Although licensed counselors generally hold a graduate degree, an undergraduate counseling degree may be the starting point for eventual licensure for some students. More and more, such degrees are offered online for student convenience. Students interested in this option should ensure their target institution is accredited, offers an appropriate curriculum, and prepares them for graduate school.

About the Online Counseling Degree

The road to becoming a licensed professional counselor (LPC), also known as a licensed mental health counselor, requires completing a graduate degree from an accredited institution, fulfilling a minimum of 3,000 hours of postgraduate clinical experience, and passing the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or other state-approved standardized exam.

The first step in this journey is earning an undergraduate degree that serves as a launching point for future study. Typically speaking, undergraduate online counseling degree programs are introductory in nature; they offer broad curricula with the goals of providing students with a thorough understanding of the fundamental principles, theories and concepts of counseling; introducing them to counseling practice techniques (e.g. assessment and treatment); and preparing them for the rigors of graduate school. Some institutions may offer programs that allow students to specialize their studies in an area of professional practice, such as substance abuse or Christian-based counseling.

Although an undergraduate degree is generally a stepping stone to a more advanced degree, it can also open up several avenues for students who are considering immediate employment, instead of graduate school. Example career pathways for graduates include:

  • Case Manager Assistant (Associate degree)
  • Mental Health Technician (Associate degree)
  • Case Manager (Bachelor’s degree)
  • Alcohol and Drug Counselor (Bachelor’s degree)

Online Counseling Degrees

Online programs have been designed to be academically comparable to campus-based programs, offering equivalent content, albeit in a different delivery format. Online counseling degree programs are traditionally operated by offering coursework completely online and having students undergo on-site clinical training in their local areas, which allows them to develop counseling experience and skills without being forced to relocate. Depending on the program, classes may be offered in synchronous (real-time instruction) or asynchronous (self-paced instruction) formats. Both options typically include the same components.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

Also known as course management systems, learning management systems are the software applications used by schools to administer online degree programs in counseling. With a computer and Internet connection, students use these platforms to access course materials, watch lectures through online videos or podcasts, submit assignments, collaborate with other students, connect with instructors, and receive grades. Example Learning Management Systems include Blackboard and Moodle.

Scheduling

Depending on the institution, online programs typically use a standard quarter or semester schedule; classes may be structured so that they last throughout the entire session, or may be bundled into modules lasting two to three weeks each. Assignments are traditionally completed offline; students often have some flexibility in pacing as long as they meet pre-established deadlines.

Online Communication

Students in online counseling programs typically communicate with their peers through email, discussion board postings and live chat. Some programs may require students to attend real-time, synchronous discussions with instructors and other students. Interaction with instructors is facilitated through email, web conferencing, online office hours and other technologies; faculty may also be available for in-person meetings if location permits.

Real-World Training

Hands-on training is a vital part of counseling degree programs, and the best will require students to complete an in-person training component. Students may work with a placement coordinator to find an approved practicum location and supervisor in their local area.

Faculty

In many cases, the faculty for online programs are the same individuals responsible for a school’s on-campus program. They have been instrumental in developing content for the curriculum and have adapted it for the online environment. Many have real-world experience in the counseling field, bringing expertise in various specialty areas such as substance abuse or working with children.

Student Services

Schools have generally kept pace with the needs of distance students. Student services such as tutoring, writing support, academic advising, and technical support are usually fully available to online students. Many schools with physical campuses also allow online students to participate in campus-based activities.

Online Associate Degree in Counseling

Associate degrees in counseling are not widely available, but students may complete programs in related fields such as psychology, human services or social work. Because the job market for individuals with associate degrees in counseling is limited, most students treat this two-year degree as a transitional one that will give them the foundation to then complete a bachelor’s degree in counseling. That said, earning an associate degree is not a guarantee for admission into a bachelor’s program. Students planning to use an associate degree as a way to transfer to a four-year program should seek the advice of an admissions counselor so they can best tailor the degree to meet requirements for future study.

The associate degree may also be appropriate for those who wish to join the workforce more quickly, assuming entry-level positions that will give them real-world experience as they decide whether to pursue the profession more in-depth.

Below is a description of four counseling-related degrees available at the associate level.

Associate of Science
in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling

Students in this program gain entry-level skills required to assist others with addictive behaviors. Curriculum traditionally covers individual and group counseling techniques, case management, and prevention practices. The Associate of Science is structured so that students may transfer at least some of their credits to a four-year degree program. Students may also complete an Associate of Applied Science degree, which is targeted to students seeking entry-level employment after graduation.

Associate of Arts in Psychology

A foundational knowledge of theories and practices of psychology, research methods, and ethics are components in this curriculum. Students may also have the opportunity to expand their studies with coursework in related disciplines, such as human growth and development or social psychology.

