Earning a Master’s in Counseling Online

Several jurisdictions across the country send nonviolent drug offenders to counseling and rehabilitation services rather than jail or prison. Moreover, the stigma surrounding counseling continues to lose power as people seek help. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that these factors will contribute to a 23% growth in the need for counselors between 2016 and 2026.

Candidates with a bachelor’s degree in counseling can fill these roles in a few states, but master’s degrees and licensure open more opportunities for prospective counselors. The article below discusses the growth in earning potential, along with how to pay for a master's in counseling, what learners can expect from their program, and how to leverage the diploma to create greater earning potential.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master’s Degree in Counseling?

An online master’s in counseling creates an array of opportunities, including a chance at licensure in states that only give such credentials to master's graduates. Degree candidates may also pursue their master's in counseling online to better understand a specialization, such as substance abuse or pediatric counseling. Online programs particularly appeal to working professionals who want to continue working as they learn.

Why Get a Master’s Degree in Counseling?

Pursuing Specialization

Undergraduate counseling degrees provide broad overviews of human psychology and therapeutic methods, while master’s degrees allow learners to dive deeper into their subject areas of choice. Degree candidates concentrate in areas like substance abuse, career, school, marriage, and family counseling. Pediatric and senior counseling concentrations allow learners to help specific age populations. With an online master's degree in counseling and a carefully selected focus, a candidate can stand out as an expert.

Career Advancement Opportunities

In some states, counseling professionals who want to work in clinical positions need master’s degrees to earn the correct licensure. Other jurisdictions give qualifying bachelor’s graduates certain types of licenses, but not clinical credentials. Counselors who want to work one on one with patients must earn graduate degrees. These higher positions allow individual focus, and tend to pay higher wages and provide more opportunities for growth. For instance, many clinical counselors work for themselves.

Online Learning Technology

Distance education allows degree candidates to work as they learn, which can help bolster their resumes when they graduate. Online counseling master's degrees give students more flexibility and help them improve their online communication skills. With the rise of apps like Talkspace and Better Help, online counseling is on the rise. Newly licensed clinical counselors can leverage their written communication skills to help telemedicine patients.

Prerequisites for Online Counseling Programs

Each online master's degree program in counseling imposes its own application requirements. The list below shows certain common requirements for professional experience, exams, and education.

  • Work Experience: Typically, students can start pursuing their online master's in counseling immediately after completing undergraduate programs. Some universities do not require work experience, but waive other requirements for candidates who have it. A few schools design programs for professionals with one to five years of counseling-related work experience.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Many graduate schools require applicants to submit GRE or GMAT scores. However, institutions sometimes waive this demand for candidates with adequate GPAs or work experience. Those who need to take the exams should aim to exceed the 50th percentile mark. Exam scores remain valid for five years.
  • Coursework: Candidates with counseling or psychology undergraduate degrees from an accredited school have typically completed their prerequisite courses for master's in counseling online programs. Applicants from other educational backgrounds can apply, but they should first complete a few undergraduate courses, including in subjects like foundational psychology, counseling methods, and human development.
  • Recommendations: Some online counseling master's programs require applicants to submit one to three letters of recommendation. These letters should highlight the candidate’s professional and academic acumen. Applicants should ask former professors, colleagues, and supervisors for recommendation letters. Some religious schools ask for letters that speak to a candidate’s morals, in which cases religious leaders might write the recommendation letters.
  • Essays: Universities often require graduate candidates to submit personal essays with their applications, providing prompts and estimated word counts. Students should prepare to write at least 300 words on their career goals, and how a master's degree in counseling online can help them achieve these goals.
  • Interviews: Most universities do not require interviews for online master’s in counseling admissions. A few select schools interview candidates who make it past the initial screening process. Some applicants must attend these meetings in person, but most can complete interviews through online video conferences. Candidates use this time to explain potential problems with their applications.
  • International Students: Students from countries outside the United States must meet admissions requirements similar to those for their American peers. International applicants may hold diplomas that equal a bachelor’s degree, but have different names. Furthermore, nonnative English speakers must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam.

How Much Can I Make with a Master’s Degree in Counseling?

Graduates with master’s degrees in counseling open themselves to several types of jobs in human services. Generally, professionals in counseling earn about $50,000 per year. Counseling graduates can earn more depending on their region and experience levels. Furthermore, some graduates fill positions outside the traditional counseling roles. For example, they can teach introductory college courses, help imprisoned individuals rehabilitate, and aid people around the world in humanitarian missions. These positions typically pay more than counseling jobs.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Counseling Graduates

Career Stats Description

Marriage and Family Therapist

Median Pay: $48,790

Job Growth: 23%

These counselors help families and couples work through difficult times in their lives. They work in clinical office settings, and must hold master’s degrees.

