Accredited Online Counseling Degree Guide for 2015

Are you a great listener who is empathetic, but also objective and practical? Do you like exploring personal issues and problems on a deep and intimate level? Do you want to have an immediate and powerful impact on the lives of others?

Or, perhaps you aspire to help people with mental, emotional, or behavioral problems find useful techniques and tactics to both cope with, and better thrive in, their daily lives. Or, if you love psychology and giving advice, but don’t want the extra expense or additional challenge of attending medical school, nor the responsibility of prescribing medicine or treatment, and you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, a career in professional counseling may be perfect for you.

Professional counselors must complete a graduate (master’s or doctoral) degree and normally choose an area of specialty that can range from addictions to career, family, marriage, or school counseling – each covering an equally-broad spectrum of different life chapters and challenges – whether it be helping high school or college students choose a career path to fighting personal addictions to helping save a marriage, enhancing better communication and understanding between parents and children or providing support to caregivers and family members of aging adults.


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Quick Answers

Why would I want to be a counselor versus a psychotherapist, psychiatrist or psychologist?

Counseling requires only a master’s degree, while psychiatrists must complete a medical doctorate of psychiatry and psychologists must complete a PhD in psychology.

Is there a difference between a therapist and a counselor?

Both therapy and counseling involve talking and meeting with a licensed professional, either in an individual, family or group setting. Counselors often help individuals understand and solve problems, cope with both emotional and mental stress, and find solutions to more immediate problems such as addictions, communication, relationship or work challenges. Confidentiality is respected between both client and practitioner in both. However, therapy may involve more relaxed weekly conversation and exploration of emotions, feelings and your situation where you will discover tactics (with the guidance of the therapist) to deal personally or find solutions to specific problems or situations, once you understand the source of your feelings, reactions or emotions.

What are the advantages of a counseling degree?

A counseling degree and subsequent state licensing prepares you to work as a counselor in a variety of places from private practice to schools, community centers, or nonprofit service organizations.

How many programs are available online for counseling?

There are multiple degrees available online in counseling, from bachelor’s to master’s and doctorate degrees, but it is important that schools be accredited by The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP), which only accredits master’s and doctoral programs.

Are there other degrees of certification or licenses necessary to become a counselor?

Yes, most definitely and every State Board has different requirements and eligibilities. If you earn a degree from a CACREP-accredited program (Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs), you still must take the state licensing exam and complete a certain number of post-graduate, supervised hours.

Available Degrees

Although there are a wide variety of degrees and courses you may take in pursuit of a counseling degree and career, keep in mind that above all, you must attain a master’s or PhD and be licensed to actually practice as a counselor. Here are some recommended degrees that will help you prepare for your degree path, while also ensuring you get a broad and well-rounded education.

  • Associate of Arts (AA): Includes any associates degrees or certificates in relative fields from business to data and IT to health services, engineering, natural sciences or public service, depending on the community or junior college or bachelor’s program. An internship in counseling while completing your associates or undergraduate study program will help direct you later to the best course of study for you.
  • Bachelor of Arts (BA): A wide variety of liberal arts degrees are offered by most colleges and universities and may range from art to English to languages to history to economics to physical and social sciences including psychology. A BA will ensure a well-rounded, foundational education, but also can be focused on counseling-supportive studies and skills.
  • Bachelor of Science (BS): The word ‘science’ in a bachelor of science degree may be somewhat misleading as the specialization may range from architecture to biology to chemistry to computer science to divinity to education to history to journalism to marketing to microbiology to politics or psychology. Clearly, there are some BS degrees (like psychology, nursing or cognitive science) that may be more well suited for a degree in counseling, but most programs will accept any undergraduate degree from an accredited institution. Especially fitting is the BSW or bachelor of social work, if available at your school.
  • Master of Arts (MA): Most common degree types for those pursuing a career in counseling are a master of arts in social work or counseling for families, individuals or even substance abuse.
  • Master of Science: (MS): The most common masters of science in social work with counseling specialties from addiction to marriage and family to mental health to school to human behavior to counseling psychology.
  • Master of Social Work (MSW):  Requires six years of college/university or clinical coursework in social work, guidance, counseling, psychotherapy, human services, psychology and others.
  • Master’s Degree in Social Work or Social Welfare (MSW), Master of Science in Counseling (MSC), Master of Arts in Professional Counseling (MAPC) and Masters of Science in Education (MSEd): All are varying degrees programs that are good foundations for a counseling career. Check both for accreditation and individual school’s course of study to see what is required.
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD): A doctor of philosophy in psychology is an ideal degree for a counselor but also involves independent research and providing professional services. However, to use the title, ‘psychologist,’ you must meet state requirements and obtain a license to practice.
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD): A doctor of psychology is an ideal degree for a counselor but also involves research, scholarship and some clinical training, as well as a possible dissertation. Again, to use the title, ‘psychologist,’ you must meet state requirements and obtain a license to practice.
  • Doctor of Medicine (M.D.): Involves completion of medical school and a residency, but may be in psychology.
  • Doctor of Educational Psychology: (EdD): Another doctoral degree but not for private practice without licensing and board certification.

