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The Top 10 Things to Consider When Choosing an Online Graduate Program in Counseling

We have put together a list of the top 10 things to consider when choosing an online graduate program in counseling.

Your graduate education is an investment of your time, energy, and money. Sometimes it can feel hard to know what to look for in an online graduate program. Students often choose a college or university to attend based on location, what the surrounding city or community has to offer with culture or recreation, or what the campus has to offer in terms of facilities, equipment, organizations, clubs, or sports. When choosing an online program these previous points of consideration do not apply.

So how do you know what to look for and how to judge if an online graduate program will be right for you? We at Best Counseling Degrees have outlined important criteria to look at when trying to make a decision between online graduate programs in counseling. Taking into consideration these top 10 points will help you make an informed and educated decision about the best online graduate program in counseling for you.

1. Identify Your Career Goals

It is critical that you take time to sit down and determine what it is exactly that you want to use your degree for. Within the field of counseling and therapy there is a broad range of specialties and areas of practice. To get started in this process ask yourself the following three questions.

  • What type of setting would I like to work in? Examples include: private practice; community mental health clinics; schools; hospitals; and residential treatment centers.
  • What population would I like to work with? Examples include: children; teenagers; college students; adults; individuals; couples; and families.
  • What issues would I like to specialize in? Examples include: treating anxiety and depression; trauma focused work; addiction; teaching in a college or university.

Answering these questions will help you know what to look for in a program. Most counseling programs offer a type of specialization or area of interest and seeing that a school offers your specific area of focus will help you give it more weight in your decision.

2. Determine the Specific Degree That is Right for You

Once you know what your career goals are you will be able to determine which degree will help you reach those goals. This will help you narrow down the counseling degree that will be the best fit for you. There are a number of degrees available to chose from. Take the time to research the degrees that are of interest for you. Only you can know which area of specialty specifically meets your professional interests.

Degrees options include:

  • Marriage and Family Therapy
  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Counseling Psychology
  • School Counseling
  • Art Therapy
  • Genetic Counseling
  • Pastoral Counseling
  • Rehabilitation Counseling

3. Understand the State Licensing Requirements of the State in Which you Plan to Practice

When looking for an online graduate school in counseling one of the main things you want to think about is will this degree make it possible for me to pursue state licensure?

In order to practice as a therapist or counselor in most states you need to be licensed or actively working towards licensure under jurisdiction of your home state's licensing board. The state licensing board allows you to identify yourself as a counselor or therapist. Having your license also allows you to apply to be on insurance boards which makes it possible for you to be reimbursed for services by your client's insurance company. Being licensed shows the community you serve, the insurance companies, your colleagues, and most importantly your clients that you have met and continue to meet specific educational and ethical standards for professional practice.

Consult your home state licensing board for specific information on the educational requirements for the licensure you wish to pursue. Helpful information is provided by The National Board for Certified Counselors and by the American Counseling Association.Determine your professional licensure and certification goals.

4. Determine your Professional Licensure and Certification Goals

Professional licensure and certification is available at the state and national level. Each professional board has different educational, supervised clinical hours, and testing requirements to meet the standards for that licensure or certification. Knowing what licensure or certification you plan to pursue will inform your decision as to what type of degree to earn.

For example, to be licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) you must have completed coursework in family systems theory and have supervised couple and family clinical hours as well as pass a national exam approved by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT). Accredited marriage and family therapy programs will make sure that they are preparing their students to meet these requirements by including the appropriate coursework, clinical hours, and critical competencies necessary to pass national examinations in their programming in order to support their graduates in successfully becoming licensed.

The same process applies for other areas of the counseling profession such as art therapy, addictions counseling, and rehabilitation counseling. For more information on counseling careers and professional certification see our article: Psychology and Counseling Careers and Professional Certifications

5. Confirm Regional Accreditation

Checking on the accreditation of the school you are interested in is very important especially with online education. You want to make sure that the degree you earn will have value in the workforce and be respected and accepted by graduate programs.

The Council for Higher Education (CHEA) provides quality assurance to the U.S. Department of Education as well as the general public. CHEA is governed by a board of educational professionals and the public with the purpose of providing advocacy, service, and recognition on issues of accreditation.

Attending an accredited college or university is important for many reasons including:

  • It allows students to know they are receiving a quality education.
  • The federal government will only provide federal funding through grants and loans to students attending an accredited school.
  • Many state licensure boards will only allow students with degrees from accredited institutions to apply for professional licensure in various fields such as counseling.

6. Evaluate Technology Support

Most schools that have a well established online program will offer 24/7 technology support. This support can be critical when all of your engagement with the program is online. Make sure to check out what is offered and how accessible support is. Also, make sure you have access and can obtain the technology you will need to engage effectively with your online program.

7. Decide if the Synchronous or Asynchronous Study Format is Best for You

This is a big one. Some online programs offer students the opportunity to participate in live classroom discussions (synchronous format) with peers and faculty while other programs allow students to study at their own pace (asynchronous format). Some programs offer a combination of both formats of study. Think about what would work best for you. Take into consideration how you learn best and what format you would prefer. Some students will find that work or family commitments may prevent them from being able to consistently attend in the synchronous format. Some students would prefer to participate over live video conferencing or chat rooms where questions can be answered instantly. Others would prefer to work more independently at their own time and pace. One is not better than the other; it is about knowing what is the right fit for you.

8. Understand Residency Requirements

A residency is when you go to the campus of the college or university for an on campus intensive learning experience.

Residency requirements vary from school to school. Some programs don't have any residency requirements. However, with the profession of counseling, interpersonal skills are critical so it is our belief that the resources required to attend a residency are well worth it.

Residencies often focus on strengthening peer and student/faculty partnerships while also teaching clinical skills. Many students report that the residency experience was the highlight of their graduate education. Typically, residencies are offered once or twice a year for about a week. Some require less of a commitment than this and some are more extensive. Most schools clearly state the residency requirements and are able to tell potential students exactly when and where residencies will take place, while they are in the program, as well as the overall anticipated cost.

For more information on residency requirements see our article: What are the Residency Requirements for Online Master's in Counseling Degrees?

9. Explore Local Support for Internship/Practicum Placement and Supervision

Most programs require the completion of supervised clinical internship/practicum hours that students are able to complete in their home town. It would be a good idea to talk with the school and get a sense of if there are local practicum placements and supervisors available in your focused area of study. Most schools have developed networks in communities across the country to allow them to easily match students with a local clinical placement and supervisor. Circumstances where it might be harder, or require students to travel further to find a placement or a supervisor, would generally be present when the student lives in a rural area. In rural areas the populations are generally under served and so finding a clinical placement to support a current service shouldn't be hard. Finding a qualified supervisor may be challenging in a rural setting,c but in this case long distance supervision via phone or video conferencing may also be an option.

10. Look at the Overall Anticipated Cost and Decide if That Will Work for Your Budget

The cost of the program can vary significantly from school to school. Look closely at the cost per credit or the annual tuition to determine your cost. An additional expense that you may need to consider is the cost of any potential travel to residencies. This cost will include travel expenses such as airfare, car rental, hotel, meals, and additional course materials. Financial aid is usually available to qualified students enrolled in online programming at accredited colleges and universities to support you in financing your education.

We know choosing the best online graduate program to meet your personal and professional goals can be hard, but we are confident this list of tips will set you off in the right direction to choosing the best online degree in counseling for you.

Some rankings of online degrees you might be interested in are: