Online Master’s Degree Programs In Counseling

Pursuing a graduate degree in counseling can open up many employment and financial possibilities. master's-level graduates can become licensed in their respective states, expanding career opportunities in the mental health profession.

There are numerous master's counseling degree programs, including online programs and traditional, campus-based degrees you can pursue. Programs for a master's in counseling online with no GRE requirement are also available for those who need it. Online counseling master's degree programs can be especially convenient for students who want to maintain a more flexible schedule while advancing their knowledge and skills.

Consider an online counseling program: School counselors help students overcome obstacles and shape successful futures. Walden’s online MS in School Counseling program will give you a solid foundation in school counseling theories, approaches, and best practices while enabling you to gain hands-on experience. Learn more.
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What Is a Master’s Degree in Counseling Online?

An online master’s degree in counseling is a two to five-year course (depending on whether you opt to study full-time or part-time) that allows students to prepare for a career in counseling.

It consists of mostly online learning with in-person practical skill development, making the course much more geographically friendly for students who may not be able to afford to move close to an institution or travel far distances to go to school.

Most master’s degrees in counseling online offer specialization in counseling topics such as family, marriage, child development, eating disorders, mental health, addiction, neurodiversity, and much more.

For some people, a degree in social work may be more aligned with their career goals. Check out our guide on social work vs counseling to see which path is right for you.

Why Should I Get a Master’s in Counseling Online Degree?

Pursuing a master's in counseling through an online program offers a myriad of benefits and opens doors to a fulfilling career in a growing field. As mental health awareness increases, the demand for qualified counseling professionals continues to rise significantly. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for mental health counselors is projected to grow 18% from 2022 to 2032 much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is driven by a greater recognition of the benefits of mental health services and an expanding need for addiction and mental health counseling. According to the 2023 State of Mental Health in America report by Mental Health America, approximately 20.78% of adults were experiencing mental illness, equating to over 50 million Americans.

Expanded Access and Flexibility

Online programs provide unparalleled flexibility, allowing students to balance their studies with personal and professional commitments. This mode of learning is ideal for those who need to manage their time between work, family, and education. With courses accessible from anywhere, online learning eliminates the need for commuting, offering education right from the comfort of your home. This accessibility makes higher education feasible for many who cannot travel or move closer to campuses.


Typically, online programs are more cost-effective compared to traditional on-campus programs. Not only can tuition be lower, but also the associated costs of commuting, housing, and other campus-related expenses are eliminated. This financial aspect makes the online master’s in counseling a prudent choice, especially for students looking to minimize debt.

Meeting the Demand for Mental Health Professionals

The increasing awareness and destigmatization of mental health issues have led to a higher demand for mental health services. The World Health Organization reports a global increase in anxiety and depression of 25% during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the urgent need for mental health professionals. Graduates of online counseling programs are well-prepared to meet this need, equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to provide effective support and interventions.

Enriching and Diverse Learning Environment

Online programs often attract a diverse group of students from various backgrounds and locations, enriching the learning experience. This diversity can enhance discussions and provide a broader perspective on the issues covered in the curriculum, preparing graduates to work with a wide range of clients.

Career Opportunities and Professional Growth

A master’s degree in counseling can lead to significant professional advancement and open up a wide range of career opportunities. Graduates can pursue roles in various settings, including schools, healthcare facilities, private practices, and community agencies. Specializations such as substance abuse, school counseling, or marriage and family therapy further enhance job prospects and allow counselors to focus on areas they are passionate about.

Making a Difference

Most importantly, obtaining a master’s in counseling allows individuals to make a profound impact on the lives of others. Counselors play a critical role in helping people navigate life’s challenges, improve mental health, and enhance their overall well-being. The personal fulfillment that comes from making such a difference is a compelling reason to enter this field.

By choosing an online master’s in counseling, you are stepping into a field that not only offers personal satisfaction but also addresses an urgent public need. This degree will equip you with the knowledge and skills necessary to contribute effectively to the mental health landscape and help individuals lead more fulfilling lives.

How Much Does an Online Master’s in Counseling Cost?

The cost of an online master's in counseling varies widely based on several factors, including whether the institution is public or private and its geographical location. Using the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the 2020-2021 academic year:

Tuition Costs by Institution Type

  • Public Institutions: The average annual tuition for a graduate degree at public institutions was approximately $12,394.
  • Private Institutions: For private institutions, the average annual tuition was about $26,621. This higher cost at private colleges and universities compared to public ones is a consistent trend.