In order to be a practicing professional counselor, you must earn a master’s degree in an accredited program in counseling.

Professional counselors normally have a master’s or doctorate in one of the following areas of specialty: (Note: Not all programs and specialties are listed here, but these are some of the most common. Research schools that may offer the programs you are most interested in pursuing.)

  • Addiction Counseling
    Normally a 60-semester-hour program, these programs teach counseling students how to help people and families struggling with addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sexual or eating disorders, focusing on models of treatment and recovery, avoiding relapses and how to apply interventions.

  • Career Counseling
    Career counselors help students and individuals with career decisions and direction. Also known as vocational counselors, they help make sense and optimize the education, passions, personality, skills and interests for the best possible career paths.
  • Clinical Mental Health

    CMHC (Clinical Mental Health Counseling) span a wide variety of mental and emotional disorders, as well as promoting mental health and wellness.

  • Community Agency Counseling

    This area of study is specific to most organized agencies that specialize in problems like drug and alcohol addiction, abuse, and family.

  • Marriage, Couple and Family Counseling

    These counselors principally address the particular dynamics and issues of a family unit, while working with the entire family, a couple or individuals within the unit.

  • Gerontological Counseling

    These programs provide the knowledge and skills necessary to work with older adults and their families, specifically around the aging process, including the psychological, biological and social-cultural factors around this particular phase of life and the needs of both older adults and their families and caregivers.

  • School Counseling

    Graduates may work with any age of student from Kindergarten through high school. They work to promote the academic, career and professional development of all students K-12 in a school environment ranging from individual and group counseling to classroom and teacher guidance.

  • Student Affairs and College Counseling

    Specific to higher education and post-graduation from high school, this area of counseling tends to focus on the university environment, in everything from student life to residential, leadership and orientation events to career counseling and multiculturalism.

Online Degrees & Accreditation

Online degree programs can be very helpful to students today but it is important to realize that even though there are several programs offering degrees in counseling, you must obtain your degree through an accredited program, and then later may be required to fulfill both clinical internships and/or apply and be tested for licenses to practice as a counselor in your specific state. Be sure to thoroughly research each program so you can determine both the limitations and expectations for your specific degree and area of interest.

Main accreditation authorities for counseling programs include the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), an independent agency recognized by the Council for Higher Accreditation (CORE) to accredit master’s and doctoral degree programs in counseling and its specialties and related education programs offered by colleges and universities throughout the world.

Other helpful accreditation and board information can be found through these additional resources for researching (degree) accredited programs of study:

American Association of State Counseling Boards

Provides state-by-state information on specific boards that certify the practice of counseling and is the resource for information about counselor licensing and regulation, test development, and standards for licensing.

American Counseling Association

A professional organization of counselors in the US. The world’s largest association exclusively representing professional counselors. Also offers online education, advocacy, research, and professional standards.

Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE):

Develops professional preparation standards for graduate and undergraduate training in rehabilitation education since 1972. Also lists accredited programs at specific colleges each year.

Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE): The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education is a specialized accrediting body that accredits master’s, doctoral, and post-graduate degree clinical training programs in marriage and family therapy throughout the US and Canada. Provides abundant info on the accrediting process and community.

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP): NASP supports that all youth have a right to receive equal educational opportunities and that discriminatory practices toward LGBTQ youth violate those rights, as well as help children thrive in school, at home and in life.

