Counseling

Is a Master’s Degree in School Counseling Worth It? Here’s What to Expect.

Is a Master’s Degree in School Counseling Worth It? Here’s What to Expect.
There's nothing quite like guiding students through the various challenges they'll face in elementary, middle, and high school—and the social challenges and homelife challenges that can make academic success more difficult. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry January 9, 2020

Most states require school counselors to have a master's degree, so yes, a master's in school counseling is worth it if you hope to become a counselor in a K-12 school. The real questions you need to ask are, "Which degree?" and "Which school?" We can help.

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There's no question about it. If you want to work as a school counselor, you're going to need to get a master's in school counseling—and not just because most states require you to have one. School counselors at the elementary school, middle school, and high school levels need specialized training to help students navigate the diverse challenges they must overcome to succeed, such as:

  • Cyberbullying
  • The pressure to look perfect on social media
  • New types of recreational drugs
  • Ever-changing academic standards

Add to these the "classic" challenges (e.g., the desire to be popular, the need to choose the "right" college) and it's clear that being a kid is complicated. That means providing them with guidance is also complicated.

School counselors can't make the hard parts of childhood disappear. However, by using the expertise they develop through their master's degree training, counselors can help kids work through these difficult years. In this article about whether a master's in school counseling is worth it, we'll cover:

  • What is a master's in school counseling?
  • Why you might want to pursue a school counseling degree
  • What to expect from a master's program in school counseling
  • Best master in school counseling degrees
  • MEd versus MS versus MA in School Counseling
  • Pros and cons of earning a master's degree in school counseling
  • Should you get a master's in school counseling?

What is a master's in school counseling?

A master's in school counseling is an advanced degree designed to train professional counselors to work in K-12 schools. There's no single master's in school counseling degree (more on this later). Rather, aspiring school counselors enjoy numerous degree options. All of these options prepare you to help students reach their full potential academically, socially, and emotionally. That's no small or inessential task. In an era in which so many kids are plagued by chronic stress and anxiety, school counselors are more critical than ever before.

Some people use the terms 'school counselor' and 'guidance counselor' interchangeably, but they're not really the same thing (though at some schools, one person might occupy both roles). Guidance counselors typically work in high schools, helping students with class selection and post-graduation planning. School counselors work with students of all ages and have more in common with therapists and social workers.

Why you might want to pursue this degree

Most students who pursue a master's in school counseling have already committed themselves to the goal of working in public and private school systems. It's theoretically possible to work as a school counselor with a more general master's degree in counseling. However, generalist degrees probably won't dive particularly deeply into topics specific to students, such as:

  • Emotional and behavioral development in children and teens
  • Physical and emotional changes in adolescence
  • Academic development in elementary and secondary school settings
  • The challenges that sex, alcohol, and drugs present to young people

With a master's in school counseling, you'll have the skills and knowledge necessary to:

  • Evaluate students' mental health
  • Work with students, teachers, and parents to create plans for student success
  • Help students develop both academic and social skills
  • Support students who are questioning their identities
  • Help resolve peer conflicts
  • Support students' emotional development, before and during adolescence
  • Help students and families work through behavioral issues
  • Identify possible instances of parental abuse
  • Identify possible instances of substance abuse
  • Support students who are being bullied
  • Help students with special needs thrive
  • Support students who are at risk of suicide
  • Provide students with resources related to study habits and time management
  • Support teachers and administrators as they assist students in crisis

What to expect from a master's program in school counseling

Most master's degree programs, whether you're looking at on-campus or online programs, can be completed in two to three years by full-time students and in three to four years by part-time students. A master's in school counseling may cost you between $19,000 and $30,000 in total tuition for an online program, and possibly more for an on-campus program. There's no getting around the time investment and financial investment if becoming a school counselor is your dream, though.

Once you're enrolled in a school counseling master's program, you'll spend many hours studying school counseling and general counseling best practices in courses focused on:

  • Counseling theories and techniques
  • Ethics in counseling
  • Educational assessment
  • Growth and development
  • Child and adolescent counseling in schools
  • Clinical mental health
  • Multiculturalism and diverse perspectives
  • Psychology of human development
  • Addiction and substance abuse
  • Special education
  • Career development and professional counseling

All school counseling master's programs require students to complete practicum hours and internship experiences under the supervision of a credentialed school counselor in a school or other educational setting. The hands-on component of your master's degree program will provide a chance to apply the theories and concepts you've learned in the classroom to real-world situations—and help you fulfill the requirements you'll need to meet for your state-level counselor certification.