Factors Influencing Cost

  • Location: Schools in regions with higher living costs may charge higher tuition. Additionally, some schools include extra fees reflecting the cost of maintaining advanced technological platforms and other educational resources.
  • Technology Requirements: Online programs might require students to have access to specific technologies, which can add to the total cost of the degree.

Financial Aid and Accessibility

  • Financial Aid: Online master’s programs qualify for the same types of financial aid as traditional programs, including federal loans, scholarships, and grants. Prospective students should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine their eligibility for federal funding.
  • Part-Time Work: The flexibility of online learning enables students to work part-time or even full-time, helping to offset tuition and living costs without disrupting their academic progress.

Choosing the Right Program

When selecting an online master's in counseling program, consider not only the tuition but also the overall value it provides, including accreditation, curriculum relevance, and post-graduation employment opportunities. Prospective students should:

  • Compare Programs: Evaluate different programs to find one that matches both your educational needs and budget.
  • Check for Hidden Costs: Be aware of any additional fees for resources, technology, or required residencies not included in the listed tuition.
  • Accreditation and Practicum: Ensure the program is accredited and includes necessary practicum hours, often required for licensure.

For more detailed information on the tuition costs and to view the specific statistics, you can refer to the NCES report on average graduate tuition. This resource provides a comprehensive overview to help gauge the expected investment for a counseling degree and assists in making an informed decision based on financial considerations.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Master’s in Counseling Degree Online?

The length of time it takes for students to earn their master’s in counseling online depends on the study path they choose. For those who choose to study full-time, it takes approximately two years to complete an online master's counseling degree. Students who want or need to study part-time may take up to five years to finish their studies.

The benefit of taking an online counseling master's is that you can set your own schedule and study at your own pace, meaning you can complete your studies in a timeframe that suits you. 

You’ll also need to factor in the time it takes you to complete your in-person practical work. Most colleges ask students to complete 1000 hours of in-person practice.

How to Become a Counselor After Earning a Master’s in Counseling Degree

Becoming a counselor involves a structured path of education, training, and licensure. Here’s a step-by-step guide to navigate this process after earning an online master’s degree in counseling:

  1. Verify State Licensure Requirements:
  • Before enrolling in a master’s program, ensure it meets the licensure requirements of the state where you wish to practice. This usually means choosing a program that is accredited and includes the necessary coursework and supervised internships.
  1. Complete Your Degree from an Accredited Program:
  • Enroll in and complete a master’s in counseling from an accredited institution. Accreditation is crucial as it ensures the program meets high educational standards necessary for licensure.
  1. Undertake Supervised Clinical Experience:
  • Accumulate the required hours of supervised clinical experience. This is typically part of the master's program curriculum and is essential for developing practical counseling skills under the guidance of experienced professionals.
  1. Pass the Licensure Examination:
  • After graduation, prepare for and pass your state’s licensure examination. The type of exam may vary by state but generally includes assessments like the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).
  1. Apply for Licensure:
  • Once you pass the examination, submit an application for licensure to the state board. This process may require background checks and additional documentation to verify your education and supervised experience.
  1. Start Your Job Search:
  • Leverage your professional network by connecting with mentors, peers, and potential employers through conferences, professional associations, and social media. Networking is key to uncovering job opportunities in the counseling field.
  1. Volunteer Your Services:
  • Offering your counseling services voluntarily can help you gain invaluable experience, make further professional connections, and serve your community. It also enhances your resume and can lead to job offers.
  1. Pursue Continuing Education:
  • Stay updated with the latest practices and developments in the field of mental health by engaging in continuous education through workshops, seminars, and additional courses. This not only maintains your licensure but also enhances your skills and knowledge.

By following these steps, you can successfully transition from graduate to licensed counselor, equipped to make a significant impact in the lives of others. The path requires dedication and commitment but offers the rewarding opportunity to help individuals improve their mental health and well-being.

What to Consider When Selecting an Online Master's in Counseling Program

Choosing the right online master's in counseling program requires careful consideration to ensure it meets your educational and career goals. Here are key factors to evaluate:

  1. Accreditation: Ensure the program is accredited by recognized bodies like CACREP or MPCAC to meet professional and licensure standards.
  2. Curriculum and Specializations: Check that the curriculum aligns with your career interests and offers specializations that enhance your skill set.
  3. Flexibility and Format: Consider whether the program's format (synchronous vs. asynchronous) fits your schedule and learning style.
  4. Faculty Expertise: Research the qualifications and experiences of the faculty to ensure high-quality instruction.
  5. Cost and Financial Aid: Understand the total cost and what financial aid options are available to support your studies.
  6. Student Support Services: Look for programs that offer strong support services, including career counseling, academic advising, and technical help.
  7. Practicum and Internship Opportunities: Ensure there are opportunities for hands-on experience, which are crucial for practical learning and licensure requirements.

