The Best Online Master’s in Counseling 2021

| TBS Staff


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Graduates with online master's degrees in counseling can find employment as school counselors, marriage and family therapists, and substance abuse counselors.

Earning a master's in counseling online prepares graduates to work with children and adults on aspects of mental health. In these programs, learners explore advanced concepts and theories in psychology and sociology. An online master's in counseling also includes practical and research components to facilitate entry into the counseling profession, which students can often complete with local organizations. After an online counseling degree, students can pursue licensure in the field.

Improvements in technology have increasingly allowed for remote counseling sessions, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. As more individuals seek counseling services, the need for therapists is expected to grow; the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects faster-than-average job growth for counselors from 2019-2029. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors have a 25% projected job growth rate, while marriage and family therapists have a projected 22% job growth rate.

While online master's degrees in counseling vary in curricula and requirements, most programs share some common elements. This page explores what students can expect when earning a master's in counseling online.

Top 10 Online Master's in Counseling
#1 The University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, AL
#2 LeTourneau University Longview, TX
#3 University of North Texas Denton, TX
#4 Liberty University Lynchburg, VA
#5 Winston-Salem State University Winston-Salem, NC
#6 Concordia University-Irvine Irvine, CA
#7 Concordia University-Wisconsin Mequon, WI
#8 Prairie View A & M University Prairie View, TX
#9 North Carolina Central University Durham, NC
#10 Thomas University Thomasville, GA

Featured Online Colleges

Best Online Master's in Counseling Programs


1. The University of Alabama

Tuscaloosa, AL

The oldest and largest public university in Alabama, UA serves more than 38,000 students annually.

UA's online master of arts in rehabilitation counseling prepares students to help people with disabilities meet their personal, social, vocational, and other goals. In addition to courses such as individual and group appraisal, multicultural counseling, and education research methods, the program requires all students to complete a practicum and an internship. Those who attend full-time can graduate in just two years.

Applicants must submit transcripts showing a 3.0 minimum GPA, GRE scores of 300 or MAT 50th percentile (waived through fall 2021), a statement of purpose, and three letters of recommendation. Applicants must also undergo an online interview.

Accreditation: University of Alabama is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • Graduation Rate: 72%
  • Receiving Loans: 39%
  • Online Enrollment: 39%


2. LeTourneau University

Longview, TX

A private, interdenominational Christian polytechnic university opened in 1846, LETU welcomes approximately 3,000 students each year.

LETU grounds all of its programs, including the online master of arts in clinical mental health counseling, in the intersection of science and faith. Students learn the latest tools and techniques to assist clients facing struggles from addiction to domestic violence and gain a deep understanding of theodicy and the dynamics of spirituality.

The flexible 66-credit program meets all requirements for licensure in the state of Texas. In addition to counseling techniques, group counseling methods, and trauma and theology in the developmental context, all students must complete a counseling practicum and an internship.

Applicants must submit transcripts showing a GPA of 2.5 or a resume documenting relevant full-time work experience. The program also requires an interview. Those without a psychology background may need to successfully pass remedial courses before admission.

Accreditation: LeTourneau University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • Graduation Rate: 59%
  • Receiving Loans: 45%
  • Online Enrollment: 59%

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3. University of North Texas

Denton, TX

Known as North Texas State University until 1988, UNT serves roughly 40,000 students each year.

UNT's online master of science in rehabilitation counseling prepares students for various careers, from psychiatric technician to medical and health services manager.

The 60-credit program focuses on the range of factors that impact people living with disabilities, from diversity issues to psychosocial concerns. All students take one elective course in an area such as crisis management or transition counseling, based on personal interest and career goals. They must also complete 700 contact hours of fieldwork experiences and pass a comprehensive exam.

Requirements include transcripts showing a GPA of at least 3.0, a self-statement, a resume, and two professional letters of recommendation. Qualified applicants also undergo an interview.

Accreditation: University of North Texas is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • Graduation Rate: 53%
  • Receiving Loans: 50%
  • Online Enrollment: 46%

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4. Liberty University

Lynchburg, VA

Founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell, Liberty infuses its curriculum with an evangelical Christian perspective. The university serves more than 100,000 students each year.

Liberty's online master of arts in clinical mental health counseling requires students to attend two on-campus intensives. The 60-credit program also requires a practicum and two internship semesters.

Courses include counseling techniques and the helping relationship, integration of spirituality and counseling, and family systems theories. All students also choose one elective and must pass a comprehensive exam.

