Best Master’s in Counseling Degree Programs 2022

Updated April 19, 2022 | Staff

Best Master’s in Counseling Degree Programs 2022

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Aspiring counselors interested in practicing as a clinician must earn a graduate degree in the field. Fortunately, students can choose from a variety of formats, concentrations, and timelines when selecting the best master's program in counseling.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a substantial 25% increase in jobs for mental health counselors from 2019-2029.

To provide direct patient care, counselors must earn at least a master's degree and obtain licensure in their state. Counselors with a master's degree earn more on average than those with a bachelor's degree in the field.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a substantial 25% increase in jobs for mental health counselors from 2019-2029. Access to counseling continues to expand through avenues like telehealth, which is creating strong demand for counselors.

This guide provides information for students interested in earning a master's in counseling. We cover what to expect, concentration options, program costs, and career opportunities for graduates.

Discover What Matters

What Is Counseling?

According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), professional counselors work with individuals, groups, and families to improve wellness, achieve educational and career goals, and address mental health challenges. This definition encompasses many counseling specializations, work environments, and practices.

Counselors work in a variety of locations, including rehabilitation centers, hospitals, private practices, universities, and large healthcare facilities. All counselors, regardless of their specialty area, provide essential services for people who need help working through emotional, social, and mental health issues.

According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), professional counselors work with individuals, groups, and families to improve wellness, achieve educational and career goals, and address mental health challenges.

People with a drive to help others often find themselves drawn to counseling careers. Successful counselors excel in active listening, problem solving, and decision making.

Most states require a license to work as a counselor. Earning a master's degree in counseling typically serves as a prerequisite for licensure, making this credential a key step in pursuing a counseling career.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Counseling?

A master's in counseling offers many benefits. Data from PayScale indicates that those with a master's in counseling tend to earn more on average than those with a bachelor's in counseling. Master's-level mental health counselors also tend to earn more over time, with more opportunities for growth and advancement.

For more key benefits to earning a master's in counseling, see the list below.

  • Obtaining Licensure: Most states require counselors to hold a master's in the field to qualify for professional licensure and clinical practice.
  • Career flexibility: Counselors can work in a variety of environments and specialty areas. Many counselors set their own hours. Some professionals work through virtual platforms, serving clients exclusively online from the comfort of their homes.
  • Helping Others: Many students with a desire to help others pursue careers in counseling. Counselors help create safe spaces for people dealing with crises, emotional and social issues, and difficult life events. Helping others handle these issues more effectively can prove especially rewarding.
  • Upward Mobility: Counselors often earn more over time as they gain experience and further education. Depending on the environment they work in, they may also advance into supervisory roles. Mental health counselors report high satisfaction with advancement opportunities in the field.

What to Expect From a Counseling Master's

Although master's in counseling programs differ among schools, they share some commonalities. These programs typically require 45-60 credits. Most students complete a counseling master's program in about two years of full-time study or up to five years of part-time study.

Some schools offer different types of master's degrees in counseling, including a master of science, a master of arts, or a master of education. Some aspiring counselors pursue a master of social work, depending on their professional interests. Each degree type prepares students to work in different roles and capacities. Students should select the degree that best suits their career goals.

Online programs typically offer more flexibility than on-campus programs, allowing students to complete coursework on their own time with no or minimal in-person requirements.

Admission Requirements

Most counseling master's programs require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree. Some schools require students to hold a bachelor's in counseling or a closely related field, while others allow applicants from any major.

Some programs prefer applicants with prior related work experience. Typically, applicants must hold an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0. However, many schools take a more flexible approach to GPA requirements by factoring in other application materials like GRE exam scores and personal statements.

Most schools require an application fee, official undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a resume or curriculum vitae. Some schools also require a statement of purpose and/or an admissions interview.

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Students in counseling master's programs may pursue a variety of concentration options. Available specializations vary among schools and program types. The list below features a sampling of some available concentrations and possible career paths.

