Online Master of Counseling
Master of Counseling In Context

A master’s in counseling meets the requirements to enter a well-established, highly regarded, and growing field. Counseling careers are diverse, offering both personal rewards and a stable income. Roles tend to be filled by individuals seeking fulfillment from their vocation and come with an average salary of $45,530, though top earners in the field can earn up to $74,150. [1] With a high degree of specialization possible and an ever-increasing pool of work, a master’s in counseling can be an excellent route to an exciting career.

What does a counselor do?

The American Counseling Association defines counseling as “a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.” [2]

Although the term “counselor” is often used interchangeably with “therapist,” “social worker,” and even “psychologist,” the fields are actually distinct, each boasting their own unique space within the fields of psychology and social work. [3]

Counselor vs. social worker

A counselor’s key focus lies in correcting specific issues that affect people’s lives. This may include everything from diagnosing and treating mental health disorders to providing behavioral therapy. The key difference between a counselor and a social worker, however, is that social workers are trained to take into account and assist with the wider physical environment in addition to the patient’s psychological requirements. For example, though a social worker may offer some form of counseling, needs like food and shelter lie within a social worker’s caseload but not a counselor’s.

Counselor vs. therapist

In some states like California, the title of therapist requires a license. However, in other states, the title can be used by individuals in other professions, such as life coaching, without the professional training or licensure. Marriage, family, and couples counselors tend to use the term therapist more than other counseling professionals.

Counselor vs. psychologist

Psychologists require a master’s and perhaps even a Ph.D. in psychology. If you want to treat people with the most serious mental illnesses, you might need to train as a clinical psychologist. However, counselors with a specialization in clinical mental health may be licensed to perform some mental health assessments according to that particular state’s licensing laws.

A counselor’s duty is to “help clients understand and clarify their views of their lifespace, and to learn to reach their self-determined goals. A counselor does this by helping clients to make meaningful, well-informed choices, as well as through the resolution of problems of an emotional or interpersonal nature.” [4]

Counseling spans a wealth of subjects — from school and careers counseling to rehabilitation, mental health, substance abuse, behavioral disorders, vocational and educational guidance, clinical, and marriage and family therapy.

Counselors work in almost every walk of life, which can be useful for career changers and mature students looking to cross-utilize skills and experience from their former vocation. There are a great many reasons to want to become a counselor, but one common factor is the desire to help people.

Why choose to work in counseling?

Some people who pursue a career in counseling have personal experience with the field or have seen its effects on someone close to them. Others see the need for counseling in a particular area and would like to fill the void.

Mental health is a key area of focus for counselors, and mental health issues are becoming increasingly prominent throughout the United States across all demographics. There is a very real and pressing need for qualified counselors in workplaces and schools across the U.S. reports that more than 3 million adolescents between ages 12 and 17 reported at least one major depressive episode during the past year. More than 2 million young people reported severe depression debilitating enough to impede daily functioning. [5] This is an area of increasing importance for counselors, as they seek to fill the vacuum and help people looking for support.

Areas of growth

Youth counseling isn’t the only area of growth for prospective Master of Counseling graduates. Projections show that the employment of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is set to increase by 22% from 2014 to 2024, much more quickly than the average for all occupations. This rapid growth is expected as addiction and mental health counseling services are increasingly covered by insurance policies. [6]

Mental health counselor and marriage and family therapist roles are projected to grow 19%, also faster than the average. [7]

Counseling degree types

There are three counseling degree types: MA, MS, and M.Ed. Understanding the difference can help ensure you are embarking on the pathway that’s most likely to help you achieve your career of choice.


A Master of Science (MS) in Counseling is the route generally considered suitable for students who hold a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. The MS in counseling typically offers the benefit of starting your specialization earlier than those studying the Master of Arts.


The alternative Master of Arts (MA) in Counseling is for students with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field. This type of degree historically includes a thesis; however, this is not always the case.


Master of Education (M.Ed.) degrees in counseling are available to those who want to work in school or youth counseling — for example, as a school guidance counselor. They offer specialization in this sector from the start of the program.