Requirements include official transcripts showing a 2.7 GPA or above, contact information for two recommenders, and a personal statement. Applicants must also agree to the university's Mission Statement and Diversity Statement.

Accreditation: Liberty University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • Graduation Rate: 50%
  • Receiving Loans: 60%
  • Online Enrollment: 90%

View School Profile



5. Winston-Salem State University

Winston-Salem, NC

A historically Black university (HBCU) founded in 1892, WSSU today welcomes more than 5,000 graduate and undergraduate students each year.

WSSU's online master of science in rehabilitation counseling allows students to choose a concentration in rehab counseling, deaf and hard of hearing, clinical mental health counseling, vocational evaluation, or transition. The 63-credit program confers eligibility to sit for the national Certified Rehab Counselor (CRC) exam and the state clinical mental health counselor exam.

All students take 42 core credits, 12 elective credits, 9 concentration/emphasis credits. Students must also complete a 100- contact-hour practicum and a 600-contact-hour internship.

Requirements include transcripts reflecting a 2.7 or higher GPA, GRE scores, and an interview. WSSU prioritizes applicants currently working in the field.

Accreditation: Winston-Salem State University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • Graduation Rate: 48%
  • Receiving Loans: 74%
  • Online Enrollment: 50%


6. Concordia University-Irvine

Irvine, CA

One of nine universities in the Lutheran church's Concordia system, CUI serves nearly 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students each year.

CUI's master of arts in counseling: clinical mental health focuses on the transformative power of therapeutic relationships through a Christian lens. Students learn various treatment approaches, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, family systems theory, and attachment therapy.

The 60-credit program begins with a four-day on-campus kickoff conference hosted by Dr. John Townsend, namesake of the university's Townsend Institute. Students may take 1-2 courses simultaneously, completing the program in 2-3 years. All students must complete a three-credit practicum and two three-credit internship experiences.

Applicants must submit official transcripts with a minimum 3.0 GPA, a resume, two professional references, and a written essay. Admission also requires a group interview with faculty.

Accreditation: Concordia University Irvine is regionally accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).

  • Graduation Rate: 63%
  • Receiving Loans: 60%
  • Online Enrollment: 62%


7. Concordia University-Wisconsin

Mequon, WI

Part of the national Lutheran Concordia system, CUW enrolls more than 5,700 students every year.

The 45-60-credit online master of science in education – school and professional counseling program qualifies students for Wisconsin licensure in professional counseling or school counseling. Students can also pursue an optional certificate in Christian counseling and/or a substance abuse counselor-in-training (SAC-IT) credential during their program.

A strong Christian worldview runs through the program, with courses including Christian reconciliation, ethics of Christian counselors, and Christian perspectives on psychopharmacology.

Applicants must submit transcripts showing a minimum 3.0 GPA, two letters of reference, a one-page essay, and a resume.

Accreditation: Concordia Unviersity Wisconsin is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

  • Graduation Rate: 59%
  • Receiving Loans: 64%
  • Online Enrollment: 36%

View School Profile



8. Prairie View A & M University

Prairie View, TX

A historically Black university (HBCU) founded in 1876, now part of the Texas A&M system, PVAMU welcomes nearly 9,000 students per year.

The university's online master of arts in counseling: emphasis on school counseling provides classroom teachers with the tools and techniques they need to become school counselors. All students take the same series of courses, including human growth and development, school counseling in a multicultural society, and crisis and trauma counseling with children. All students must also complete a three-credit practicum.

Applicants must hold a current teaching certificate with at least one year of teaching experience (two years preferred). The university also requires a cover letter, a teaching service record, and three letters of recommendation.

Accreditation: Prairie View A&M University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • Graduation Rate: 35%
  • Receiving Loans: 74%
  • Online Enrollment: 20%


9. North Carolina Central University

Durham, NC

A historically Black university (HBCU) founded in 1909 as part of the Chautauqua movement, NCCU today educates more than 8,000 students each year.

NCCU's online master of arts in clinical mental health counseling prepares students for state licensure as professional counselors. With an additional three courses, a student may, if desired, also become eligible for licensure as a clinical addictions specialist.

The 60-credit program includes topics such as psychosocial development, multicultural and gender issues, and diagnosis, assessment, and psychopathology. Students must also complete both a three-credit practicum and a six-credit internship.