Ideal for: Licensed graduates who feel passionately about making differences in family lives.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor

Median Pay: $43,300

Job Growth: 23%

These three specializations allow counselors to work with patients who suffer specific ailments. They may work for large clinics, or go into business for themselves.

Ideal for: Licensed counseling professionals who want to work one on one with patients.

School and Career Counselor

Median Pay: $55,410

Job Growth: 13%

Students and professionals seek help from these counselors to find their paths. School and career counselors can work in secondary schools, colleges, universities, or recruitment firms.

Ideal for: Counselors with strong analysis, interpersonal, and writing skills.

Nontraditional Careers for Master's in Counseling Graduates

Career Stats Description

Correctional Treatment Specialist

Median Pay: $43,510

Job Growth: -7%

These case managers act as social workers in detention centers. They oversee the treatment and rehabilitation of incarcerated people and help them find resources.

Ideal for: Counselors with a passion for helping incarcerated populations, even in difficult situations.

Community Health Worker

Median Pay: $45,360

Job Growth: 16%

These professionals design programs for surrounding areas to promote healthy habits. They often work in hospitals and clinics.

Ideal for: Graduates with extensive healthcare backgrounds, such as former nurses or medical assistants.

Postsecondary Teacher

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

These college and university educators teach the next generation of graduates. They may also conduct research. Without a doctorate, graduates can only teach at community colleges.

Ideal for: Graduates with strong presentation skills who enjoy academic settings.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale, 2017-2018

Paying for an Online Master’s in Counseling

Students who want to pursue the many career paths online master's degrees in counseling provide must consider their financial options. Public, private, and for-profit schools post different tuition rates, which vary depending on where students live and their coursework level. Degree candidates can save money with accelerated paths, or break their bills into manageable sizes through part-time programs. Learners should also seek financial aid specifically for counseling students, including scholarships and grants.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants, and Scholarships

Degree candidates earn financial aid from groups that promote the counseling profession. Professional organizations, private companies, schools, and nonprofits offer counseling-specific awards. Students can find five such examples below.

What to Expect from a Master’s Level Online Counseling Program

It typically takes candidates 1-3 years to complete an online master's in counseling program. Specific coursework varies between schools, but learners should expect to meet a few significant milestones, including practicums, internships, and licensure. While students take most other courses online, they complete their major milestones in person. For example, degree candidates work with real clients during their internship and practicum requirements. Distance programs often help learners find in-person opportunities near their homes.

Major Milestones

  1. Prerequisites Complete

    Many graduate counseling programs allow candidates from other backgrounds to apply. However, these learners must complete prerequisites to bridge into counseling. Once they pass these courses to the school’s satisfaction, they begin official coursework.

  2. Complete Pre-practicum Courses

    Before learners can work with patients, even under supervision, they must pass several foundational courses. Degree candidates complete classes in counseling techniques, ethics, and mental health assessment.

  3. Practicum

    Students work with patients one on one, then report to their supervisors, who must hold current licenses. The experienced professionals give students feedback and techniques to help their patients. This experience allows the learners to gain hands-on experience while also helping people.

  4. Internship

    The internship marks the final course in most master’s in counseling programs. Students spend up to 30 hours per week with patients, meeting with supervisors at least once per week. Learners sometimes earn wages for internships and enjoy more freedom in their practice than in practicums.

  5. Studying for Licensing

    Once professionals graduate, they begin studying for licensing exams in their states. Some learners start right before graduation. Students may access study materials through their schools or other online resources.

  6. Licensing Exam

    Once graduates feel ready to take their licensing exams, they can sign up for test times. The National Board for Certified Counselors designs these exams, and specifics vary based on the specialization and level candidates pursue.


Although curricula for master’s programs in counseling vary, each covers certain subjects to prepare learners. The list below shows some of the standard courses in these degree plans.

Counseling Theories

Learners discover the various techniques they can use to help patients. They also learn the field’s limitations, and how to know which method to use with each client. This course often represents one of the first that degree candidates complete.

Ethical and Legal Issues in Counseling

Professional counselors must uphold strict ethical codes and adhere to specific laws. For example, counselors must keep patient confidentiality in most situations, but not all. These courses give students the tools they need to navigate difficult situations with moral and legal clarity.