Best master in school counseling degrees

The American School Counselor Association keeps a list of school counselor master's degree programs by state. Some of the best master's in school counseling programs can be found at:

Perhaps you're still on the fence about whether a master's in school counseling is worth it, and you're concerned about cost. Keep in mind that you don't need to attend the most prestigious program to become a school counselor and that financial aid may be available. Having a degree from a famous-name college can definitely boost your job prospects, but you can get a great counseling education in any accredited program. Check out this list of master's degree programs accredited by the Master's in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council, which includes many school counseling degrees. You can also look for programs accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) here.

MEd versus MS versus MA in School Counseling

Having a master's in school counseling is worth it when your goal is to become a school counselor, but this is one of those degrees that goes by many names. That can make it harder to find the right program. Make sure you check out MEd, MS, and MA programs when you start looking into your options. You'll quickly discover there's a lot of overlap between the coursework and graduation requirements in each of these programs. There are, however, a few key differences to consider:

  • Master of Education in School Counseling programs often require that applicants have a degree in education and/or experience working as a teacher or in education. Coursework may be more focused on student-teacher relationships and general education topics. In addition to studying psychology and counseling, you may also take classes in educational theory and learning psychology.
  • Master of Science in School Counseling programs typically touch on topics related to educational theory, but students in these programs often spend more time studying counseling and psychology and doing original research. Many MS programs require students to complete a research project or thesis, and some students in these programs go on to earn doctoral degrees and become researchers instead of becoming school counselors.
  • Master of Arts in School Counseling programs are often similar to or even identical to MS in School Counseling programs. One difference between MS and MA programs is that MA programs for school counselors don't always require students to complete a thesis or a research project to graduate. MA programs are also more likely to admit an applicant who doesn't have an undergraduate degree in education or a bachelor's degree in psychology, so they're a good option for students who are looking to change careers. All of these degrees will qualify you to get your state license in counseling and begin working as a school counselor—so take your pick!

    Pros and cons of earning a master's degree in school counseling

If your goal is to become a school counselor, there are literally no downsides to getting this degree. After all, you __must have a master's in school counseling to fulfill your ambition. With this degree, you'll be fully prepared to become a National Certified School Counselor(NCSC) and to fulfill the state certification requirements to become a licensed school counselor.

You probably aren't looking into becoming a school counselor for the money—because, let's face it, you won't get rich with a master's in school counseling—but it's worth noting that your job prospects should be pretty solid with this degree. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for school counselors are growing at a rate faster than average for all professions, which is definitely a pro.

And here's one more pro in favor of getting this degree: school counselor is ranked sixth on US News and World Report's list of the best social service jobs. Most school counselors have very personal reasons for choosing this career, but Jennifer Diaz, EdS, LPC (a finalist for the American School Counseling Association's 2015 School Counselor of the Year award), summed up the appeal in an interview on the site Ask Listen Learn:

"One of the coolest things about school counselors is that we work with all students in the areas of academic success, career development, and in the personal/social realm. We work in intervention and prevention. So, I get to do what I've always wanted by helping kids that are going through rough times. But I also help children develop resiliency skills so that they are better prepared when they hit those rough times."

Should you get a master's in school counseling?

Do you want to become a school counselor? Then yes, this is the right degree for you. Whether you choose an MEd, MS, or MA program, you'll have not only the qualifications, but also the skills and knowledge to begin helping students reach their full potential at the elementary school, middle school, and high school levels.

You may have to make sacrifices to earn a master's degree in school counseling—like taking loans or taking time off from your job—but your eventual reward will be knowing that you're doing significant work. There's nothing quite like guiding students through the various challenges they'll face in elementary, middle, and high school—and the social challenges and homelife challenges that can make academic success more difficult. In a world where bullying is all too normal and schools are trying to do more with fewer resources, counselors have never been more necessary.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

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. He has been managing editor of the Noodle.com website for over four years.

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