Selecting a program that matches these criteria can help pave the way for a successful career in counseling.

Online Master’s Degree Programs in Counseling Curriculum

The curriculum for an online master's degree in counseling is designed to provide students with a strong foundation in psychological principles, therapeutic techniques, and ethical practices. These programs prepare students to effectively address a variety of mental health issues in diverse populations. Below is a typical list of courses you might encounter in an online master's in counseling program:

  • Introduction to Counseling Theories: Students explore major counseling theories, including psychoanalytic, cognitive-behavioral, humanistic, and systemic approaches.
  • Ethics and Legal Issues in Counseling: This course covers the ethical and legal considerations in the practice of counseling, focusing on professional standards and client confidentiality.
  • Multicultural Counseling: Focuses on developing skills to work effectively with clients from diverse cultural backgrounds, addressing issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and more.
  • Counseling Techniques and Helping Relationships: Teaches fundamental counseling skills such as active listening, empathy, and client assessment.
  • Group Therapy Techniques: Explores the dynamics, processes, and techniques involved in conducting therapy with groups.
  • Assessment and Evaluation in Counseling: Students learn about various assessment tools and techniques used to diagnose and evaluate clients' mental health.
  • Career Counseling: Provides insight into counseling clients on career development and transitions.
  • Substance Abuse Counseling: Focuses on the theories and methods for treating clients who struggle with substance abuse.
  • Crisis and Trauma Counseling: Equips students with strategies to support clients experiencing crisis and trauma.
  • Research Methods in Counseling: Covers the basics of research methodology, including designing studies, collecting data, and interpreting results, relevant to the field of counseling.

These courses are typically complemented by practical components, such as supervised internships or practicums, which allow students to apply their learned skills in real-world settings under the guidance of experienced professionals. The goal of these programs is not only to impart knowledge but also to prepare graduates to meet licensing requirements and excel in their roles as compassionate, skilled counselors.

Consider a Featured Online Counseling Program

☰ For detailed degree information, view the guides to:
Online CACREP Accredited programs | Online MPCAC Accredited programs

The Importance of Accreditation for Online Master’s in Counseling Programs

Accreditation is a crucial aspect of higher education, particularly in fields like counseling, where the quality of the education can directly impact the quality of care provided to clients. Accreditation is a process by which an independent body evaluates a program or institution to ensure that it meets certain standards of quality and rigor. Here's why accreditation is important for online master’s in counseling programs:

Why Accreditation Matters

  1. Ensures Quality Education: Accreditation helps ensure that educational programs adhere to national standards. For counseling programs, this means that the curriculum covers all necessary content areas that are essential for effective practice.
  2. Facilitates Licensure: Most states require that counselors graduate from an accredited program to qualify for licensure. Completing an accredited program simplifies the licensure process and ensures that graduates are seen as credible by licensing boards.
  3. Increases Employment Opportunities: Employers often prefer or require candidates to have degrees from accredited programs. Accreditation signals to potential employers that a candidate has received a quality education that meets the high standards of the profession.
  4. Eligibility for Federal Financial Aid: Students enrolled in accredited institutions are typically eligible for federal financial aid. This is crucial for many students who need assistance covering tuition and other educational expenses.

Relevant Accrediting Organizations

Several organizations are key in accrediting counseling programs:

When choosing an online master’s in counseling program, it’s crucial to check if it is accredited by these or similar organizations recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Accreditation is not just a badge of honor; it's a fundamental indicator of a program's ability to provide the necessary education and training to produce competent, ethical, and effective counselors.

Admission Requirements for Online Master’s in Counseling Programs

Gaining admission into an online master's in counseling program involves meeting specific criteria that vary by institution but generally include several common elements. Understanding these requirements can help prospective students prepare their applications effectively. Here’s a breakdown of typical admission requirements for these programs:

Academic Background

  • Bachelor’s Degree: Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. While a degree in psychology, social work, or a related field is often preferred, many programs accept degrees in other disciplines, provided you have completed certain prerequisite courses.
  • Minimum GPA: Most programs require a minimum undergraduate GPA, often around 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. Some programs may offer conditional admission for students slightly below this threshold.

Standardized Tests

  • GRE Scores: Some counseling programs require Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, although an increasing number of programs are moving towards a GRE-optional policy, especially in online settings.