Key areas of counseling practice
The extensive variety of options in the field of counseling allows graduates to select a specialization and become an expert in that field. Some of the key areas of counseling practice are as follows:

Marriage and family counselor

Marriage and family counselors are sometimes also referred to as therapists depending on the specific requirements of the state board they operate under. They help people work through marital difficulties, sometimes with the aim of avoiding divorce or separation. Marriage and family counselors/therapists require a master’s degree, and accreditation from either the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), or both is desirable. Choosing a program accredited by a major body like CACREP often helps with certification and registration.

School guidance counselor

School guidance counselors work with children across a variety of issues from mental health problems to class selection. School guidance counselors are becoming even more in-demand to tackle the growing prevalence of mental health issues among today’s youth. School guidance counselors typically enjoy working with children and find meaning and purpose in making a difference in young lives. You’ll need a master’s degree to qualify for licensure in this field.

Career guidance

Career guidance counselors help people choose a career. They may work in a school or college, or in private practice. Generally, career guidance counselors are required to have a master’s degree alongside the credentials recognized by the state for licensure. [8]

Mental health

Counselors working in the mental health field come into contact with a vast array of mental problems, including mental disorders, stress, eating disorders, and other issues affecting mental balance. More health insurance companies now cover mental illness services, with about one in four adults suffering from a mental illness every year. Counseling opportunities in this field are increasing.


If you’re looking for a way to help individuals facing mental, physical, and social problems, as well as people with disabilities to live and work independently, rehabilitation counseling could be a good option. Rehabilitation counselors may work anywhere from community rehabilitation centers and senior citizen centers to youth guidance organizations. You’ll need a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a related subject to operate in this field, with some positions such as those within private practice requiring certification and a state license. [9]

Substance abuse

Substance abuse counseling is a niche field, and there is a strong correlation between the amount of training you do and the level of autonomy and earning potential once you are qualified. In some workplaces you will be able to practice in this field with a bachelor’s degree; however, a master’s is needed to qualify for licensure and operate in private practice.

Who becomes a counselor?

Counseling can be a rewarding career option for people of all backgrounds. The majority of counseling graduates are female (65%). Though this is a sector traditionally dominated by women, male counselors are increasingly sought after as the need for counseling grows across all demographics.

This career choice lends itself to people with the inherent desire to make a difference in our world, so if you want to have a positive impact on the health and well-being of others through your work, while being able to earn a steady income, counseling could be a good option.

Completing a Master of Counseling degree

Most Master of Counseling courses take two years to complete on a full-time basis. Flexible online learning is an option for working professionals looking for a program that fits around their commitments.

Where to study

Elements to consider include the quality and reputation of the institution you choose. It is imperative you take into account the school’s and program’s accreditation. Is the program accredited by a national accreditation agency such as Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), or the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)? The former is the biggest national accreditation body for programs in the United States. Programs accredited by CACREP are generally regarded as those with the required course content and hours leading to certification and licensure. COAMFTE specializes in marriage and family counseling/therapy.

Eligibility for a master’s in counseling

A master’s degree in counseling is targeted toward students with several years’ experience in the working world. How you qualify as a counselor depends upon your experience up to this point. A Master of Counseling might appeal you if you are working in the field and looking to take the next step in your career.

Perhaps you’re a human service worker with an undergraduate degree in a counseling-related discipline or previous work experience in a counseling-related field. Alternatively, a master’s in counseling might appeal to professionals working in an unrelated field and looking for a career change.

A specialized education can help you achieve the goal of working as a counselor in an extremely specialized field. In general, an MS in Counseling is the route of choice for students who have earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a counseling-related field. If you have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, the MA is a more fitting option.

Why earn a master’s in counseling degree?

The breadth of specializations is often one of the attractions of a master’s in counseling degree because it allows the student to become a subject matter expert in a highly specialized field. This area lends itself well to career changers with 5-10 years or more experience in the working world. In fact, according to, counseling and clinical psychology programs may prefer older students in some cases, believing them to be more mature and responsible than younger students. [12]

In addition to the potential for a good average salary and the pursuit of professional development, students in this field tend to have a strong desire to work for the greater good, broaden knowledge, and increase their understanding of counseling-related trends and best practices.

Individuals who seek a career in counseling usually have one thing in common — a desire to help people work through life’s challenges.

