The Highest Paying States for Guidance Counselors

The Highest Paying States for Guidance Counselors
While most commonly associated with providing assistance in college or career selection, school counselors do a whole lot more. Image from Unsplash
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland January 30, 2023

Guidance counselor salaries vary widely among states. Remember to factor in cost of living; as you would expect, the highest salaries are typically in the most expensive states.

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Many factors contribute to the salaries guidance counselors earn: education, experience, type of school (elementary or secondary; public or private), specialized training, and certifications all drive counselor salary ranges. Because education pay is set at the local level, location also plays a critical role in determining counselor pay.

Guidance counselor salaries vary significantly from state to state and often from district to district. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that a school counselor in Illinois earns an average annual income of nearly $58,000. In California, in contrast, counselors earn an average of over $81,000 per year.

Districts consider cost of living and local education budgets in determining how much to pay guidance counselors. Many offer cost-of-living adjustments (COLA), which have hovered around a three percent salary increase for several years. However, with the recent inflationary trend, that standard percentage may increase.

Which states are the highest-paying states for guidance counselors? This article explores that question and also discusses:

  • What is school counseling?
  • School counselor salary
  • Job outlook for school counselors

What is school counseling?

According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), school counselors’ duties include:

  • Assisting with individual student academic planning and goal setting
  • Providing short-term counseling to students and making referrals for long-term support as needed
  • Collaborating with families, teachers, school administrators, and the community to support student success
  • Advocating for students at individualized education planning (IEP) and other student-focused meetings
  • Utilizing data to identify and address student needs and challenges
  • Serving as change agents to improve equitable and accessible education and opportunities for all students

Schools hire counselors at all levels—elementary, middle school, and high school—to provide a full range of support services. While most commonly associated with providing assistance in college or career selection, school counselors do a whole lot more. It’s a role with more than its fair share of pros and cons.

In many instances, school counselors serve a similar role to school social workers. Their work demands cultural competence and the ability to promote equity for all students. School counselors also help students struggling with mental health, social and emotional development, and pandemic stress. For more severe cases, school counselors refer students to mental health counselors or school psychologists.

Seamlessly performing these responsibilities requires soft skills that include critical thinking, complex problem-solving, decision making, active listening, empathy, and effective verbal and written communication, as well as hard skills gained through education and experience. Most school counselors hold a master’s degree in counseling or psychology, maintain the state certification or licensure requirements, and pursue continuing education opportunities to stay abreast of how to serve their students best. In many states, these criteria are required.


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School counselor salary

According to the BLS, the national average annual salary for educational, guidance, and career counselors and advisors is $60,510. The highest ten percent earn over $98,000; the lowest 10 percent bring in a median income under $38,000.

Roughly 45 percent of school and career counselors work in elementary or secondary private and public schools; 38 percent practice at junior colleges, colleges and universities, and professional schools. Educational support service counselors make up four percent of the industry. Average annual income for these counselors is as follows:

  • Elementary and secondary school counselors: $70,790
  • Junior college counselors: $64,160
  • Educational support service counselors: $58,360
  • College, university, or professional school counselors: $54,570

Highest-paying states for school counselors

The state where you reside can play a role in determining your average salary. Note that, in many cases, the higher average salaries correspond to a higher local cost of living. As a result, the highest salaries don’t always result in the highest standard of living.

Top-paying states for school counselors include:

  • California: $81,590
  • New Jersey: $76,040
  • Massachusetts: $75,660
  • Washington: $75,160
  • Maryland: $72,730

Note that, according to Council for Community & Economic Research data Massachusetts has the second-highest cost of living of all states (Hawaii is first); California ranks third, Maryland sixth, Washington eleventh and New Jersey twelfth.

Other high-paying states include Virginia ($69,990; twentieth in cost of living); New York ($70,150; fourth); and Hawaii ($68,560; first). Incomes in the five states with the lowest cost of living include: Mississippi ($51,990); Oklahoma ($51,990); Alabama ($54,590); Kansas ($56,670); and Iowa ($53,720). According to BLS data, the lowest-paying state is South Dakota ($46,960).

Although some states may pay higher wages, the availability of new jobs or open positions could halt your plans of relocating to a better-paying state. The top states with higher concentrations of school counselor jobs and their average salaries include:

  • New Hampshire: $53,510
  • Hawaii: $68,560
  • Vermont: $57,470
  • Louisiana: $58,480
  • Utah: $53,710

According to Zippia, the best states for school counselors in 2023, factoring in both salary and concentration of jobs, are:

  • New Hampshire
  • Massachusetts
  • California
  • New Jersey
  • Delaware
  • New Mexico
  • Arkansas
  • North Dakota
  • New York
  • Mississippi

Highest-paying municipal/regional areas for school counselors

Unsurprisingly, pay for school counselors (as for most professions) is higher on the coasts. The state of California is home to the majority of the top-paying metropolitan areas; school counselors can earn an annual median wage of $91,540 in places like Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, California. Additional urban areas within the state, such as Napa, San Jose, Oxnard, San Francisco, Oakland, Bakersfield, and other well-populated areas, yield average salaries ranging from $84,630 to $90,530. Of course, California is among the most expensive states in which to live, and its metropolitan areas are among its costliest.

Urban areas aren’t the only ones that pay high wages. Some top-paying nonmetropolitan areas include:

  • Western Washington: $81,950
  • Massachusetts: $74,780
  • Nevada: $71,840
  • North Valley-Northern Mountains region of California: $71,320
  • Border region of Texas: $69,030

Job outlook for school counselors

The job outlook remains bright for aspiring school counselors, with a projected 11 percent job growth from 2021 to 2031—roughly 32,000 new openings per year for school and career counselors. Between high school counselors assisting students with college applications, scholarships, and financial aid and junior college or college advisors helping students with internship placements and preparation for the full-time workforce, these roles will remain in demand.

With an increased focus on social and emotional development, elementary school counselors are seen as essential collaborators with teachers and administrators to ensure the curriculum addresses the student’s developmental needs. Students growing up in the digital era and dealing with such stressors as cyberbullying and school shootings require the support counselors provide more than ever.

Although they’re called “school” counselors, their role impacts students even when they walk outside those school walls. They contribute to students’ long-term growth and success from adolescence to adulthood, which adds to the demand for this profession.

Job requirements for school counselors

The career path leading to a school counselor position is multifaceted; many routes could lead you to this career. Some counselors may start in the classrooms as teachers, while others may have gotten their start in social work and decided to specialize in school counseling. Some may have a bachelor’s degree in counseling, psychology, social work, education, or other related fields. There’s no single direct route to a career as a school counselor. However, whichever path leads you to this career, there are some standard job requirements, including:

Depending on the setting (i.e., elementary, middle, high school, or college), school counselors can also explore specialty certifications from the NBCC. The Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) and the National Certified School Counselor (NCSC) are great additions that may help you stand out to employers.

Many schools offer the master’s degrees you need to advance in this field. Some schools offer online learning options. Degree programs include classroom instruction and supervised experience through an internship and field practicum to fine-tune your skills. To stand out to employers and ensure you’re getting the best preparation, look for master’s programs accredited by the Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CAREP).

School counseling is an ever-changing profession, as student needs shift from year to year. Accordingly, continuing education is also an ongoing requirement in this profession. Most states require school counselors to renew their licenses every five years.

While the state or region determines your salary range to an extent, advanced education, experience, and credentials may help you negotiate a higher wage no matter where you live.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: CounselingSocial Work & Counseling & Psychology