  • Substance Abuse Counseling: This concentration emphasizes studies in addiction and best practices for treating clients struggling with substance abuse and other addictive behaviors. Other common titles for this concentration include addictions counseling and rehabilitation counseling.
  • Marriage and Family Counseling: Marriage and family counselors work with families and couples to help overcome interpersonal issues and improve relationships.
  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling: A clinical mental health concentration typically prepares students to work in clinical settings, including private practice. Clinical mental health counselors work with patients dealing with mental illness, behavioral, social, and emotional issues.
  • Master's in Psychology: Some students may choose to pursue a master's in psychology rather than counseling. A master's in psychology or counseling psychology prepares students for doctoral study. Some programs offer a dual path option, allowing students to earn credit toward their master's and doctoral degrees in psychology simultaneously.

Popular Courses

Courses available in counseling master's programs vary. Most programs feature a core curriculum all students must complete and elective courses that include the concentration or focus area. Some schools require a capstone course or thesis project to graduate.

Master's in counseling programs typically offer the following courses.

Research Methods
This course explores the various research types conducted in counseling and psychology. Students gain an understanding of qualitative and quantitative factors by studying research design, measurement, and statistical concepts. Students also read and discuss prior studies in counseling, analyzing the research methods used.
Counseling Theory
This foundational course introduces theoretical perspectives in counseling through comparative analyses of case studies. Topics include family systems theory, integrative strategy, and cross-cultural approaches. Students examine the foundations, contraindications, and empirical validation of each theory.
Group Therapy
Building on skills and information covered in counseling theory, students analyze group counseling theories and perspectives in this course. Enrollees combine case studies and real-world practice with role play and group sessions. This course also covers family dynamics and interpersonal relations.
Crisis and Trauma
Courses in crisis and trauma typically explore the origins of trauma and its lasting impact on mental and physical health. Topics include the basic pillars of trauma-informed care, including providing and fostering safety, plus ensuring patients feel empowered with choice.
Counseling Practicum/Internship
Many programs feature a required practicum or internship that enables degree-seekers to gain valuable hands-on experience in the field, generally under the supervision of a licensed counselor or psychologist. Often, this practicum or internship directly contributes to the required supervision hours for licensure.

The Master's Practicum and Internship

Often, counseling students complete a practicum and an internship at different times. A practicum typically comes first, serving as a course within the core curriculum that allows students to gain hands-on skills in a supervised space.

Internships are completed at the end of a program or even after graduation. These internships typically provide the supervised practice hours most states require for counseling licensure.

Internships can last much longer than a practicum. Typically, practicums last one or two academic terms. An internship typically takes place in a location aligned with a student's chosen focus area, such as a substance abuse clinic for a student with a concentration in addiction counseling.

How Much Will a Counseling Master's Cost?

The overall cost of earning a master's in counseling can vary widely based on several factors. At some schools, a full-time two-year graduate program can cost upwards of $100,000.

Degree-seekers usually pay a premium to attend an out-of-state school or private institution. Schools with higher prestige often charge higher tuition rates. Online programs may offer flat-rate or in-state tuition options for all learners, lowering the overall cost.

Fortunately, scholarships, grants, loans, and other forms of financial aid can help students pay for their education. Explore the links below to learn more about ways to fund a graduate degree in counseling.

Selecting Your Master of Counseling Program

Choosing the best counseling master's program involves more than just picking a concentration and considering the location. Prospective students should weigh a variety of factors when researching programs, including those outlined below.

  • Accreditation: Students should look for a regionally accredited institution and a program that holds accreditation from a counseling-focused accrediting body. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is the foremost accrediting agency for counseling programs. Learn more about the CACREP and the benefits of choosing a program with this designation.
  • Program Length: Degree-seekers should consider how long the program will take to complete. Factors involved include a program's required credit hours or internships and practicums, along with a student's part-time or full-time status.
  • Cost and Financial Aid: Learners should consider their budgets in relation to the overall costs of each program. This includes tuition, fees, materials, and other related costs like transportation, housing, and child care. Students should also research program-specific and employer-related financial aid options, including grants, scholarships, assistantships, and employer tuition exchange programs.

Should You Get Your Master's in Counseling Degree Online?

In the last decade, online learning has expanded substantially, becoming an increasingly popular learning method for students at all levels. Online learning offers students enhanced flexibility and accessibility. Schools continue to grow their online course and program offerings as demand and interest rise.