Associate of Science in Human Services

The objective of this degree program is to provide students with both theoretical knowledge and fundamental skills required to pursue further education and careers in the helping professions, such as counseling. Studies typically focus on critical thinking, trends in the human services profession, professional ethics, diversity, and service management and delivery.

Although curriculum varies by program, the table below includes common classes students may encounter during their associate degree studies

Class Class Description
Introduction to Psychology Explores the principles that provide the underpinnings of modern psychology, reviewing the field from an historical context and discussing its related branches, such as social psychology.
Introduction to Human Services Introduces students to the human services profession and provides insight into the operations of a human services agency.
Introduction to Substance Abuse Counseling Students learn about the concepts and definitions of substance abuse; coursework typically includes the study of chemical dependency counseling.
Case Management Discusses clinical assessment and management of clients in chemical dependency counseling programs.Topics include assessment, diagnosis, treatment planning and community outreach.

Online Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling

Holding a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree allows graduates to market themselves as beginning practitioners in the workplace, and serves as a starting point for those continuing on to graduate school and professional licensure in the field. Online bachelor’s programs generally require four years of full-time study, with students completing approximately 120-130 credit hours of study.

There are several counseling-related programs at the bachelor’s degree level, with each built upon foundational concepts including human behavior and development; assessment techniques; and counseling theories and principles. Below is a list of three online bachelor’s degree programs that can prepare students for graduate school or counseling-related careers.

Bachelor of Science
in Psychology and Counseling

This program is largely designed to prepare students for graduate school, with the curriculum covering central principles of counseling and psychology; human development; individual and group counseling; and research methods.

Bachelor of Arts
in Psychology and Addiction Counseling

Arming students with a firm understanding of core concepts in counseling theory, psychology, sociology, and human behavior, this program prepares graduates for careers in addiction counseling.

Bachelor of Science
in Psychology – Christian Counseling

In preparation for non-clinical counseling positions, students learn about the underlying principles of Christian counseling, examining theoretical and biblically-based approaches to counseling.

The table below outlines example classes students may take in the different types of online bachelor’s in counseling degree programs

Class Class Description
Theories of Addiction Counseling Examines the major theories of counseling and their application in the realm of addiction, as well as how social context impacts functioning.
Substance Abuse Counseling Covers substance abuse and proven counseling techniques used by substance abuse counselors. Students learn about individual, group and family counseling methods and principles.
Group Therapy Explores the theory of group counseling. Students gain practical knowledge of dealing with clients in group settings.
Strategies in Counseling Discusses the theoretical underpinnings of counseling and its varied strategies, including working with clients in individual, family and group settings.
Introduction to Counseling Introduces students to the central theories and concepts of counseling, including its various disciplines (such as school counseling), and covers modern trends in the field.
Counseling Case Management Covers the central principles of case management used in counseling practice, including a discussion of the manager’s role in protocols governing client intake, assessment, treatment and recovery.

Important Considerations for Online Counseling Students

Determining the quality of an online counseling degree program, as well as its overall suitability to an individual student, can be a challenging undertaking. Several factors deserve consideration, from cost to practicum requirements to class scheduling flexibility. Here are some factors students should take into account when choosing a program that will best meet their future academic and professional goals.

Curriculum Diversity

Most online undergraduate programs in counseling are introductory in nature, covering a wide range of counseling topics and research methods. Graduate schools seek students who have a thorough understanding of the field, so students should select a department that offers a program with a broad curriculum in counseling.

Program Fit

Each program has its own individual objectives, focus, and structure. How do your goals align with those of the department? Will the online experience fit your lifestyle and learning habits? Will the total number of students and the faculty-to-student ratio allow for sufficient personal attention? What is the reputation of the online program? Answers to these questions will help students assess whether they will feel comfortable with the program and the faculty’s approach to online instruction.

Practicum Support Services

Counseling is intrinsically interpersonal, and online students should still expect to complete a hands-on practicum in most counseling degree programs. Find out what types of on-site environments are available for practicum requirements, and what support the department provides to help place online students at an appropriate location.

Faculty Backgrounds

Students should learn about their prospective faculty members. What type of academic and professional experience do they have? Check into what degrees they possess, whether they are licensed counselors, and whether they have experience teaching online courses.

Student Services

Online students traditionally have access to student services, although they may be limited in some cases. When selecting a program, students should ask about library access, tutoring, academic counseling, and any other services that may be relevant to a student’s situation. Check whether the program offers specific services to support the learning experience of its online students.

Graduation Success

CACREP, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, is the accrediting body for master’s and doctoral counseling programs in the United States, and graduation from a CACREP-accredited institution is typically required for professional licensure as a counselor. Students thinking about graduate school should check the program’s placement rate of graduates into CACREP-accredited programs.

Resources for Counseling Students

There are numerous professional associations and resources available to both students and professional counselors. The list below includes sample resources available to counseling students.