How much can you earn with a master’s degree in counseling?

BY Jordan FriedmanMay 24, 2023, 1:49 PM
A sign reading Fund Counselors, Not Cops is displayed in front of an elementary school in Washington, DC, as seen in February 2022. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds—AFP/Getty Images)

While it’s usually a passion for helping others that drives people to the field of counseling, experts say, it’s only natural to wonder about your salary prospects with a master’s degree in the field. That, alongside the types of jobs you can land and how long it will take you to pay off the debt incurred from paying tuition, are also factors to consider.

Generally speaking, there isn’t an undergraduate path to a career in counseling, says Kelly Duncan, executive director of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES). You will almost definitely need a master’s degree as well as a license to work as a counselor, whether you pursue the clinical mental health or school counseling track. 

Clinical counseling focuses more on treating mental health concerns in individual, family, or group settings, whereas school counseling deals with helping students and parents overcome challenges in a school environment.

Once you make that decision, you can roughly calculate how much you might earn after finishing your master’s degree by considering several factors. But first, it’s important to understand why demand for counseling is rising.

Why demand for counselors Is growing

Luckily for people considering this career path, the need for counselors is currently high—and the pandemic may be one reason why. Demand for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is expected to grow by 22% between 2021 and 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the demand for school and career counselors and advisors is slated to grow by 10% in that same period.

At the same time, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics shows that the share of U.S. adults getting mental health treatment increased between 2019 and 2021, increasing to nearly 22% from about 19%.

“There probably was a time [when] people that were seeking mental health services maybe didn’t share that very publicly because maybe there was some stigma surrounding that,” Duncan says. “I do think that one of the things that came out of the pandemic is this huge awareness about mental health and openness to seeking care.”

How much clinical mental health counselors make

For those people weighing whether this career is worthwhile, remember that your salary can (and probably will) increase as you advance into higher roles. In addition to the type of position you pursue, your salary can also be influenced by factors such as your geographical location and the type of organization or company where you work.

For clinical mental health counselors, post-graduation salaries for students usually start in the $45,000 range and then increase to roughly $65,000 after getting your license, which requires you to pass a national exam, says Fredrick Dombrowski, president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association

When somebody starts out in clinical counseling soon after they graduate, “[You] have to work under supervision for a while, so nobody really gets out of school and is making huge money right off the bat,” says Duncan of ACES, who has worked as a counselor educator since 2003.

“But there’s the potential for [a] really strong income stream,” Duncan adds. “Either as you work your way up in an agency or an institution, or for individuals that do private practice, they have really unlimited earning potential because they can work as many hours as they want, within reason, because they’re charging by the hour.”

Oftentimes, counselors who work in private practice charge about $100 to $150 an hour, says Dombrowski, who’s also assistant department chair for clinical mental health programs at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Additional income might also be earned from speaking engagements and related opportunities, especially if you are an expert in a subspecialty such as transgender mental health or veteran care.

“Those who work go through the clinical mental health [track] will actually either work in private practice, they will work with an agency, or for the most part, they will do a combination of working in higher education as a university professor, and at the same time, they could have a private practice on the side,” says LaVelle Hendricks, professor and department head of counseling at Texas A&M University–Commerce, which offers various master’s degree programs in the field. Experts say clinical counselors can also work in other hospital and residential care settings.

Simply put, it can be difficult to calculate your exact earning potential without knowing what your career will look like. Will you ultimately go into private practice? If so, will you have employees working for you, will you need to pay for office space, and will you accept insurance? If not, in what type of agency or setting will you work?

Your geographical area can also affect your earnings potential, with counselors in large metropolitan areas often charging more per session. New York City mental health counselors charge a median of $150 per therapy session, compared with $145 in Boston and $135 in Providence, Rhode Island, according to the therapist search directory Zencare. ZipRecruiter also found that the average pay of a mental health counselor in New York is $82,537 as of April 2023, whereas the average pay of one in South Dakota is $67,448.

Salary prospects for school counselors

The amount you can earn as a school counselor “varies from school district to school district,” Hendricks says.

“Those that are on the school counseling track will be working in a school environment will be labeled as a school counselor,” Hendricks says. “As a result of being labeled as a school counselor, they will deal with a myriad of mental health issues that are going on in the K-12 environment.”

At the school level, a counselor will be on a salaried schedule that would be similar to that of a teacher, Duncan says. Oftentimes, you will make a higher income than a beginning teacher with just a bachelor’s degree but less than an administrator such as a school principal. The national average for school counselor salaries is $57,296 as of April 2023, according to ZipRecruiter.

But at the end of the day, there is more to consider than just salary prospects when deciding whether to pursue a master’s degree in counseling. It’s important to weigh whether you truly have a passion for what the field entails—largely, that’s helping others improve their mental health.

“It is just wonderful to see people improve their lives and to help people from every background, every different creed, every different religion,” Dombrowski says of clinical mental health counseling.

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.