Online counseling master's programs offer working professionals a pathway to earning a degree without disrupting their careers. However, online learning requires organization and time management skills, as many courses take place completely asynchronously.

Learn more about earning a counseling master's degree online.

Continuing Education in Counseling

Although a master's in counseling provides the prerequisites necessary to obtain licensure in most states, many students choose to pursue further education in counseling or related fields.

Some counselors with a master's degree pursue a doctorate in counseling or psychology, allowing them to prepare for advanced careers in universities and hospitals. Counselors with doctorates often hold leadership or supervisory positions. They may also go on to teach in counseling programs.

Counselors with master's degrees may also earn additional certifications offered by schools or specific organizations. For instance, an addictions counselor may choose to earn a certification from the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals.

Learn more about continuing education opportunities for counselors at the links below.

Advanced Education in Counseling

Top Five Counseling Master's Programs

Explore our ranking of 2022's top five master's programs in counseling and mental health services. Graduates can pursue licensure or further education and training.


Boston College

School Information
Location Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
Admission Rate 27%
Graduation Rate 94%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes New England Commission on Higher Education
Percent Online Enrollment 5% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Founded in 1863 by the Society of Jesuits, Boston College is one of the nation's largest and highly-esteemed private universities with 14,890 students currently enrolled. The school has one of the highest Pell Grant recipient graduation rates at 90%.

Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling

BC offers a master's in mental health counseling. The school gives learners the choice between a 48 or 60-credit program.  The 60-credit program meets Massachusetts standards for licensure as a mental health counselor, while the 48-credit program prepares graduates for further education or training.

The mental health counseling curriculum focuses on social justice and helps prepare students to create positive social change in the community. Students must complete a two-part internship with a Boston-based partner organization and a comprehensive master's exam. Course topics include multicultural issues, psychopathology, and issues in lifespan development.

Applying to BC

The program requires a resume or CV, personal statement, and two letters of recommendation, along with an application and transcripts. Submitting GRE scores is optional. Applications for regular admission end January 6th while rolling admission closes May 1st.

Program at a Glance

  • School Type: Private
  • Accreditation: New England Commission on Higher Education, Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council
  • Tuition: $1,600 per credit 
  • Required Credits: 48-60
  • Program Length: Two years
  • Delivery Format: On Campus
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Northwestern University

School Information
Location Evanston, Illinois
Admission Rate 9%
Graduation Rate 94%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Higher Learning Commission
Percent Online Enrollment 2% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Founded in 1851, Northwestern University is the oldest chartered university in Illinois. The Evanston-based school is highly esteemed for its journalism and music programs. The school mascot is Willie the Wildcat.

Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Northwestern's master's in counseling is offered both online and on campus. The program includes a comprehensive clinical immersion—students complete a 200-hour practicum and 600-hour internship sequence before completing a clinical practice-related capstone project.

Major topics include cognitive behavioral therapy, human sexuality, and evaluation and treatment of trauma. A degree concentration in child and adolescent counseling is offered. Students without a psychology undergraduate degree complete the Bridge to Counseling program that features foundational psychology coursework. The program prepares learners to seek licensure as mental health counselors in most states.

Applying to Northwestern

Applicants submit a resume/CV, statement of purpose, a short essay discussing their character, and 2-3 letters of recommendation alongside their application and transcripts. Students who completed their postsecondary education outside the U.S. must submit TOEFL scores.

Program at a Glance

  • School Type: Private
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission, Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs
  • Tuition: $20,020 per quarter
  • Required Credits: 24-27
  • Program Length: Two years
  • Delivery Format: Online or on campus
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Johns Hopkins University

School Information
Location Baltimore, Maryland
Admission Rate 11%
Graduation Rate 93%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Percent Online Enrollment 46% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Founded in 1876 in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University is the nation's oldest research university. The school's namesake comes from its Quaker philanthropist founder and counts President Woodrow Wilson among its famous alumni.

Master of Science in Counseling

JHU's School of Education currently offers a master's in counseling with concentrations in clinical mental health counseling and school counseling. The school counseling concentration prepares candidates for work in urban K-12 school settings within Maryland. The clinical mental health counseling pathway helps qualify students for counseling licensure in Maryland and other states.

