How to get an online counseling degree

A recent Viacom-AP poll found a majority of young people feel that high schools don't provide the proper guidance they need to go to college. Education and counseling experts say part of the reason is due to overwhelming counselor-to-student ratios, often 300-to-1, and to changing perceptions about how to best prepare young adults for education beyond high school.


For some students, a traditional four-year degree may not be the best fit, and there's a movement underway to help counselors find ways to help these students, according to a nother recent report, Education Week: Schools Strengthen Counseling on Postsecondary Options.

"In pockets across the country, states and school districts are starting to pay more attention to students who want to take alternative routes that fall short of a baccalaureate. Efforts involve creating curriculum for guidance counselors to learn about a wider range of postsecondary options, spelling out career pathways that inform students of what classes they need to take in high school and after graduation to obtain certificates for specific careers, and engaging teachers and school counselors to support students to develop long-term plans, starting in middle school, for a career," says the Education Week report.

Given that many high school students believe they could use more guidance and there's expanding opportunities for counselors to help today's youth by exposing them to paths beyond a four-year degree, education counseling can be a rewarding career choice. There's another good reason why earning a counseling degree will pay off : counseling jobs are in demand.

Despite budget cuts across the country, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that job opportunities for school guidance counselors will grow more rapidly than the average for other occupations. States require elementary schools to provide counseling services, and counselors at all levels can expect to see their role expand as career and vocational mentoring becomes more important. Graduates of school guidance counselor schools can expect to see demand for their occupation grow by 14 percent from 2008 to 2018.

Here we take a look at the steps required for earning a counseling degree through UMassOnline, which cites its School Counseling M.Ed. Program as one of its most popular programs of study.

Top 5 must-know tips before you earn a counseling degree online

When you train to earn a counseling degree, you do your part to change how future students in your community view themselves in the world. Laura Hayden, UMassOnline School Counseling M.Ed. Program Director, notes, "School counselors provide an important and irreplaceable role in the schools as student advocates, supporters of students' socio-emotional development, and providers to students of vocational options and advice."

Check out the top tips anyone should know before earning an online degree in counseling, using the University of Massachusetts UMassOnline M.Ed. in school counseling as your example.

5. Explore your online degree options

When the time comes to go back to school, it's important to know that you have options. Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all coursework at traditional universities. Today, counseling degree training can mean logging on to complete your coursework, or pursuing your studies in a hybrid degree program, blending face-to-face training and online education.

A 2010 report published in the Journal of School Counseling made the case for different types of training. "Multimodal delivery of training, such as face to face, asynchronous, and virtual sessions, can serve to build partnerships between counselor educators and K-12 school counseling supervisors that improve the multicultural competence of trainees and practicing professionals," the report noted.

The UMassOnline program takes advantage of the multimodal delivery system. Coursework requires two weeks on-campus in order for students to complete two clinical courses. The rest of coursework is online, giving students a chance to maintain full-time jobs, travel or keep other commitments.

4. Make the commitment to a counseling degree

Any degree program is likely to come with a commitment of your time, energy and money. Fortunately, at the master's degree level, a more dedicated course load means less time spent sitting in general education courses. UMassOnline's degree program is a 60-credit master's degree. The typical master's degree program requires two years of full-time study.

At the UMassOnline counseling master's degree program, credit fees of $445 per credit plus other fees add up to $1,335 per a standard three-credit course. Additional expenses include travel fees plus housing and relocation expenses, if any.

Costs are standard across counseling training programs. Fortunately, financial aid is also common. Among accredited schools like the University of Massachusetts, the federal government offers loans and grants to those who qualify. Filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step. Students of the UMassOnline program must enter the University of Massachusetts Boston school code 002222 on their application forms.

3. Prepare for graduate-level admission

A major step in the graduate admissions process is collecting the required materials. In general, the more exclusive a master's degree program is, the more materials will be scrutinized by admissions representatives and prospective faculty members. Admission requirements vary by program and can change from year to year. As of May 2011, the following were part of the admission requirements for the UMassOnline program:

  • Five social science courses
  • 3.0 undergraduate GPA
  • GRE/MAT completion, unless applicant has already completed a master's or doctorate
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Two-part letter of intent

In addition to the required admission materials above, students are advised to have completed at least one year of paid or volunteer work in a mental health, school or equivalent setting. Once an applicant clears the requirements above, he or she will be invited on campus to complete a group interview with prospective faculty members.

2. Keep your skills current and meet required standards

Keeping your education current isn't just preferred in the counseling world; it's required. The M.Ed. in school counseling from the University of Massachusetts helps to prepare students for school counselor licensure through the Massachusetts Department of Education. Training is essential; as Hayden notes, "one of the very practical challenges of training in this field is the simple fact that there are more school counselor trainees than there are school counselor jobs within Massachusetts. We produce so many highly qualified school counselors that it is disheartening to see how competitive the field is and how challenging it is for them to obtain a job."

With that in mind, students may choose among a range of courses in the school's online degree program, boosting their skills in a range of fields. Coursework in the UMassOnline counseling program includes the following:

  • Collaborative consultation in schools
  • Substance abuse and the family
  • Vocational development and career information
  • Behavioral counseling
  • Child abuse and neglect

While no degree program can guarantee career placement, accredited master's degree programs like the one found in the University of Massachusetts' online degree program give students a required level of training, preparing them to sit for exams and gain necessary licensure.

1. Do your part to rewrite the future

In a 2010 report published in the American School Counselor Association's magazine ASCA School Counselor, working counselors spoke about their commitment to their career. "I think self-advocacy is one of the greatest tools that we can give kids," a counselor named Gleaton noted. "And teaching kids to advocate for themselves is one of the best things that I can do." Kim, another counselor, said, "I want to be part of a change process that allows students to advocate for themselves, to choose their identity, to be self-determining … and to help them understand how education can be part of their freedom."

Hayden notes the specific benefits of online education at UMassOnline: "One quite incredible benefit of online training for school counselors is that our students can apply the knowledge they learn from our program to their particular regions of the world," she says. "We train student advocates, agents of social change, and students strongly wedded to the pursuit of social justice. These factors look different in varying parts of the world, and it is exciting to see how our students apply their learning to their particular field experiences."

Training to become a school counselor means much more than completing required coursework and qualifying for a position. It means preparing to serve as a loyal advocate for individuals at all stages of their educational and personal development and helping them find the freedom in their lives as they work through their own years of school. Experienced school counselors mirror to their students the lessons they learned in their own training.