Best Online Master's in Counseling

Updated October 28, 2022

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Online master's in counseling programs are convenient for working students who want to expand their career and income potential.

A master's degree in counseling can lead to employment as a mental health counselor, school or career counselor, Christian counselor, marriage and family therapist, or an addiction counselor.

Students will learn counseling theories, evidence-based research, and strategies for diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental health disorders.

The benefits of an online master's in counseling course may include lower costs, more personalized learning, flexible scheduling, and overall convenience.

Dive into this guide to discover how to become a licensed or certified counselor, learn about salary expectations for various careers, and get access to a list of the top online master's in counseling programs.

Questions About Earning a Master's in Counseling

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 use or rehabilitation; or work within healthcare or educational organizations.

Is a Master of Psychology the Same as Counseling?

No, a master of psychology is not the same as a master's degree in counseling. The primary difference between psychology and counseling are the models they operate from.

A master's in counseling operates from a wellness or strength-based model. Master's in counseling degree programs focus on learning about therapeutic methods, such as psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other modalities, to support clients in a clinical or school environment.

In master's level counseling programs, the primary focus is on helping clients learn tools for healthy communication, employ positive coping strategies, and deal with trauma. A master's in psychology operates from a medical or symptom-based model.

Although both degrees can prepare students to work in clinical mental health, master's in psychology programs take a more scientific/research approach to the field.

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

The decision to pursue a master's in social work or counseling depends on the type of careers graduates wish to pursue. While there is crossover between professional outcomes, those enrolled in a master of social work or counseling receive training in different models of care. Another important consideration is that social workers may accept Medicare reimbursement while counselors can not.

What Degree Is Best for Counseling?

Those 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 use counseling, marriage and family counseling, and rehabilitation therapy.

Is a Counseling Master's worth it?

The job growth outlook for licensed/certified counselors is good. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the need for mental health professionals, such as counselors, is expected to grow faster than the average job growth rate from 2021-2031 as more people seek counseling services.

Substance use, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors have a 22% projected job growth rate, while the BLS gives marriage and family therapists (MFTs) an anticipated job growth rate of 14%.

According to the BLS, in May 2021, the median annual wage for substance use, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $48,520. This includes graduates of both undergraduate and graduate-level education.

Graduate-level counseling education can lead to independent licensure, which in turn can mean opening a private practice and increasing income beyond what bachelor degree-holders earn.

According to Payscale, the average salary for licensed professional counselors is $50,310 as of October 2022.

What is the difference between a MA and a MS in counseling?

A MA is a humanities-based program that often focuses on theoretical knowledge. A master of science (MS) in counseling is a research-based postgraduate degree, offering an evidence-based, hands-on approach to a counseling degree.

An MS is ideal for students with a general bachelor's degree, such as English, and a master of arts (MA) in counseling, while an MS is best suited for those with a bachelor's degree in psychology.

Ultimately, overall program structure that meets board requirements and a student's needs should be the deciding factor.

Featured Online Counseling Programs

Choosing an Online Master's in Counseling Program

How to Choose an Online Master's in Counseling Program.

There are many options for online counseling degree programs. Below are some guidelines and essential factors to consider.

When choosing an online master's program, initial considerations include:

Best Online Master's in Counseling Programs

#1 Best Online Master’s in Counseling

New York University

  • New York, NY
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Graduate students interested in a master's in counseling can earn their degree from New York University. The master's in school counseling program draws on a rigorous curriculum that prepares graduates for leadership responsibilities. Earning a master's degree can help candidates advance in their current career or pursue a new career path entirely.

The master's curriculum emphasizes research methods and analytical skills. Learners focus the program with electives or a concentration. Applicants without a counseling background may need to complete prerequisite courses to enroll in the program.

Online enrollees complete internships in their local community to gain real-world experience. The program encourages graduate students to attend networking events to expand their professional connections.

New York University at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Admission Rate: 16%

Total Online Master's Programs: 28

Program Name: Master's in school counseling

Graduate Tuition In State: $33,408

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $33,408

Average Tuition
In-state
$50,684
Out-of-state
$50,684
Retention Rate
94%
Admission Rate
16%
Students Enrolled
52,885
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
10% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#2 Best Online Master’s in Counseling

University of Southern California

  • Los Angeles, CA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Located in Los Angeles, the University of Southern California offers an online master's in counseling. The master of education in school counseling program encourages career training throughout its curriculum, preparing graduates for leadership positions. Earning a master's degree can also help candidates pursue new career opportunities.

The master's curriculum covers methodological and research perspectives. Learners prepare for the job market by choosing a specialty through electives. The master's program recommends that applicants bring a background in counseling or a related field.

Online enrollees participate in internship programs at approved locations in their area. The program encourages graduate students to attend networking events to expand their professional connections.

University of Southern California at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Admission Rate: 11%

Total Online Master's Programs: 55

Program Name: Master of education in school counseling

Graduate Tuition In State: $46,272

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $46,272

Average Tuition
In-state
$57,256
Out-of-state
$57,256
Retention Rate
96%
Admission Rate
11%
Students Enrolled
48,321
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
17% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission

#3 Best Online Master’s in Counseling

Clarks Summit University

  • South Abington Township, PA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Based in South Abington Township, Pennsylvania, Clarks Summit University hosts a top-rated online master's in counseling. The master of science in counseling program builds specialized skills for leadership roles in the counseling field and related industries. A master's degree also helps candidates pursue new career paths.

The master's curriculum examines advanced theories and practices in counseling. Learners often choose a specialized concentration, which can help them stand out in a competitive job market. Applicants without a counseling background may need to complete prerequisite courses to enroll in the program.

Online enrollees coordinate with the program to complete internships at approved sites in their local area. Graduate students expand their professional connections by attending virtual networking events.

Clarks Summit University at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Admission Rate: 41%

Total Online Master's Programs: 5

Program Name: Master of science in counseling

Graduate Tuition In State: $8,160

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $8,160

Average Tuition
In-state
$26,082
Out-of-state
$26,082
Retention Rate
78%
Admission Rate
41%
Students Enrolled
771
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
64% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#4 Best Online Master’s in Counseling

Wake Forest University

  • Winston-Salem, NC
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

The online master's degree in counseling at Wake Forest University, located in Winston-Salem, offers high academic quality. Graduates train for leadership roles in the field while earning their degree from the online master's in counseling program. With a master's degree, candidates advance their current career or more into new career paths.

The master's curriculum covers methodological and research perspectives. Learners choose electives or a specialization to stand out in a competitive job market. Applicants without a background in counseling may need to complete prerequisite courses before enrolling in the master's program.

Online enrollees work with the school to find internship opportunities in their local area. The program encourages graduate students to attend networking events to expand their professional connections.

Wake Forest University at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Admission Rate: 30%

Total Online Master's Programs: 4

Program Name: Online master's in counseling

Graduate Tuition In State: $38,650

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $38,650

Average Tuition
In-state
$54,430
Out-of-state
$54,430
Retention Rate
94%
Admission Rate
30%
Students Enrolled
8,495
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
7% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

#5 Best Online Master’s in Counseling

University of the Southwest

  • Hobbs, NM
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

The master's in counseling degree at the University of the Southwest, located in Hobbs, uses a flexible distance learning format. The master's in clinical mental health counseling  program emphasizes industry-relevant knowledge and skills, preparing graduates for decision-making responsibilities. A master's degree can also lead candidates to new career paths.

The master's curriculum emphasizes research methods and analytical skills. Learners prepare for the job market by choosing a specialty through electives. The master's program recommends a background in counseling or a related field for those applying.

Online enrollees gain real-world experience through internships offered in their local area. The program encourages graduate students to participate in hands-on experiences and networking events to grow their professional connections.

University of the Southwest at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Admission Rate: 45%

Total Online Master's Programs: 19

Program Name: Master's in clinical mental health counseling

Graduate Tuition In State: $22,500

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $22,500

Average Tuition
In-state
$16,000
Out-of-state
$16,000
Retention Rate
63%
Admission Rate
45%
Students Enrolled
875
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
100% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Higher Learning Commission

#6 Best Online Master’s in Counseling

Hope International University

  • Fullerton, CA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Located in Fullerton, California, Hope International University enrolls master's students in its top-ranked online counseling program. The master of science in counseling program helps graduates move into leadership roles and increase their earning potential. A master's degree allows candidates to move up the career ladder or pursue a new career path.

The master's curriculum explores counseling research and methodologies. Learners take electives and other specialized courses to gain career-specific training. Applicants who majored in counseling or a related field typically meet the admission requirements.

Online enrollees gain hands-on experience during professional internships in their local area. The program encourages graduate students to participate in networking events to grow their professional connections.

Hope International University at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Admission Rate: 37%

Total Online Master's Programs: 9

Program Name: Master of science in counseling

Graduate Tuition In State: $13,764

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $13,764

Average Tuition
In-state
$32,250
Out-of-state
$32,250
Retention Rate
72%
Admission Rate
37%
Students Enrolled
1,130
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
50% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission

#7 Best Online Master’s in Counseling

Liberty University

  • Lynchburg, VA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Based in Lynchburg, Virginia, Liberty University hosts a top-rated online master's in counseling. The MA in clinical mental health counseling program encourages career training throughout its curriculum, preparing graduates for leadership positions. After completing a master's degree, candidates often pursue career advancement in their current field or a new one.

The master's curriculum emphasizes research methods and analytical skills. Learners choose electives or a specialization to stand out in a competitive job market. The master's program recommends that applicants bring a background in counseling or a related field.

Online enrollees participate in internship programs at approved locations in their area. The program hosts networking events and other professional development activities to help graduate students expand their professional connections.

Liberty University at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Admission Rate: 51%

Total Online Master's Programs: 67

Program Name: MA in clinical mental health counseling

Graduate Tuition In State: $7,980

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $7,980

Average Tuition
In-state
$15,417
Out-of-state
$15,417
Retention Rate
81%
Admission Rate
51%
Students Enrolled
85,586
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
92% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

#8 Best Online Master’s in Counseling

Keiser University

  • Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

The online master's degree in counseling at Keiser University, located in Fort Lauderdale, offers high academic quality. The master of science in clinical mental health counseling program helps graduates increase their salary potential and take on more professional responsibilities. Earning a master's degree can help candidates advance in their current career or pursue a new career path entirely.

The master's curriculum emphasizes theory and practice in counseling. Learners focus their training by choosing electives based on their interests and career goals. Applicants with a background in counseling typically meet the admission requirements.

Online enrollees work with the program to identify internship opportunities at approved sites in their local community. Graduate students also participate in networking events to expand their professional connections.

Keiser University at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Total Online Master's Programs: 15

Program Name: Master of science in clinical mental health counseling

Graduate Tuition In State: $27,162

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $27,162

Average Tuition
In-state
$19,808
Out-of-state
$19,808
Retention Rate
75%
Admission Rate
Not provided
Students Enrolled
19,567
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
47% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

#9 Best Online Master’s in Counseling

University of the Cumberlands

  • Williamsburg, KY
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

The University of the Cumberlands, located in Williamsburg, enrolls master's students in its online counseling program. Graduates prepare for advanced roles in the field during the rigorous online master's in addiction counseling program. Earning a master's degree can also help candidates pursue new career opportunities.

The master's curriculum emphasizes the best practices in counseling. Learners focus their training by choosing electives based on their interests and career goals. The master's program recommends individuals have a background in counseling before applying.

Online enrollees add to their resume by pursuing internship opportunities at approved locations in their local area. The program encourages graduate students to participate in hands-on experiences and networking events to grow their professional connections.

University of the Cumberlands at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Admission Rate: 80%

Total Online Master's Programs: 25

Program Name: Online master's in addiction counseling

Graduate Tuition In State: $5,670

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $5,670

Average Tuition
In-state
$9,875
Out-of-state
$9,875
Retention Rate
69%
Admission Rate
80%
Students Enrolled
16,966
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
91% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

#10 Best Online Master’s in Counseling

LeTourneau University

  • Longview, TX
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

The online master's in counseling degree at LeTourneau University, located in Longview, Texas, prioritizes flexibility. The master of arts in clinical mental health counseling program emphasizes advanced practice skills, training graduates for leadership roles with increased salary potential. Earning a master's degree can help candidates advance in their current career or pursue a new career path entirely.

The master's curriculum covers theoretical and practical approaches to counseling. Learners individualize their course of study by selecting electives and concentrations. Applicants with a background in counseling typically meet the admission requirements.

Online enrollees work with the program to identify internship opportunities at approved sites in their local community. The program hosts networking events and other professional development activities to help graduate students expand their professional connections.

LeTourneau University at a Glance:

Type of School: Private, nonprofit, four-year

Admission Rate: 45%

Total Online Master's Programs: 13

Program Name: Master of arts in clinical mental health counseling

Graduate Tuition In State: $18,618

Graduate Tuition Out of State: $18,618

Average Tuition
In-state
$30,520
Out-of-state
$30,520
Retention Rate
76%
Admission Rate
45%
Students Enrolled
3,150
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
60% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

What Else Can I Expect From an Online Master of Counseling Program?

While online master's degrees in counseling programs often 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. Check that a program provides the support you need to achieve your goals.