National Board for Certified Counselors

Fact: By January 1st, 2022, the NBCC will require a master’s degree (or higher) from a CACREP-accredited counseling program.

Course of Study

All counselors are required to complete a four-year undergraduate degree, as well as pursue their master’s degree to begin to practice as a certified counselor.

A bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field will be helpful, but the majority of your specialty courses will be taken during your master’s program. They will range between all the areas of specialties in counseling we have listed above under “Available Degrees” and may include more, depending on your school program.


As discussed before, counselors may pursue a variety of different types of counseling in a large range of locations from private practice to schools to community centers to rehab and mental health centers.

Careers with a BA or BS Degree in Social Work or Psychology:

Unfortunately, a full-time career as a counselor is not possible until you have obtained your master’s, but you may be attending school in a master’s program in counseling or social work and working as an intern or assistant to other counselors in a variety of locations.

Careers requiring advanced degrees or degrees in other fields:

  • Addiction Counselor
    Treats addictions to drugs or behaviors as an illness. Helps clients free themselves from dependence on alcohol, drugs or other addictions, such as sex or unwanted behaviors.
  • Career Counselor
    Advises and assists college and university students and adults exploring different career paths based on the market and their interests.
  • Child Abuse Counselor
    Assists families and children suffering from the affects or a history of child abuse.
  • Child/Pediatric Counselor
    Focuses on adjustment issues such as depression, anxiety, ADD, or OCD with children affected by these issues.
  • Clinical Mental Health Counselor
    Mental health counselors help all sorts of individuals cope with difficult life events from illness to career change or job loss to the loss of death of loved ones, relationship problems or divorce. They can also help with mental illness and know when to prescribe more help if there is a risk of violence or suicide.
  • Community Mental Health Counselors
    Help those who may not be able to afford regular counseling or therapy, especially the homeless, unemployed, or struggling financially. Also those who may suffer from genetic disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome, premature birth, physical disabilities or mental retardation.
  • Domestic Violence Counselor
    Support victims of domestic violence, empowering them to walk away from abusive relationships and live successfully on their own, as well as end the cycle of violence.
  • Gerontological or Geriatric Counselor
    Help individuals and families with any issues related to the aging process, from transition to retirement communities to loss of friends and family to physical and mental impairments and overall health, independence and dignity.
  • Grief Counselor
    Help those experiencing the loss of a spouse, parent, child or other loved one. Also may help with the loss of a pet or unborn child, or relationship.
  • Marriage, Couple and Family Counselor
    Help people work through problems and rebuild relationships with family members, spouses and children. Often work to avoid divorce or survive a challenging situation whether an illness, loss of a job, abuse or death.
  • Rehab Counselor
    Helps individuals with disabilities live independently and productively.
  • School Counselor
    Assisting young people in choosing a career or putting together an academic or vocational road map.
  • Spiritual Counselor
    Specifically help with spiritual growth and life purpose, overcoming obstacles and putting difficulties or pain in perspective, with respect to the individuals belief system or tradition.
  • Student Affairs and College Counselor
    Like the school counselor above, it is more specific to universities, colleges, or high school graduates seeking their next steps on the road to their careers and lives.
  • Substance Abuse Counselor
    Specific to treating those suffering from addictions to drugs or alcohol.
  • Suicide Intervention Counselor
    Counseling those at risk of suicide, or those who have made previous attempts or are survivors. Very specific to guilt and grief and use cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT or DBT) in examining and discovering their lives are worthwhile.
  • Transformational Counselor
    Great at helping people move through transition, let go of limiting beliefs or histories, fears, or patterns of failure in relationships or life. Much focus is on changing thoughts, attitudes and beliefs to embrace new action and life.
  • Veterans Counselor
    Unique to the critical needs and effects of those who have served in the military or wars overseas, especially those experiencing PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or other trauma-related disorders, as well as powerlessness, grief, depression and suicide due to experiences in battle or overseas. Many are also suffering from both physical and mental disabilities as a result of their service and need great help in transitioning back to civilian or life at home.

Scholarship Directory

Licensing, Certifications, and Exams

All counselors must be licensed by their state in order to practice. The process requires a master’s degree and passing scores on at least one or more examinations. Once you have completed all, then you are credentialed and will receive a professional title and initials after your name.