Application requirements include a minimum 2.7 GPA, transcripts, GRE scores, two recommendations, and an essay.

Accreditation: North Carolina Central University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • Graduation Rate: 46%
  • Receiving Loans: 78%
  • Online Enrollment: 44%


10. Thomas University

Thomasville, GA

A private, rural university founded in 1950, TU serves just over 1,300 students each year.

TU offers an online masters in clinical mental health counseling and clinical rehabilitation counseling (CMHCRC). The only one of its kind in Georgia, the program prepares students for state licensure as professional counselors and for the national Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) credential. Students may add a specialization in alcohol and addictions counseling for an extra 12 credits.

The 60-credit curriculum features courses in medical aspects of disability, theories and techniques of group counseling, and human sexuality. All students must complete a 100-contact-hour practicum, two 450-contact-hour internships, and a capstone project.

Requirements comprise official transcripts, a statement of purpose, and three letters of recommendation.

Accreditation: Thomas University is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

  • Graduation Rate: 20%
  • Receiving Loans: 60%
  • Online Enrollment: 100%

Online Master's in Counseling Programs Ranking Guidelines

We selected the degree programs based on the quality of program and range of courses provided as well as school awards, rankings, and reputation.

The motto of TheBestSchools.org is Finding the best school for you. Here is how we do it:

The value of any ranking list of schools and/or degree programs depends on having a methodologically sound assessment of each school’s/program’s characteristics, especially insofar as these can be objectively measured. A college or university is a complex entity, with numerous factors to consider, and distilling these down to the place where meaningful comparisons can be made to form a defensible ranking list becomes part science and part art.

To meet this challenge—and thereby provide you with the most useful and insightful educational rankings on the Internet — TheBestSchools.org formulates our rankings based on five informational categories (six, when considering online schools). The major metrics and qualities for which we rank are these (with expanded, detailed considerations and weights listed):

1. Academic excellence based on a school’s curriculum generally or within the selected discipline [weight = 25%]

  • Weighs school against known leading schools in that discipline
  • Weighs number of core curricula listed as advanced courses within that discipline and compares against introductory courses
  • Weighs school’s curriculum against known knowledge needs of major employers in that discipline
  • Considers number and types of specializations offered within that discipline
  • Considers faculty expertise in that discipline
  • Considers range of electives within that discipline
  • Considers quality of online environment offered to students (if applicable), particularly within that discipline

2. Strength of faculty scholarship [weight = 25%]

  • Considers education background of the faculty
  • Considers years of faculty experience both inside and outside of academia.
  • Considers faculty membership and leadership within relevant, prominent associations
  • Considers academic papers published by faculty in relevant, prominent periodicals
  • Considers awards and recognitions given to faculty members from prominent organizations and from other sources

3. Reputation [weight = 20%]

  • Considers a school’s reputation among academic peers and employers regarding the following:
    • Faculty
    • Curriculum
    • “Freshness” of academic knowledge
    • Adaptability to changes in employment sectors
    • Suitability of graduates for the workplace

4. Financial aid [weight = 10%]

  • Mandatory: Requires full accreditation from an agency endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education and listed on the federal register to accept student federal financial aid
  • Considers range of school-sponsored financial aid such as scholarships and grants

5. Range of degree programs [weight = 20%]

  • Considers range of degree levels: associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral and professional
  • Considers range of degree subjects offered, such as art & design, computers & technology, education & teaching, criminal justice, and business

6. Strength of online instruction methodology (if applicable) [weight = 25%; subtract 5% from each of the above for online schools/programs]

  • Considers the following of the online classes:
    • Types of online technology used to deliver content
    • Pedagogy style: asynchronous, synchronous, or both (depending on the degree)
    • Extent and quality of the online, community learning environment, including options for communication, interactivity, and collaboration between students and also between students and instructors
    • Variety, breadth, and depth of coursework, and its support, including project options and online tutoring
  • Considers the following of instructors:
    • Extent of training for teaching within an online learning environment
    • Amount of timely, consistent feedback to students
    • Extent of collaboration with prospective employers to ensure suitability of instructional materials for achieving desired skills
    • Ratio to number of students in a class
  • Number and quality of internships in a student’s geographical area for applicable degrees

Because students tend to review a variety of information when choosing a school, the weight a student gives any one criterion will vary. For instance, it’s not enough to offer a carefully constructed ranking of great schools if many are too expensive or too difficult to get into.

