Choosing a Counseling Program: It’s About Your Goals

Choosing a counseling program is largely about identifying goals. If you are planning to go into private practice or compete for positions that use the title Licensed Professional Counselor (or other similar titles) you will need a degree at at least the master’s level. It’s a significant time investment. Many states now require 60-semester hour programs. Career counseling, counseling, and school counseling programs may be a little shorter.



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Choosing a counseling program is largely about identifying goals.

If your goal is agency-based counseling in fields like addictions or criminal justice, the educational requirements will be lower yet. You may wear the title counselor with less than a master’s. Still, the scope of practice of a master’s level addiction counselor may be very different. In short, you typically have more opportunities with more education.

There are many programs that will qualify you to be licensed as a professional counselor. Here is a look at some considerations.

Undergraduate Degrees for Counseling

Graduate Degrees in Counseling

Program Accreditation and Credentialing Options

States do not all have the same standards. You will want to make sure the program is license-qualifying in the state where it is located

Recognize that all states license mental health counselors and all certify or license school counselors who work in public school settings. Many license other counselors such as rehabilitation counselors. CORE reports that almost all rehabilitation counselors seek either licensure or certification (

States do not all have the same standards. You will want to make sure the program is license-qualifying in the state where it is located — and in the state where you plan to seek licensure. You may want to go beyond that, especially if your state sets standards a little lower than the nationwide norm. Consider programs accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Mental health counseling programs are versatile. However, some students seek programs that qualify them for multiple credentials (whether licenses or voluntary certifications). A single program may address two counseling disciplines and still be only 60 semester hours or a little more. An increasing number of programs combine rehabilitation counseling and mental health counseling. Some offer an addiction counseling specialization within a mental health counseling framework.

There is even an option of combining the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). The program will be considerably longer than what is required for certification to work as an educator in the public school

Curriculum Options

All accredited programs must cover mandated topics. This means that curriculum-wise, there is generally more similarity than difference. That doesn’t mean that programs are the same. For example, a number of accredited programs are faith-based. Religious perspectives may be integrated into required coursework. A student may examine different counseling theories in light of spiritual beliefs.

There may be opportunities to explore personal interests. There may, for example, be multiple courses that meet the human development requirement. There may also be special topics like play therapy, grief counseling, or wellness counseling. Some clinical mental health counseling programs even offer concentrations or specialized tracks. Examples include body-centered therapy or expressive arts therapy. If the concentration is not in a broad or widely recognized branch of counseling, it generally does not change credentialing opportunities. Instead it builds the knowledge base and helps the counselor develop a niche.

Scheduling Options

Of course there are also practical considerations — especially when the student population consists of adults, all of whom have degrees, many of whom have careers and other life responsibilities. Some programs are offered primarily online. Others are offered in the evening or on two-day block schedules.

Pacing varies. Some programs, including distance ones, are cohort-based. Students progress from class to class with the same group of peers; an advantage is that students may develop strong professional relations. Other programs are designed for the student who needs more flexibility.

Mental Health Counseling Master’s Degrees

Capella University is one of the only universities in the country to offer six CACREP- accredited master’s programs in an online format: MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, MS in School Counseling – Addiction Treatment and Recovery, MS in School Counseling – General School Counseling, MS in School Counseling – Child and Adolescent Counseling. Capella also offers a COAMFTE-accredited MS in Marriage and Family Therapy. 

NYU Steinhardt – Online Master of Arts in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness. This program is accredited by MPCAC.

Antioch University offers a new Online MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program that is in the CACREP accreditation process and mirrors their on campus CACREP-accredited program. Specializations in: Substance Abuse and Addictions Counseling (SAAC) and Counseling Military Service Personnel and their Families (MSPF).

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