Professional Experience

  • Relevant Experience: While not always mandatory, some programs prefer or require applicants to have experience in a related field, whether through employment, internships, or volunteer work. This experience demonstrates a commitment to the counseling profession.

Personal Materials

  • Personal Statement: A critical component of the application, the personal statement allows candidates to articulate their interest in counseling, career objectives, and the reasons they chose the specific program.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Typically, programs ask for two to three letters of recommendation from academic or professional references who can attest to the applicant's potential for graduate study and success in the field.

Additional Requirements

  • Interviews: Some programs may require interviews (either in-person or virtual) to better understand the applicant’s goals, personality, and fit for the program.
  • Background Check: Due to the nature of the work involved, a criminal background check is often required before final admission to ensure the safety of future clients.

Application Process

  • Application Form: Complete the online application form, which includes personal information, educational background, and often a fee.
  • Transcripts: Provide transcripts from all undergraduate and, if applicable, graduate institutions attended.

These requirements are designed to ensure that students admitted to the program are well-prepared to succeed academically and professionally. Prospective students should thoroughly review the specific requirements of each program to which they apply, as these can vary. Additionally, it’s a good idea to start preparing application materials well in advance of deadlines to ensure a smooth application process.

7 Benefits of Master’s Degree in Counseling Online

Prospective students should choose a college that best fits their needs or offers a specialization they are interested in. Most online master’s degree programs across the country will prepare students for counseling licensure and working in the field. Students can also choose from accelerated counseling programs, as well as master’s in counseling programs with no GRE requirement.

Typically, students with undergraduate degrees in psychology or related fields are the best fit for these master’s programs. Those with degrees from other social or humanities-related majors can also complement their degrees with a master’s degree in counseling online if they are interested in pursuing a career in mental health counseling.

Taking an Online Counseling Degree Master’s Program

The flexibility of online college programs has allowed more individuals to return to school and take graduate programs in fields such as counseling. Likewise, those who might already be working in counseling, psychology, or social work may wish to continue their education with an online master’s in counseling degree, with the goal of becoming licensed and advancing their career. 

Here are seven of the most valuable benefits of pursuing an online counseling master’s degree:

  1. High-Quality Programs: Most courses rely on the same faculty and curriculum for in-person, campus-based programs as they do for the online version
  2. Accreditation: The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or Master’s in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC) accreditation is a highlight for any counseling program. Many states require accreditation for licensing.
  3. Premium Learning Experience: A personalized learning environment where students can set their own pace can foster a better education. This is especially true when students feel they don’t thrive in the traditional classroom setting.
  4. Admissions Benefits: Many programs remove high barriers to admissions/entry, including GRE waivers. Some programs have no GRE requirement whatsoever. This lower barrier to entry means many more deserving students who may struggle with the GRE are still able to pursue their passion for a career in mental health counseling.
  5. Short Program Length: Most master’s degree in counseling online course providers aim to keep the length of the program to approximately two years, with flexibility included for many programs. This means those who want to pursue full-time studies in a short time can do so.
  6. Affordability: As students don’t attend a physical location, course tuition fees tend to be lower than their in-person counterparts. Plus, there are plenty of financial aid options for those who opt to take their degrees online.
  7. Accessibility: No matter where students are in the world, they can pursue a degree from the university or college of their choice, removing the need to upend their lives and move away from home. This is especially useful for international students, those with caretaking responsibilities (including parents and caregivers), and those with mobility issues that prevent them from being able to travel to school every day.

Top Master’s in Counseling Online Programs

Many resources can help prospective students find the right online master’s counseling degree for them. Students should consider factors such as specialization, admissions requirements, program length, and accreditation when doing program research.

Online Master’s of Counseling Program Specialties

Depending on an individual’s interests, there are specialized course paths that concentrate fully on a specific path. Some of the most popular specializations students can choose to pursue in a master’s in counseling program are:

  • Mental health counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling
  • Marriage and family counseling
  • School or career counseling

Mental Health Counseling Master’s Degrees

A variety of specialty areas are available to students pursuing an online counseling master’s degree. Mental health counseling involves working directly with individuals experiencing mild to moderate emotional distress. Working in this area includes planning and implementing action plans that will contribute to the success of a life improvement strategy. Individuals who earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling are eligible to become a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC).

Check out our online mental health degrees page to learn more about this type of counseling degree.

Marriage and Family Counseling Master’s Degrees

Marriage and family counselors specialize in individual and group therapy. Students in this specialization may focus on topics including conflict resolution and communication as a strategy to improve relationships and understanding within marriage and family units.