Certification and Licensure

The path to licensure as a counselor includes a large number of clinical hours. CACREP-accredited courses include the following, leading to certification and licensure:

  • A supervised practicum experience in the counseling field that totals a minimum 100 hours over the academic term of 10 weeks (minimum)
  • At least 40 clock hours of direct service with clients that contributes to the development of counseling skills
  • Post-practicum, students must complete 600 hours of a counseling internship, in supervised roles and settings. This must take place with clients who are relevant to their area of specialty.
  • 240 hours (minimum) of direct service
  • One hour of weekly supervision throughout the internship

Consider whether the college you choose will help you meet these requirements. A degree that doesn’t lead to certification and licensure will still enable you to teach or research counseling, or work for a restricted number of employers. Without the counseling license, however, you will be unable to practice privately or work with numerous employers that require it.

Master of Counseling Career Advancement
Counseling is extremely varied. Before choosing a specialization, it makes good sense to take a holistic look at the options and industry outlook. Most counseling specializations require a master’s degree to work as a counselor, but there is some variation in the potential salary in each area. As a counseling graduate, consider your passion for the subject along with future earning potential.
Where can a master’s degree in counseling take you?

A Master of Counseling degree can prepare students to work in a variety of settings: private businesses, government agencies, health care systems, schools, or universities. Potential earnings depend on the industry and location, but counselors with a master’s degree can earn as much as $70,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Earnings vary depending upon specialization. For example, mental health counselors earn an average salary of $43,190. Marriage and family therapists earn an average of $48,600 [10], and school and career counselors $53,660, according to the BLS. [11]

When selecting your field, consider which area you are passionate about and why. Many students have a clear specialization goal early on, while others choose a more generalized counseling program.

Marriage and family counseling

Marriage and family counseling is ranked #2 in Best Social Services Jobs by U.S. News & World Report. In the U.S. there are 5,000 jobs in this field and an unemployment rate of just 0.6%. The median annual wage is $48,600. [13]

As a marriage and family therapist, you’ll need a master’s from a related, accredited program and two years or more of postgraduate supervised clinical experience. All 50 states license marriage and family therapy. COAMFTE-accredited marriage and family therapy programs train students to become clinical mental health practitioners. Marriage and family therapists/counselors are qualified to diagnose/treat mental and emotional disorders, including cognitive, affective, and behavioral disorders, within a family or marriage. [14]

School guidance

There are 273,400 jobs in school and career guidance counseling in the U.S., with a median salary of $53,660. The highest earners take home around $87,640. Between 2014 and 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects almost an 8% increase in employment for educational, guidance, school and vocational counselors — around 22,500 new jobs. But the employment growth rate depends on state and local government budgets. Education funding cuts have the potential to impact this negatively. [15]

Mental health

Jobs in mental health counseling boast a median salary of $41,880. Psychiatrists and psychologists charge higher rates for therapy, meaning insurance companies are directing patients toward the affordable alternative of mental health counselors to lower costs. Due to this, the BLS predicts the sector will see employment growth of 20% between 2014 and 2024 — or 26,400 new jobs. Mental health counseling requires a master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical supervision, as well as passing a state license test.


Rehabilitation counselors typically earn $34,390 per year. There were 120,100 jobs in this field in 2014, and the BLS predicts a growth rate of 9%, which is higher than average. [16] Demand for rehabilitation counselors is expected to continue its steady growth rate, with life expectancy increases meaning an increase in the number of elderly people requiring such services. Rehabilitation counselors typically need a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a related field, and some positions require certification or a license.

Substance abuse

Substance abuse counselors earn $39,980 per year, but the BLS predicts a growth rate of 22% between 2014 and 2024 in the field. This is largely due to addiction and mental health counseling services increasingly being covered by insurance policies. Most positions require a bachelor’s degree, but this can vary. Depending on the employer, you may be able to practice as a substance abuse counselor with anything from a high school diploma and certification to a master’s degree.

Possible job titles and salaries for graduates

Salaries within counseling are dependent upon on your specialization and tend to increase in line with the amount of study required to qualify and practice in the relative fields. A school counselor earns a $53,660 median salary, but the highest-earning 10% earn $87,640. [17] Marriage and family counselors earn a $48,600 median salary with the highest 10% earning $81,960. [18] Mental health counselors typically earn a $62,622 median salary, with the highest 10% earning $105,403. [19] All three of these examples require master’s degrees, alongside the necessary certification and licensure.