Assessment and Diagnosis

One of the first steps counselors make toward helping patients is diagnosing the issues at hand. These courses help future counseling professionals learn to assess clients and develop plans of action accordingly.

Family and Couples Counseling

These classes help students understand the unique nature of family dynamics, covering theories of family counseling, proven methods, and recent research. Even learners in other specialties use the skills they hone in these courses, because familial situations affect all manners of clients.

Group Counseling

While many other courses focus on individual or familial counseling methods, these classes teach degree candidates to lead group therapy sessions. Learners come to understand the unique dynamics, theories, and techniques behind this counseling method.

Licenses and Certifications

Before beginning clinical practice, graduates must earn licensure in their state. Most states implement different licensing requirements for school and career counselors than for all other types. Each state sets its criteria for licensing. Professionals who earn state licensure can obtain national certification, as well. Like many state boards, the national licensing board separates school and career counselors from others. Each level requires candidates to complete some supervised practice hours and exams.

  • State License in Mental Health, Substance Abuse, or Family Counseling:

    Most states require candidates to earn at least master’s degrees. State boards also specify how many supervised hours applicants need -- typically about 300 clock hours, which the supervisor logs. Students should ensure their programs meet these requirements. Finally, candidates must pass the appropriate exam.

  • State License for School or Career Counseling:

    Applicants must first complete accredited school counseling master’s programs. Like other types of counseling, school and career counselors must complete practicums. States often require fewer clock hours for these applicants than for mental health counselors. Finally, candidates should pass the appropriate exam.

  • National Certified Counselor:

    Candidates for NCC credentials must graduate from qualifying master’s programs. Some applicants must also submit proof of 100 postgraduate supervised hours. NCCs all demonstrate 3,000 work hours in the previous two years, follow ethics requirements, and pass the national exam.

  • National Certified School Counselor:

    NCSC counselors must meet stringent education, supervision, examination, experience, and ethical standards to obtain this credential. Requirements include courses in counseling consultation and program development; family counseling; counseling children, adolescents, and at-risk youth; addictions counseling; and counseling for trauma, abuse and violence. Candidates must also complete extensive supervised work and school experience.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Counselors in most states need to earn continuing education credits each year or two, and professional organizations often provide courses to meet these needs. Professional groups also offer networking opportunities, in which professionals can learn from each other and find jobs. Several national organizations also provide members with free counseling news, scientific publications, and consumer discounts. Professionals can join broad counseling groups, or ones focused on their specialization.

  • American Counseling Association: ACA, the largest organization of its kind, offers members access to journals, awards, continuing education courses, and networking opportunities. ACA holds one main conference per year, plus several smaller meetings for local chapters.
  • American School Counselor Association: School counselors across the country come together through the ASCA to advocate for the profession. Members access podcasts, videos, continuing education, and publications. The annual ASCA event features high-profile guests and networking opportunities.
  • American Mental Health Counselors Association: Mental health professionals join the AMHCA to attend the annual conference, complete continuing education courses, and support the organization’s legislative advocacy. Members also access the career section of the website and interact in online communities.
  • American Rehabilitation Counseling Association: This organization provides professional support for counselors who work with patients in addiction or physical rehabilitation. Members read the latest industry research, attend the annual conference, apply for awards, amd purchase liability insurance through ARCA.
  • Association for Specialists in Group Work: This organization represents an ACA subgroup. ASGW members gain additional benefits, such as new research, continuing education, and group counseling resources. They can also join local ASGW chapters for networking opportunities.
  • Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Education Programs: Candidates ensure their counseling plans meet the highest academic standards when they attend CACREP-accredited programs. Students can find lists of accredited schools and learn more about the counseling profession.
  • National Board of Certified Counselors: Counselors who want to become nationally certified go through the NBCC. Candidates can learn about the application process and requirements here. The site also contains resources for practicing counselors and continuing education providers.
  • Counseling Today: ACA publishes this print and online magazine. Counseling Today features stories on the latest trends, research, and news for counselors. Even without an ACA membership, readers can access most of the content.
  • Counselor Magazine: This online magazine brings readers advice columns, opinions, research reporting, and industry news. Counselors Magazine also contains some articles that professionals can send to their patients for help, such as What Happens After the Breakup.
  • Journal of Mental Health Counseling: AMHCA publishes this research journal, which began in 1978. Readers access new issues quarterly, with findings on clinical counseling. Nonmembers can access select previous issues.