Counseling is the process by which a trained professional provides guidance to others who are experiencing difficult circumstances or psychological problems. A degree in counseling is a good fit for individuals who want to make a career out of providing support for people who are going through the loss of a loved one, a rocky marriage or divorce, substance abuse issues, anger issues, and numerous other challenges. In the past, students primarily attended traditional colleges and universities for this degree, but today students can pursue a more flexible option through accredited online colleges for counseling.
The best online colleges for counseling will have faculty members from diverse clinical and cultural backgrounds who are highly accessible to their students; a philosophy that lines up with your own values and beliefs; and a variety of specialization options. Many top online colleges for counseling offer programs that are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.
Counseling Course Work Basics
At the undergraduate level, top accredited online colleges generally offer degrees in psychology, which will give students a solid foundation of course work for a graduate program in counseling. Even so, some online schools do offer more focused areas of study, such as addictions counseling. Counseling course work begins in earnest at the graduate level, however, as students learn advanced counseling theory, skills, and intervention methods. Course work is typically broken down into foundation courses, core courses, and field experience. A sampling of graduate courses in counseling include:
- Group Counseling: In this course, students learn effective strategies for counseling people in groups, as opposed to individually, as well as theories of group dynamics.
- Ethics and Legal Issues in Counseling: This course provides an overview of the state and federal laws that govern professional counseling, explores ethical issues in mental health settings, and helps students identify their personal values in regard to counseling.
- Multicultural Counseling: In this course, students study diversity in mental health settings as well as best practices for working with patients of different cultures and ethnicities.
- Lifespan Development: This course exposes students to developmental theory as it applies to an individual’s entire life.
- Career Counseling: In this course, students learn about the field of career counseling and explore the professional competencies necessary to practice effectively in this field.
The best online colleges for counseling require students to complete internships and practicum experiences. A practicum experience is a short-term experiential learning activity that takes place at an approved facility where counseling services are provided. An internship, on the other hand, is typically a longer-term experience of supervised clinical instruction in counseling. Internships allow students to learn practical skills in individual and group counseling, assessment, intervention, and more. Graduate programs also require students to conduct counseling-related research.
Careers for the Counseling Graduate
Students who graduate from counseling programs at top rated online colleges go into a variety of counseling careers. Among the most common careers pursued are mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists. To enter either of these professions, students must hold both a master’s degree and a state license, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Licensure requirements for these professionals vary by state, but typically require passage of an exam and acquiring a set amount of supervised clinical experience in the field.
The median yearly salary for mental health counselors was $38,150 as of May 2010, according to the BLS. However, those who were employed in local government, hospitals, and outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers reported higher median salaries. The median yearly salary for marriage and family therapists was $45,720, with higher median salaries reported for those who worked in state government, local government, outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, and offices of mental health practitioners (except physicians).
Wages in these fields vary depending on years of experience, size and type of employer, where you live, the size of your client base, and other factors. Faster-than-average job growth is expected for mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists between 2010 and 2020, with 36% job growth projected for mental health counselors and 41% job growth expected for marriage and family therapists.