Master of Counseling Curriculum
Most counselor jobs require a master’s degree as the minimum entry requirement. Some individuals continue their training by completing a doctoral degree after their master’s to work in colleges and universities teaching and supervising future counselors. In addition to a master's in counseling, you need to be licensed and certified to practice as a counselor. To gain eligibility to complete the doctoral degree, counselors need to have a master’s degree and have worked as a counselor.

Most master’s in counseling courses include a core of eight modules covering the following subjects:

  • Basic Counseling Techniques
  • Counseling Theories and Practice
  • Group Counseling Theory and Practice
  • Social and Cultural Foundations of Counseling
  • Counseling Diverse Populations
  • Ethical, Legal, and Professional Issues for Counselors
  • Research and Evaluation for Counselors
  • Diagnostics, Assessment, and Treatment in Counseling

CACREP reviews and evaluates counseling educational programs to determine whether national standards have been met. These national standards are centered around eight core areas in the discipline:

  • Human growth
  • Helping relationships
  • Social foundations
  • Group counseling
  • Career development
  • Professional issues
  • Research
  • Appraisal

Concentrations go beyond the core competencies and allow master’s in counseling students to go into greater depth within their specialist field. Graduate-level counseling programs offer students the chance to specialize their focus through elective courses. Though programs can vary in their offerings, the most typical concentrations are mental health counseling, addiction/substance abuse counseling, school counseling, and marriage/family counseling.

To practice as a professional counselor, it is sensible to select a program that best prepares you for your state’s licensing exam. It is also important to select a program that is recognized by licensing boards and employers such as CACREP accredited programs.


Practicums and internships are considered critical experiences for successful completion of a master’s in counseling. After you’ve completed the portion of the skill development preparation portion of the program, you’ll generally begin the clinical experience portion. In a CACREP-accredited program, this equates to a 100-hour (minimum) practicum with a minimum of 40 hours of direct service with clients. It also includes a 600-hour internship with a minimum of 240 hours of direct service with clients.

You’ll complete your internship in your program’s area of emphasis, so a mental health counselor program will be completed with mental health patients, perhaps in a hospital or clinical setting. You’ll be supervised by qualified faculty throughout the process. This portion of the course requires planning to ensure you can fit it around your other commitments because it takes a great deal of time and effort. For this reason, many master’s in counseling students do not work alongside their studies.

Master of Counseling Program Length
The length of an online master’s degree program can depend on a number of variables, perhaps the most prominent of which is the pace at which you choose to study. You can finish a typical master’s degree program in about two to three years if you choose to study full-time, although some accelerated programs may be able to help you finish more quickly. Online master’s degree programs tend to offer flexibility suitable for students who choose to study part-time. This option will likely extend your time to completion, but it can allow you to study while fulfilling your familial, social, and professional obligations. You can find more information on this topic at our program length overview page.
Average number of credit hours/courses required

Master of Counseling degrees typically take around two to three years to complete full time with about 60 total course credits. Clinical mental health counseling programs are transitioning to a 60 semester hour minimum. Some counseling specialties, like school or career counseling, require only 48. [20] Counseling students are required to complete group projects as well as videotaping and attending supervision sessions, so commitment to the program is vital.

Graduate school is more time-consuming than undergraduate programs, so working while completing a full-time program may not be an option. You may be required to study during the summer months as well as during typical fall/winter/spring semesters.

Programs that include a practicum or internship will include a time-consuming work internship, usually toward the end of the program. With 600-700 hours to complete, this replicates a full-time job, preparing you for your future of working in counseling.

Part-time studying

Some schools recommend working 20 hours or less to succeed. Completing the program part time can be an option with some institutions. However, this may have financial aid implications. Students need to enroll in at least six credits per semester to qualify for government loans.

You should ensure to only borrow the money you need, as borrowing more can mean a higher level of debt upon graduation. Dropping below full-time may also affect scholarships, depending on the eligibility requirements.

Transferring credits

Credits may be transferred from one institution to another based on the university’s approval. Up to 20 are typically allowed to be transferred from other courses toward the master’s in counseling.

Online learning

Online Master of Counseling programs tend to offer a more flexible option, with the opportunity to study around work and at a slower pace. A course typically requires 10 to 12 hours of study per week, and you may choose to take one or two courses simultaneously.

Online courses with the practicum/internship element require you to physically complete the necessary hours of work to graduate, meaning that you’ll have to factor in this time. Universities with the option of online studying offer help setting up the practicum and internship elements of the program — make sure you check whether the institution offers the relevant industry links before signing up.