Most common to most counselors is “LPC” for “Licensed Professional Counselor” or sometimes “LAPC” for “Licensed Associate Professional Counselor.” It’s very important to never use a title that is higher than what you have actually earned or been given. Specific info re; each state’s requirements can be found here: Counselor License Requirements by State

All states also require that counselors work under supervision before receiving a full license. You may have a clinical supervisor and administrator at your place of work or it may have to be someone outside the practice. It is suggested you join a professional counseling organization as well.

Additional Resources for Certification information

American Association of State Counseling Boards

Provides state-by-state information on specific boards that certify the practice of counseling and is the resource for information about counselor licensing and regulation, test development, and standards for licensing.

National Board for Certified Counselors

Fact: By January 1st, 2022, the NBCC will require a master’s degree (or higher) from a CACREP-accredited counseling program.

Future Outlook for Primary Career

School counselors have a 12% growth rate and earn as much as $50,000 per year. Work-related counselors are also experiencing fast growth in addition to school and career counselors, due to fast growth in technology and the job market. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 20.5 million new jobs will be added by 2020, a 14.3% growth from 2010. Mental health counselors ranked #28 and marriage and family therapists are #18 on the Top 30 Fastest-Growing Jobs by 2020 from the BLS.

Salary Expectations

Salaries for counselors depend on the organization (whether private practice, community center, school or institution, nonprofit or outreach center) and the level of responsibility and experience of the individual, but in general may range from $25,000 to $80,000-a-year on average. Of course, counselors can make much more than that (well over six figures) in private practice.

The BLS also reports mental health counselors have a median pay of $38,150 in 2010, with continued growth at an increase of 36.3% for jobs in 2020, based on the fact that managed care and insurance companies are providing for reimbursement of counselors as a lower-cost alternative to psychiatrists and psychologists. Marriage and family therapists are also projected to increase 41.2% in 2020 from 2010, earning a median pay of $45,720.

Marketable Skills

Counselors graduate with an extensive understanding of human relations, psychology, personality types, emotional intelligence, social sciences, careers, education, family dynamics, development (from child to adult to aging), marriage, communication skills and are often excellent negotiators. The skills they obtain through their courses of study and practice could be easily transferred to a variety of business and professional careers, across many industries or roles.

Counselors’ skills include:

  • Communication skills
  • Mediation skills
  • Negotiating skills
  • Listening skills
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Sensitivity/empathy
  • Career counseling
  • Caregiving skills
  • Coping skills
  • Health and wellness expertise
  • Knowledge of therapies and techniques for mental health
  • Individual coaching and group leadership skills
  • Motivational skills
  • Problem-solving or resolution skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Diplomacy
  • Educational and training skills

Undergraduate Internships

Counseling internships are critical to pursing a professional counseling career and they put students in direct contact with professionals, as well as observe them in their daily work.

The following is a list of internship possibilities for a counseling major:

  • Assisting other counselors.
  • Assisting in drug rehab or treatment centers.
  • Coordinating care plans.
  • Serving in nursing homes.
  • Assisting veterans.
  • Assisting social workers.
  • Assisting psychologists.
  • Assisting psychiatrists.
  • Serving in mental health treatment centers.
  • Advocating for patients.
  • Assisting college counselors and students.
  • Assisting children and adolescents in schools.
  • Serving in correctional facilities.
  • Serving in hospitals.
  • Planning or coordinating special events or conferences in mental health or specific areas of need.
  • Editorial assistance for mental health or psychological publications.
  • Research assistance.

Professional Associations

Suggested Online Degree Programs

  • Capella University: CACREP-accredited online master’s program in mental health counseling.
  • Liberty University: Offers master’s of arts in professional counseling and considered one of the top five programs in the nation.
  • Walden University: Also CACREP-accredited programs in a PhD in counselor education and supervision, an MS in marriage, couple and family counseling and an MS in clinical mental health counseling, all online.
  • Post University: A 123-year-old New England university pioneering online education, offering master’s in science in human services and clinical counseling in organizational settings.
  • Southern New Hampshire University: Offers a graduate program in community mental health and mental health counseling, combining both online, weekend classroom and field work.
  • Wake Forest University: Ranked #27 among the nation’s Best National Universities and #35 for Best Value on US News & World Reports.