feel overwhelmed while narrowing their options. When factoring in other needs such as flexibility, internship opportunities, student support, or financial aid, the decisions only get tougher. The search tool below can help alleviate some of these concerns by separating out the best online counseling programs based on the individual needs of each student.
The career opportunities in counseling are as varied and diverse as the profession itself. Overall, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects solid employment gains nationally between 2012 and 2022. Some counseling areas, such as clinical mental health and substance abuse counseling, are expected to increase by 29% and 31% respectively. However, becoming a counselor requires a specific and, in most cases, advanced degree, clinical experience, examinations and licenses.
Counseling can be distilled into four types, according to the ACA:
Provided in a one-on-one setting, counselors help individuals cope and deal with personal issues and problems, from substance abuse, to depression, anxiety and anger issues.
Couples, married and unmarried, can work with a licensed counselor to resolve conflicts and establish and work toward healthy relationship goals.
Family counseling addresses a range of issues, such as sibling conflict, changes to the family environment, impending family additions and more.
Counseling in a group setting typically includes a leader and several participants, and covers topics such as self-esteem, substance abuse recovery or anger management.
Under the umbrella of the four major categories exist subsets of specialized counseling practices. These specializations allow counselors to develop and apply an advanced set of theoretical and practical skills to the treatment, care and counseling of the specific population groups mentioned above.
Below are some examples of concentration areas that are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP):
A distinct mental health discipline marriage and family counseling is typically available through advanced online graduate programs, including master’s and PhD degrees. Through study in these programs, graduates are equipped to work with couples, families and individuals within a larger family system. These counselors treat an array of issues from communication to emotional disorders.
Addiction and substance abuse counseling educational programs prepare students to work with both individuals and families dealing with and affected by drugs, gambling, alcohol and other addictive behaviors and disorders. Typically offered at the master’s degree level, these programs require approximately 60 credit hours of study to complete and focus instruction on prevention, treatment models and relapse prevention.
Degree programs in school counseling prepare their graduates to work with students in the K-12 educational system. Working in three areas, academic, career preparation, and personal and social development, school counselors may assist students through individual counseling, family counseling or group counseling settings.
In these programs, students learn how to work with individuals suffering from a host of emotional, behavioral and mental disorders. Curriculum focuses on the core principles of clinical mental health counseling, such as diagnosis and treatment, and provides students with the opportunity to hone those skills in clinical settings.
Career counselors, also known as vocational counselors, are tasked with helping individuals design, plan, and execute career paths by employing a range of assessment tools to assist in decision making.
Outside of these central specializations, students may also choose to concentrate their studies in other areas, such as adult development and aging, or professional counseling.
The professional major in counseling is designed to prepare undergraduates for entry-level positions in a variety of counseling settings or pave the way for future entry into a graduate level degree program. Often, undergraduate studies in counseling may be intertwined with psychology, offering students a broad, preparatory education in both areas.
Online undergraduate counseling degrees are grounded in current research and established practices in the field. Expansive in scope, these programs introduce students to theoretical approaches in counseling, and help them to build a foundational knowledge in individual and group counseling. Students may also choose an area of concentration for their degree, based on their future professional or graduate educational goals, including marriage and family counseling, substance abuse counseling, mental health counseling and family counseling.
Designed to be completed in four years of full-time study, bachelor’s in counseling programs typically require between 120 and 136 credit hours of instruction to graduate. Students may complete their entire program of study online, but it is important to note there is a clinical requirement for a majority of online undergraduate counseling degrees. Depending on the university and department, students may be asked to complete in-person internships, residencies or practicums.
The most common undergraduate educational focus is the Bachelor of Science in Counseling. However, other options are available, including:
The highest level of education available in counseling is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The PhD is designed to prepare counseling educators, practicing counselors and clinical supervisors for leadership and research-based positions in both clinical and academic settings. A master’s degree in counseling is the most common educational requirement for admission to an online PhD program in counseling.
Curriculum doctoral counseling programs typically concentrates on three areas: counselor education, advanced counseling practice and counselor supervision. Within that framework, students receive instruction in areas including:
Depending on the university, completing a PhD in counseling may take between three and four years of instruction (between 60 and 72 credits) and requires a dissertation in order to graduate.
Although there are some online PhD programs in counseling that exist entirely online, most are offered through a hybrid learning format, requiring students to complete a series of courses through on campus instruction and others through online learning. For example, the PhD program at Oregon State requires students to attend their on campus program for the first two years of study, while the remainder may be completed online.
Internships are usually completed where the student lives. Because PhD students are generally employed as counselors, they can often use their work settings as their internship sites as well.