Master of Counseling Admissions Requirements

While each program will set its admission requirements based on its own criteria, many requirements are universal across all programs. No matter where you apply, you can expect to provide items like transcripts from previous degrees or coursework; standardized test scores; a personal statement or essay; letters of recommendation; and an overview of relevant work experience.

In certain cases, some of these requirements may be waived.

For more information about admissions, please visit our admissions requirements page.

Master of Counseling Alternative Degree/Field of Study Options
Prospective students looking at counseling degree programs may also be considering Master of Social Work and Psychology, among others.

Counselors in most fields are required to possess a master’s degree in most cases, whereas to qualify as a psychologist you must train to doctoral degree level. Ph.D. programs for psychologists are extremely competitive, requiring high test scores and a strong GPA. They can be very research heavy in terms of their content and include more statistics and quantitative work as well as highly detailed coverage of psychometric assessments.

Many consider the years of schooling it takes to become a counselor as enough of an outlay to reap the rewards of a steady income and worthwhile career. However, this does depend on the area you intend to work in. If you want to help treat people with serious mental illnesses, you might need to train as a clinical psychologist.

Jobs for counselors are growing more quickly than psychologists — for example, mental health counseling jobs are expected to grow 20% between 2014 and 2024. [21] Jobs for counseling, clinical, and school psychologists, meanwhile, are expected to grow 19%. [22] But salaries for psychologists in these specialties was $70,580 in 2015, while the mean salary for mental health counselors was $41,880.

As a counselor, you will likely earn less than a psychologist, but there may be more access to work and a stable income.

It is important to note that you can become a counselor with master’s degrees in subjects other than counseling. For example, you can become a school counselor with a master’s degree in psychology, but you must be able to meet the requirements for the education component. This could mean completing additional coursework and a practicum to follow state guidelines. You’ll need to do this after completing your program to gain state licensure. Choosing a specialized master’s in counseling with the applicable education component will get you there faster.

Master of Counseling and Master of Social Work degrees do overlap in their content. Both degrees require state licensure and will give you the skills to provide counseling. These programs differ in that counselors focus on helping people with a specific set of problems or who require treatment for a mental health disorder. Social workers are involved in providing a wider range of services within larger social service systems — such as food and shelter, for example.

Social work is also set to grow quickly — by 12% between 2014 and 2024, with a median salary of $45,900. Although most social workers need a bachelor’s degree in social work, clinical social workers must have a master’s degree and two years of post-master’s experience in a supervised clinical setting. Clinical social workers must also be licensed in the state in which they practice. [23]

Master of Counseling Relevant Counseling Industry Associations and Organizations

Industry associations bring together like-minded individuals and academics for networking, career, and educational advancement. Institutions may benefit from connections with these organizations by providing a chance to network with professionals already working in the industry, gaining access to up-to-date information, high-quality internships, and more. Networking broadens the mind, introducing counselors to new techniques and budding theories in the field.

American Counseling Association (ACA)

Founded in 1952, the American Counseling Association is a not-for-profit professional and educational organization. It is dedicated to the growth and enhancement of the counseling profession and represents counselors in an array of practice settings. [25]

American School Counselor Association (ASCA)

The American School Counselor Association provides professional development, publications and other resources, research and advocacy to professional school counselors worldwide. Its mission is to support school counselors’ efforts to help students focus on academic, career, and social/emotional development so they achieve success in school and are prepared to lead fulfilling lives as responsible members of society. [26]

National Career Development Association (NCDA)

The National Career Development Association provides professional development, publications, standards, and advocacy to practitioners and educators who inspire and empower individuals to achieve their career and life goals. [27]

Master of Counseling Accreditation
Regional accreditation is the most prestigious type of accreditation that an online or traditional college or university can receive. It is granted only after careful consideration by private, not-for-profit organizations tasked with evaluating educational quality. Regional accreditation is particularly important if you anticipate that you might want to transfer credits from one online degree program to another or use those credits to pursue another degree. Most regionally accredited schools will only accept credits from other regionally accredited institutions of higher learning. You can learn more on this topic at our regional accreditation page.
Typical accreditations for master's in counseling degrees

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

A specialized accreditor for counseling programs, CACREP accredits most master’s in counseling at the master’s and doctoral levels in the United States and throughout the world. CACREP is recognized as an accreditor by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

CACREP and its importance

CACREP is an accrediting body recognized by both the American Counseling Association and the U.S. Department of Education. As a specialized and unbiased third-party accrediting body, CACREP takes on the task of reviewing and evaluating educational programs in counseling to see if they meet national standards. In addition, the reviewing body will also review the clinical standards to ensure that supervised clinical training is offering the specialty training that students need.