How to Become a Counselor

Steps to becoming a counselor include:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree at an accredited college or university.
  2. Complete the necessary prerequisite training required by the master’s program (i.e., some programs require related on-the-job experience,but most programs do not have this requirement).
  3. Complete an accredited graduate degree (e.g., master’s in counseling), including a minimum of 100 practicum hours and an additional 600 hours for internships)
  4. Finish required post-graduate supervised field experience after obtaining a Professional Counselor Training license (e.g., 2,000 to 4,000 supervised post-degree hours). Note a temporary license validity may vary per state.
  5. Apply for and pass the exam for a licensed professional counselor (LPC) credential in your state of residence. Learn more about state licensing requirements and acronyms on the American Counseling Association website.
  6. Apply for and pass the National Certified Counselor (NCC) board certification, which also offers three specialty certifications.
  7. Maintain your Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) license.

How Long is a Master's in Counseling Program?

The length of a master's in counseling program can differ depending on various factors (e.g., which degree you have when you begin the program, whether you attend full-time or part-time, and more).

On average, full-time students can complete the program in four semesters, which translates to approximately two years. Part-time students can finish the program in three or more years.

How Much Do Counselors Make?

According to the BLS, the average annual salary expectation for counselors is $56,410. The salary differs depending on what type of degree you pursue.

According to Payscale, if you have a BA in counseling, the average yearly salary is $51,000; comparatively, graduates of a master of science (MS) mental health counseling degree earn an average of $53,000 annually.

Counselor Salaries by Degree
Degree Annual Average Salary
Bachelor of Arts (BA), Counseling Degree $51,000
Master of Education (MEd), Counseling Degree $58,000
Master of Arts (MA), Counseling Degree $56,000
Master of Science (MS), Mental Health Counseling Degree $53,000
Master of Arts (MA), Mental Health Counseling Degree $51,000

Source: Payscale

Specializations Within Counseling

Before applying for an online master's in counseling degree, students must choose a specialization.

Addiction Counseling

An addiction counselor commonly works on a 1:1 basis with clients with substance use disorders, and their family members. They facilitate educational groups to teach clients tools for coping with stress or other addiction-related symptoms.

Addiction counselors also facilitate group therapy, which helps participants support each other during their recovery from drug, alcohol, gambling, or other addictions. Many programs employ 12-step or non-12-step recovery programs, such as SMART Recovery and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Addiction counselors help clients arrange for things like sober housing, ongoing 12-step or other peer support groups, and aftercare programs after discharge.

Addiction counseling does not require a master's degree.

Christian Counseling

Christian counseling integrates traditional therapy modes (e.g., talk therapy) with Christian beliefs. Christian counseling can incorporate other specializations. For example, Christian counselors may specialize in marriage and family, alcohol and drug, or mental health counseling.

Marriage and Family

Marriage and family counselors focus on conflict resolution for couples (whether married or not) and the family unit, which could include the extended family or the nuclear family. Anyone can receive marriage and family counseling, regardless of whether they have a mental health diagnosis.

Mental Health Counseling

Mental health counselors, also called clinical mental health counselors, work with people with mental health diagnoses that align with the diagnostic and statistic manual of mental disorders (DSM-5).

Examples include major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and others. Mental health counselors often work closely with psychiatrists legally authorized to prescribe medications and monitor a client's medical status on these “psychotropic” meds.

Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation counselors teach life skills to clients of any age with disabilities or diseases like multiple sclerosis, autism, or spina bifida. Some clients in need of rehab suffer from terminal disorders such as cancer; others may need support while recovering from debilitating injuries like severe car accidents. Rehabilitation counselors help their clients improve the quality of their daily lives and accept or cope with their physical or mental limitations.

School Counseling

School counselors, once referred to as guidance counselors, work with kids from Pre-K through 12th grade. School counselors see kids with issues that impact their social interactions or academic achievement during school.

They often see bullied students or those who experience neglect, abuse, parental divorce, or other problems. School counselors are licensed to help kids undergoing Individual Education Program (IEP) programs.

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 independent practice. By enrolling in an online counseling master's program and obtaining the necessary postgraduate experience and licensure, students can build a career that is both lucrative and meaningful.

The average salary for counselors depends on the type of degree. Licensure or certification/specialization further impacts earnings.

Counseling Careers
Occupation Average Annual Salary
Genetic Counselors $86,640
Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors $63,090
Marriage and Family Therapists $59,660
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $53,490
Counselors, All Other $49,730
Rehabilitation Counselors $44,740

Source: BLS

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 moves to 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. Organizations who have received authority from the U.S. Department of Higher Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) grant accreditation. Accreditation determines a school's eligibility for federal funding and the quality of its programs, respectively.

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 Master of Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council.

Featured Image Credit: SDI Productions | E+ | Getty Images

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