Sometimes students wish to complete more than one graduate degree at a time, in this case a master’s degree in addition to a PhD in counseling. Some universities offer joint degree options, which allow students to bridge their online master’s degree counseling into a PhD program in the field.
There are numerous factors that impact the quality of undergraduate degree programs, from tuition to faculty, and from job placement rates to internship opportunities. Here are five questions students should ask to determine if the program is a good fit to meet their educational and professional needs and goals:
1. Is the program CACREP accredited?
One of the most important items to review before selecting a program is making sure it is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). It is the central accrediting body for both master’s and doctoral programs (and specialties) in counseling in the United States. This accreditation is significant because state licensing requirements and voluntary certifications and credentials typically require students graduate from a CACREP accredited program.
2. What are the acceptance rates and test scores for the program?
A low acceptance rate at a school is indicative of quality; entrance becomes competitive as they are receiving applications from top students. Secondly, what are the minimum test scores for admission? How do they stack up to other similar institutions? The higher the average test score, the more competitive, and better the program.
3. What is the student-to-faculty ratio?
The size of the program can directly impact the learning experience. Students should be sure to investigate the average class size and cohort (students admitted to the same class).
4. Does the program offer additional clinical experience?
In most programs, students are asked to complete a practica placement to build hands-on, clinical skills in the field. For those desiring additional training, the prospective student should check if the program offers an advanced practicum to develop their practical experience.
5. What is the faculty mix in the program?
Often overlooked, the faculty determine the overall quality of a degree program. Students should concern themselves with who is teaching their classes, especially in online learning settings. Are the faculty members licensed, practicing counselors? What type of real-world experience do they have? What is the percentage of doctoral to non-doctoral faculty?
Students thinking about a master’s degree or master’s degree students pursuing a PhD should talk to their counseling professors at their current institutions. Most professors have networks of other professors and practicing counselors that can recommend programs or provide advice.
The counseling program or admissions department can connect students with individuals currently in their course of study. Getting input from someone in the program can help shed light into the quality of instruction.
Students should seek out interviews with counselors in their area of study (e.g., marriage and family therapy) to get a better understanding of the profession and the rigors of qualifying to practice in the field.
Students should take the time to review each program’s website before making a decision. Information about the curriculum, cost, learning format and faculty can usually be found on each university’s website.
It is important for prospective counseling students to understand the difference between national certification and state licensing:
National counselor certification: National certification is granted by organizations such as the National Board for Certified Counselors. A certification is not a license to practice, but a voluntarily earned credential demonstrating advanced training, experience, and knowledge of the counseling practice.
State licensing: A license allows a counselor to legally practice in the state in which they are employed. Licensing requirements are determined on a state-by-state basis but usually include meeting educational, examination, clinical practice and ethics requirements to be granted a license.
The American Counseling Association provides a list of state counseling licensure boards for more information.
Graduates of counseling degree programs online may select from numerous voluntary certifications, including the National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential from the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). The standard bearer for counselor certifications, the NCC requires applicants to hold an accredited master’s degree and successfully pass the NCE.
The NBCC also offers three additional specialty certifications:
Other counseling organizations offer voluntary certifications as well, across a spectrum of specialty and practice areas:
Maggie S. is a third year master’s student who is completing her internship in substance abuse counseling. We spoke with Maggie about her experiences and to asked her to share advice to students thinking about a career in counseling.
1. How is your counseling education preparing you for a career?
Great question. At this level, it’s about effort. What you put into your education is what you get out. Counseling is about talking to and listening to other people, and textbooks can only take you so far. Getting out of the books and into an internship or clinical setting is where the real education takes place. When you’re working with clients and see progress—both in them and in your own approach—then you know you’re on the right track.
2. What are the benefits, in your mind, of online counseling degrees?
Most students considering an online degree program should really think about their clinical rotation before anything else. Can you complete an internship through a school placement where you live? For me, I actually chose a school close to home for that exact purpose. The learning experience [in my program] has been wonderful. I work part-time, so being able to complete coursework on my own time has been the biggest benefit.
3. Do you have any advice for students thinking about taking online courses?
[Laughs] Yes! I have two. Don’t procrastinate. And, don’t procrastinate. It is so easy to get caught up in other things when going to school online that you forget an assignment here or there. Stay on top of your assignments!
4. What advice do you have for students considering a graduate program in counseling?
My biggest piece of advice is to really think about why you want to be a counselor. Is this truly something you want to do? You don’t get to leave your work [once you're] at home and the emotional toll can be grueling. Find an area you want to study and commit. My other thoughts as to graduate programs are to get an understanding of the faculty. You want to study with professors you want to study with…meaning they are individuals with experience in the field and a research-focus that matches your desires.
5. What has been your favorite part of the educational experience so far?
As I said before, working with clients. There is absolutely nothing better!