Specializations accredited by CACREP include:

  • Addiction Counseling: 60-semester-hour programs prepare graduates to work with those affected by alcohol, drugs, gambling, sexual, and other addictive disorders.
  • Career Counseling: Career counseling programs prepare graduates to help people wanting to make career decisions in a variety of settings, including career resources centers, private practice, and employee assistance programs.
  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling: For students seeking to work with patients with mental and emotional disorders, and promote mental health and wellness.
  • Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling: Within private practice, community-based mental health facilities, hospitals, schools and more, clinical rehabilitation counselors help those with cognitive, physical, and other disabilities.
  • Marriage, Couple and Family Counseling: Working with couples and families to help work through everything from mental and emotional disorders to communications issues. Counseling may occur within private practice, community mental health centers, and more.
  • School Counseling: Working with K-12 students through individual counseling, group counseling, classroom guidance, family, and teacher consultations within the school setting.

It’s generally easier to become licensed if your program has the expected accreditation. You may also find it easier to obtain employment with certain agencies. Proper accreditation can also make the licensing process easier if a counselor moves from one jurisdiction to another.

Commission on Accreditation of Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)

The Commission on Accreditation of Marriage and Family Therapy Education promotes best practices for Marriage and Family Therapy educational programs. It reviews and revises the accreditation standards and policies, and the accreditation of graduate and post-graduate educational programs. [24]

Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE)

The Council on Rehabilitation Education is a specialized accreditation organization recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and a member of the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors. This body accredits graduate programs for a variety of professional rehabilitation counseling positions.

Specialized accreditation

Before selecting a counseling program, it is important to check if it is accredited by an accrediting body such as CACREP. This accreditation is voluntarily sought by education programs offering master’s degrees in counseling and/or doctoral degrees in counselor education and supervision. There are two varieties of accreditation in the U.S. — institutional and specialized. Institutional accreditation looks at the institution as a whole, while specialized accreditors, including CACREP, review the professional programs within these institutions.

Graduating from a program accredited by CACREP makes it much more likely that you will be able to practice as a professional counselor upon graduation and after seeking the necessary licensure. Programs without accreditation may not lead you toward your desired career. Finding this out after graduation can be devastating, so make sure you do your research before committing to a program.

Master of Counseling Licensure and Certification
To gain licensure as a professional counselor, you will need to consult the state board relating to the location you wish to practice in. Each has different processes required to gain your counseling license, including the state’s licensure exam and a specific number of postgraduate supervised hours. Graduation from a CACREP program does not guarantee eligibility for licensure, but most states recognize these accredited degrees. The American Counseling Association publishes Licensure Requirements for Professional Counselors: A state-by-state report, which lists licensing requirements in each state as well as contact information for the state board. This covers licensure as a professional counselor, mental health counselor, marriage, couple and family counselor, and addictions counselor. For Professional School Counselor licensure, you need to consult your state’s department of education.
National Certification in Counseling

National counselor certification demonstrates that a counselor meets the national standards set by the counseling profession. This is not a license to practice counseling, but national certification is valid in every state.

In some states, a national certification can assist you in obtaining a state license.

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) offers the National Certified Counselor (NCC) — the world’s largest national counselor certification.

According to NBCC, to gain national certification you need:

  • A master’s degree in counseling or with a major study in counseling from a regionally accredited institution
  • 3,000 hours of counseling experience and 100 hours of supervision over a two-year post-master’s time period
  • Post-master’s experience and supervision requirements are waived for graduate students who have completed CACREP accredited tracks
  • Passing score on NCE
Changes in counseling certification

Beginning Jan. 1, 2022, NBCC will require a master’s degree or higher from a CACREP-accredited counseling program to gain certification. Any student graduating from a program not accredited by CACREP will not be eligible to apply for the National Certified Counselor (NCC).

What Is a State License?