To better serve the needs of prospective students, we are therefore increasingly offering filters that help you better use our rankings to find the schools that match your specific needs. These supplement our ranking criteria and include:

  • Accreditation
  • Public or private status
  • Acceptance rate
  • Retention rate
  • Graduation rate
  • ACT/SAT requirements
  • Cost in-state / out of state
  • Undergrad, grad, or both offered
  • Region
  • State
  • City

Get the best rankings here AND get them to suit your personal needs. That’s TheBestSchools.org advantage!

If you have any questions about our ranking methodology, please contact us.

Citations: For a broader account of our ranking methodology, especially as it relates to TheBestSchools.org's underlying educational philosophy and, in other ranking articles, looks beyond academic excellence (as here) to such factors as return on investment or incidental benefit, see our article "Ranking Methodology: How We Rank Schools at TBS." Reputation of schools and degree programs can at least in part be gauged through the school or department's publishing activity, citations, and desirability. At TheBestSchools.org, we keep track of such social and peer validation: "Making Sense of College Rankings." For nuts-and-bolts information about colleges and universities, we look to the National Center for Education Statistics and especially its College Navigator. Insofar as salary and inflation data are relevant to a ranking, we look to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Finally, nothing beats contacting schools and degree programs directly, which our researchers often do, with the result that all the entries in this article should be considered as belonging to this citation!

Choosing an Online Master’s in Counseling Program

Students pursuing a master’s in counseling online take coursework that builds on foundational concepts in psychology, sociology, and the health sciences. Graduate programs also emphasize ethical concerns and research standards and techniques. Learners gain not only important theoretical knowledge, but also the ability to apply best practices.

Additionally, because much of what counselors do involves interacting with people, practicums represent an important part of the curriculum in master’s degree in counseling online programs. Many schools provide options for students to complete these field experiences in their communities or at their current jobs, while other programs offer intensive on-campus practicum sessions over the summer. These options give distance learners the flexibility to complete requirements without dramatically interrupting their schedules.

Online master’s programs in counseling share many similar characteristics, but they may differ in terms of specialization options. Counseling is a large field and some schools offer a wide variety of concentration areas. Common specializations include clinical mental health, school counseling, marriage and/or family counseling, and substance abuse. Other programs focus on only one particular area, such as professional counseling. Your professional goals determine which online counseling master’s degree best suits your needs.

What Else Can I Expect From an Online Master’s in Counseling Program?

While online master’s degree in counseling programs generally build from the same pool of required coursework, other curricular specifics—such as advanced classes and capstone requirements — depend on the faculty and departmental focus. Most online counseling master’s programs also prepare students for professional examinations and state licensing requirements; however, you should be sure to check that a program provides the support you need to achieve your goals.

Curriculum for an Online Master’s Degree in Counseling

  • Advanced research methodology: This is a foundational course available in most master’s in counseling online programs. It teaches students how to conduct research according to the standards of the field, including how to write a proposal, develop variables, handle human subjects, and apply for funding.
  • Professional ethics and law: This class helps students understand federal and state laws, along with mandatory field-specific regulations. Course content may also include a historical look at famous cases that shaped the field.
  • Child abuse and neglect: In this course, students learn to identify signs of maltreatment, provide counseling and support to children, and follow through by accessing community resources to ensure that either the family dynamic changes or that a child is placed into a safe environment. These skills prepare students for careers as family therapists, child advocates, and school counselors.
  • Human development: Another common topic—particularly for programs based in clinical counseling — this course guides students through the stages of human development, including psychological, cognitive, and biological theories of growth. Students may analyze case studies and begin to develop their own styles of counseling.
  • Group counseling: This course trains students to become effective group facilitators, covering the purpose and types of group sessions. Students also learn techniques related to engaging group members and evaluating success.

Certifications and Licenses a Master’s in Counseling Prepares For

Students must pass this exam to become a licensed counselor in most states. It consists of 200 multiple-choice questions, which assess the test taker’s ability to provide effective counseling and related services. Eligibility requirements include a traditional or online master’s in counseling and 3,000 hours of post-graduate field experience, 100 hours of which must be supervised. Passing this exam is an integral step to becoming a licensed mental health counselor in many states. The test tasks students with treating clinical issues in 10 simulated mental health cases, each of which is broken down into sections that lead students through the decision making and treatment process. To sit for the NCMHCE, candidates must hold a master’s degree and 3,360 hours of supervised postgraduate work experience.