For both concentrations, the learning experience culminates in a required 600 hour-internship. Students must also pass the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination (CPCE) by their final semester. Major course topics include diversity and social justice in counseling, appraisal and testing for counselors, and career/life development and planning.

Applying to JHU

Applicants submit a resume/CV, a two-page reflective essay on their higher calling as future counselors, and two letters of recommendation alongside their application and transcripts. The deadline for admission is January 14.

Program at a Glance

  • School Type: Private
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs
  • Tuition: $891 per credit (in person); $944 per credit (online)
  • Required Credits: 60
  • Program Length: 2.5-5 years
  • Delivery Format: Hybrid
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University of Southern California

School Information
Location Los Angeles, California
Admission Rate 11%
Graduation Rate 92%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission
Percent Online Enrollment 17% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

One of the world's top research universities, the University of Southern California is located in Los Angeles. It is the only university in the world to have a gold medal-winning athlete in every Summer Olympiad since 1912. USC's mascot is Traveler the Horse.

Master of Education in School Counseling

USC's online catalog includes an online master of education in school counseling informed by the American School Counselor Association’s National Model for School Counseling's standards and contemporary research. The program's three core competency areas are college and career readiness, restorative justice, and trauma-informed practice.

As a culminating experience, students complete a 100-hour practicum and 600-hour internship. Major course topics include learning and individual differences, human development theory, and classroom management.

Graduating from the program qualifies graduates to receive the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing's pupil personnel services: school counseling (PPS-SC) credential. 

Applying to USC

Applicants submit a resume/CV, statement of purpose, 2-3 letters of recommendation, and two short-answer responses, plus the application and transcripts. The program expects applicants to have a 3.0 minimum GPA.

Program at a Glance

  • School Type: Private
  • Accreditation: Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission
  • Tuition: $99,715 total
  • Required Credits: 49
  • Program Length: 2-3 years
  • Delivery Format: 100% online (asynchronous)
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University of Pennsylvania

School Information
Location Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Admission Rate 8%
Graduation Rate 96%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Percent Online Enrollment 6% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Founded in 1740, University of Pennsylvania is one of the oldest post-secondary institutions in the nation. Alumni of the Ivy League school include Noam Chomsky and John Legend. Currently, 23,030 students are enrolled at UPenn. 

Master of Science in Education in Counseling and Mental Health Services

UPenn currently offers a master's in counseling and mental health services that prepares students to enter UPenn's professional counseling program or a doctoral counseling program. The program has three main areas of focus: social justice, diversity, and person-centered counseling practices.

Students must complete a two-semester, 100-hour practicum in schools, colleges, and community agencies with both a fieldwork and lab component. Major course topics include sociocultural foundations in counseling, group counseling, and introductory statistics for education research.

The experience culminates with a comprehensive exam, which students can substitute with a portfolio or thesis presentation.

Applying to UPenn

Applicants to UPenn must submit a personal statement and two official letters of recommendation with their transcripts and application. Submitting GRE scores is optional but recommended.

Program at a Glance

  • School Type: Private
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Tuition: $28,584 per year
  • Required Credits: 10
  • Program Length: 1-2 years
  • Delivery Format: On Campus
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Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to get a counseling master's?

A counseling master's degree can take 2-5 years to complete. Typically, these programs require 45-60 credits and an additional practicum or internship.

What can you do with a master's degree in counseling?

Earning a master's in counseling prepares students to meet licensure requirements in many states. Earning a license in counseling allows graduates to practice counseling professionally according to the provisions set by each state.

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

MA programs often require a thesis, while MS programs typically do not. MS programs place a stronger emphasis on psychology, quantitative research, and the scientific basis of counseling, while MA programs usually focus more on practice.

What kind of master's should I get to work in therapy?

A master's in counseling prepares students to earn licensure to provide individual and group therapy. Students may pursue a specific therapeutic concentration, such as marriage and family or clinical mental health counseling. The master's in counseling generally provides adequate preparation for therapy roles.

Can you become a counselor without a master's?

Some states allow people with a high school diploma and some experience and training to work as substance abuse counselors. However, for most types of counseling roles, a master's degree is required for licensure.

Featured Image: Lucy Lambriex / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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