State licenses have different names in different states, including LPC, LCPC, LPCC, LMHC, LPCMH, LCMHC, and LPC-MH. The license gives you permission to call yourself a counselor and practice counseling within your state. Licensing requirements differ state to state, but generally require:

  • A master’s degree in counseling
  • Counseling experience
  • Supervision
  • Passing score on NCE and/or NCMHCE
  • Sometimes an exam on mental health laws within that state
  • Some states have a single license and some have a two-tiered system
History of the Degree

Counseling was born from the field of psychology, which as a discipline is just 130 years old, and is literally defined as “a study of the soul”. A number of vocations have sprung from psychology, including psychotherapists, therapists, social workers, and counselors.

Wilhelm Wundt opened the first psychology lab in 1879. Wundt sought to examine human consciousness, using an experimental method he called introspection, while other famous names such as Sigmund Freud brought prominence to the profession, making vast contributions to psychology.

Although its roots were sown earlier, it was after the World War II that psychology and counseling really began to flourish in the U.S. The National Mental Health Act was passed in 1946, leading to research and programs related to mental illness and health. [29]

Over the years, counseling has grown in popularity and acceptance, as mental illness loses its stigma. In fact, talking to a professional about your problems is now deemed a healthy way to deal with them.

High-level education such as master’s degrees were created out of the need to offer and regulate education in the field. In 1976, Virginia became the first state to pass a licensure law for counselors. Today, bodies like CACREP, formed in 1981, create a gold standard for professionalism within counseling.

Modern counseling focuses on the whole person and is becoming more aware of social factors relating to the development of mental health disorders. The field continues to grow to help people cope with life’s challenges — from mental health to marriage and family therapy — with increasing numbers of health insurance policies covering counseling. [28]

Master of Counseling Tuition and Fees

There are a number of factors that can greatly affect how much your education will cost. These include whether you attend a public or private institution; whether you attend as an in-state or out-of-state student; and whether you qualify for financial aid like grants or scholarships.

For a more detailed breakdown of tuition, fees, and other financial issues, please visit our tuition and fees page.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

A MAC degree program aims to prepare graduates for a variety of counseling settings. Once the program is completed, the graduate can begin the counseling licensing process. Students in a graduate counseling program will be provided with a foundation in general counseling coursework with the opportunity to complete a thesis or research project that focuses on their area of interest. Some of the common specializations are:

  • School Counseling
  • Addiction Counseling
  • Career Counseling
  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Marriage Counseling
  • Gerontological Counseling

While a graduate degree can’t guarantee career success, it can provide the additional education and training necessary to increase opportunities for the graduate. Specifically, a master’s degree is required to gain certification as a professional counselor. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) “developed and owns both the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), which is used for licensure in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Guam.” [30] The application process for state licensure varies by state; visit the state board directory to determine your state’s requirements. [31]

No — attaining management/senior positions is not guaranteed through the completion of a master’s degree. These positions often require many years of experience and a significant level of career achievement. However, an advanced degree can help you develop the necessary knowledge and skills required for these positions and also prove your dedication to the field.

No, a bachelor’s in counseling is not a requirement to apply to a MAC program. As long as the minimum GPA and other admission requirements are met, students from a variety of backgrounds can be accepted into a graduate counseling program. Those without a bachelor’s in counseling or the closely related field of psychology may be placed in a program that would address any gaps in education or professional experience.

Key attributes to look for in an MAC degree include:

  • Accreditation: What accreditation(s) do the program and school hold? The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Education Programs (CACREP) is the accrediting body for master’s and doctoral degree programs in the U.S.
  • Support Network: What support systems are in place to keep you connected with fellow students and faculty?
  • Delivery Method: How flexible is the program — is it fully online, on-campus, or a hybrid? Does it offer a full-time and part-time option?
  • Learning Experiences: Will the program offer real-world experiences?
  • Affordability: Can I afford the program?
  • On-Campus Requirements: Are there any requirements for me to attend on-campus workshops or sessions? CACREP-accredited programs will require a residency.
  • Reputation: Do the school and program have a good reputation and ranking?
  • Faculty Experience: Are there faculty with a broad array of experience across multiple disciplines?
  • Specializations/Concentrations Offered: What specializations or concentrations are offered in the program?

Online MAC programs can vary in length between 18 months to three years. The time it takes to complete a program will depend on the number of courses you enroll in for each term. Some MAC programs may allow flexibility with your curriculum load, meaning you can take longer to complete the degree if necessary.