Learn more about marriage and family therapy:

School Counseling Master’s Degrees

School counselors work in educational settings and provide students of all grade levels with the counseling and support needed to deal with everyday struggles within the school system. These counselors may also work one-on-one with students to develop effective college plans.

There are many resources that can help prospective students find the right online master’s counseling degree for them. Students should consider factors such as specialization, admissions requirements, program length, and accreditation when doing program research while also considering their career ambitions and the topics they enjoy most.

More information on school counseling can be found on the school counseling master’s degree page.

Counseling vs. Social Work

While both counseling and social work involve helping individuals improve their well-being, there are distinct differences in scope and approach. Counseling focuses primarily on helping individuals, couples, or groups manage and overcome personal and psychological issues through therapeutic techniques. Counselors assess and treat mental health issues, guiding clients to develop strategies for personal growth and coping.

Social work, on the other hand, emphasizes a broader approach, addressing both individual challenges and systemic issues affecting communities and societies. Social workers advocate for social justice, connect clients to community resources, and may also provide therapy, especially in clinical settings. They work not only with individuals but also engage with families, groups, and communities to improve social functioning and conditions.

Both fields require specialized education and training, often leading to licensure and certification in their respective areas. Understanding the specific educational pathways, responsibilities, and goals of each can help determine which career aligns best with one’s professional aspirations.

What Can You Do With an Online Master’s in Counseling Degree?

There are many specializations, locations, and positions for prospective counselors to consider. Licensed counselors can work in various environments, including inpatient or outpatient medical centers, hospitals, government facilities, and even private practices. They also work with individuals struggling in various areas of their lives. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many of the positions in this field pay above-average salaries and are projected to experience growth that is faster than average.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

These kinds of counselors work with groups and individuals in many settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and clinics. While they serve similar populations and sometimes have overlapping services, there are some differences between them. Specifically, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, also known as addiction counselors, work with clients who suffer from drug addiction, alcoholism, and other forms of addiction. Mental health counselors, on the other hand, offer treatment to clients who struggle with conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to the BLS, the median salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is about $49,000. With a growth rate of 18% between 2022 and 2023, employment for these counselors is projected to grow much more quickly than average over the next several years.

Marriage and Family Therapist

Students who complete a master’s in counseling online may also be qualified to work as marriage and family therapists. In this role, they engage with individuals, couples, and families facing challenges. They offer guidance and techniques for coping with stressful relationship dynamics, trauma, addiction, and low self-esteem.

Marriage and family therapy is experiencing rapid growth. In fact, the BLS projects that employment will expand by 15% between 2022 and 2032. The median annual salary for a marriage and family therapist exceeds $56,000.

Rehabilitation Counselor

Rehabilitation counselors generally work with individuals with physical, emotional, and developmental disabilities. They are commonly employed in rehabilitation facilities, veteran agencies, and senior citizen centers. They may help individuals work through the psychological effects of their disabilities, seek employment opportunities, and develop skills that allow them to live more independently.

The BLS reports that the median annual salary for rehabilitation counselors is close to $40,000 per year, which is slightly lower than average. Rehabilitation counselor jobs are projected to grow 2% between 2022 and 2032, according to the BLS. 

School or Career Counselor

Many public and private schools hire counselors who can help students achieve academic success. If you are interested in becoming a school counselor, you may have the option of working with students of different ages, from elementary school to college. In this role, you would help students determine their future career paths, address mental health struggles, and cope with behavioral issues.

School counselors are in high demand, with a projected growth rate of 5%, according to the BLS. They also make above-average income, with a median yearly salary exceeding $60,000.

Clinical Social Worker

Some students who complete a master’s in counseling program opt to become social workers. Professionals in these positions assist individuals with receiving vital services and resources, such as nutrition assistance, childcare, and healthcare. They also help clients cope with significant life events, such as death, divorce, and abuse.

Employment for social workers is expected to grow rapidly over the next several years at a rate of 7%, according to the BLS. The median salary for a social worker in 2022 was $55,350, which is higher than average for all careers in the United States.

Learn more about licensed clinical social work.

Find the Right Master’s Program For You

Counseling is a growing field with increasing career opportunities. If you are interested in obtaining licensure and starting your career as a counselor, an online counseling master’s degree could be a great place to start. Explore our resources for more information on program details, licensure tips, and admissions information.

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Counseling Career Guide

Still Looking for a Counseling Degree?

Here are some of the most popular online counseling programs. On each page you will find a detailed write-up of the program, specific courses, and schools that offer that program that are currently accepting applicants.

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