Accreditation for Online Master’s in Counseling Degrees

Colleges and universities in the U.S. must be accredited to confer valid degrees recognized by most professional bodies and employers. National accreditation is granted by organizations who have received authority from the U.S. Department of Higher Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which determine a school’s eligibility for federal funding and the quality of its programs, respectively.

Regional accreditation, which is usually considered more valuable than national accreditation, is granted by CHEA-recognized agencies and operates on a regional level. Six bodies grant this kind of accreditation in the United States, ensuring that schools meet certain academic and professional standards. Additionally, an online master’s degree program in counseling may hold accreditation from a field-specific institution, such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs or the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council.

Online Master’s in Counseling Careers

The counseling field encompasses many professions, and workers can find employment in hospitals as clinical counselors or at colleges and universities as career counselors. They can also develop their own practices as family and marriage counselors. By enrolling in an online counseling master’s program and obtaining the necessary postgraduate experience and licensure, individuals can build a career that is both lucrative and meaningful.

Genetic Counselor
Median Salary: $81,880 Projected Job Growth: 21%

These professionals provide assessment and support for families whose members find themselves at risk of an inherited condition, such as birth defects or genetic disorders. They guide patients through testing and connect them with healthcare and social support resources. Genetic counselors can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, physician offices, and laboratories. Certified counselors are required to have a master’s degree.

Mental Health Counselor
Median Salary: $46,240 Projected Job Growth: 25%

These professionals can work in many different organizations, including private hospitals and pubic treatment centers. They diagnose conditions and provide one-on-one support to patients suffering from mental illnesses and related challenges like addiction. They also connect patients to community resources, including outpatient programs and job opportunities. To be a licensed mental health counselor, professionals must obtain a master’s degree or higher.

School Counselor
Median Salary: $57,040 Projected Job Growth: 8%

Dedicated to the academic success and personal health of their students, school counselors can work in any education environment, from K-12 institutions to colleges and universities, depending on what degree they hold. These professionals provide academic guidance, community support, and career counseling. Many also possess the skills needed to handle cases of child neglect or abuse.

Counseling Professional Organizations

Professional organizations offer individuals resources, connections, and services to help them build successful careers. Some, such as the National Board for Certified Counselors, oversee accreditation exams and offer test preparation materials and training sessions. Most organizations hold conferences and other networking events where counselors engage with their peers, giving them access to new job opportunities and collaborative research projects. For current students—and recent graduates who have yet to gain extensive work experience — these organizations are a good way to help people jumpstart their careers.

Established in 1952, the ACA is the largest organization for counselors in the U.S. and provides resources including a job board, online research tools, and grant opportunities. The association also hosts an annual conference and expo where professionals can build relationships and present their findings.

The preeminent organization for the certification of professional counselors in the country, the NBCC also engages in advocacy and research dedicated to protecting the rights of counselors and growing the field.

The ACCA supports counselors, therapists, and social workers employed in higher education settings. Resources include a job board, networking and conferencing events, and grants for research and projects. The ACCA also houses an extensive digital library.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Can You Do With a Master's in Counseling?

With a master's in counseling, graduates can work in clinics, hospitals, or private practice. Counselors can also work with specialty populations, including children or adults; address issues related to substance abuse or rehabilitation; or work within healthcare or educational organizations.

Should I Get a Master's in Social Work or Counseling?

Counselors often work with individuals, while social workers offer services to groups and communities. Individuals interested in working in clinical settings often need master's degrees in counseling, though MSW-holders can also work as counselors in private practice. It's best to check local and state regulations when deciding between a social work or counseling master's degree.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's Degree in Counseling?

Most master's in counseling degrees include two years of coursework and practical requirements. Some online master's in counseling programs offer accelerated pathways that allow for earlier graduation, while part-time students can often take five years or more to complete their degrees. Master's students also need bachelor's degrees before they can apply.

What Degree Is Best for Counseling?

Individuals interested in pursuing master's degrees in counseling first need undergraduate degrees in psychology, sociology, social work, or another related field. The best degree for counseling at the graduate level depends on individual career goals. Degree specialty options include substance abuse counseling, marriage and family counseling, and rehabilitation therapy.

Is It Hard to Get a Master's in Counseling?

A master's degree in counseling often includes challenging coursework and topics, which can be emotionally draining. Coursework can also be quite complicated. However, with dedication, effective time management, and hard work, students can excel in graduate programs in counseling.

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