Many MAC programs offer concentrations for their students, while others are more general. Of those that offer concentrations or specializations, some of the more popular are:

  • School Counseling
  • Addiction Counseling
  • Career Counseling
  • Clinical Mental Health
  • Marriage Counseling
  • Gerontological Counseling

Some online MAC programs are 100% online, while others are more of a hybrid model. Hybrid programs may require two to three campus visits throughout the program. Students should ensure they have a full understanding of these requirements and determine if they will have the flexibility and funding required for campus visits prior to applying.

A minimum GPA of 3.0 is generally what online MAC programs are looking for in their applicants. However, applicants with a lower GPA should not be discouraged from inquiring about a program they are interested in. Universities look at a number of factors when determining an applicant’s eligibility. Consult with a guidance counselor on the enrollment team to determine if you meet the eligibility requirements.

Whether you will need to complete the GRE prior to applying for a program will largely depend on what school you have chosen. There are many programs that do not require a GRE. Check the admissions requirements for your school before applying.

While this will depend on your course load and your familiarity with the subject, most MAC students typically spend anywhere from 15 to 20 hours studying each week.

This will vary by university, but most programs stipulate you must enroll in two courses per semester. There may also be minimum enrollment requirements to maintain financial aid eligibility. Be sure to discuss the course load requirements with your guidance counselor prior to applying.

Many institutions offer MAC degrees online.

Most institutions do not indicate on the degree that it was earned online.

Yes, typically schools follow the same curriculum for their online programs as they do for their campus-based programs.

Asynchronous coursework can be completed on your own time — a big plus for many online graduate students. Synchronous coursework has to be completed within a set timeframe. This is typically done for group projects, seminars, presentations, and other learning initiatives that require multiple attendees. The elements of asynchronous and synchronous learning in your online program depend on the professor and class itself. Once you enroll, reach out to teachers for specifics, but remember that the curriculum may be divided into these two subsets.

MAC tuition varies greatly from university to university. Among a sample of CACREP-accredited online MAC programs, the cost of tuition was found to be between $51,000 and $100,848.

Generally there are supplementary costs apart from tuition. The tuition does not usually include the cost of books or additional fees. These additional costs will vary from program to program.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office is the largest provider of student financial aid in the country. To find out whether you are eligible to apply for Federal Student Aid for your MAC, visit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website here. [33]

The largest provider of student financial aid in the nation is the Federal Student Aid office in the U.S. Department of Education. They supply college-level or career school students with loans, grants and work-study funds, as needed. You can apply for federal financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as, FAFSA.

There are numerous other scholarships available, but you will need to research which opportunities you’re qualified to pursue. Many states, associations, websites and businesses award scholarships based on specific criteria. Be sure to do your research and apply for any scholarships you’re qualified to be awarded. [33]

Start with a cost-benefit analysis based on the price of the degree and potential ROI. Weigh the full cost against the positive outcomes you expect as a graduate, which may include a boost in earning potential, upward mobility, or job satisfaction.

Students should research schools and programs that are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Programs with CACREP accreditation have been evaluated and meet expected industry standards for preparing students to make valuable contributions to the field of counseling. [34]

Accreditations are a strong indication of quality, but are also required for students who plan to apply for federal financial aid. Accreditation ensures that your degree is recognized by employers, professional associations, and other accredited institutions of higher education.

SARA (State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement) applies only to distance education programs in the United States that cross state lines. This agreement is made between member states and establishes comparable postsecondary national standards for distance education courses.

Not every state is a SARA member. Through SARA, member states only have to receive authorization in their home state. Without SARA, non-member states would have to receive authorization in their home state and the state of each of their online students. [32]

Every school has a department or team responsible for online education. This department will be able to answer questions regarding compliance for your home state. Additionally, you can locate the school through SARA (if it is a SARA institution) to confirm compliance.

Other graduate programs that may offer coursework in similar areas include:
Master of Science in Counseling
Master of Arts in Psychology
Master of Science in Psychology


[4] Burks and Steffire, 1979
[30] National Board for Certified Counselors. Accessed March 24, 2017.
[31] National Board for Certified Counselors. Accessed March 24, 2017.
[33] Federal Student Aid. Accessed March 24, 2017.
[34] Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. Accessed March 24, 2017.