Is a master’s degree in counseling worth it?

BY Jordan FriedmanMay 23, 2023, 8:23 PM
Series of lined up signs focused on mental health assistance during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by: Don & Melinda Crawford—Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

If you’re interested in mental health or human services and have a deep-rooted passion for helping others, you may wonder whether a master’s degree in counseling is worth it. The simple answer: If you’re absolutely set on pursuing a career as a clinical mental health or school counselor, it’s almost definitely a resounding yes, experts say.

Why? Because to practice as a clinical mental health counselor, both a master’s degree and a license in the field are typically required. This means you need to finish your graduate program, complete clinical hours (usually around 3,000, depending on the state where you want to practice), and pass a national exam. 

To become certified as a school counselor in most states, you must earn a master’s degree in school counseling, plus a state-issued credential. You typically need to complete a practicum or internship in a K-12 setting and, in many cases, pass a comprehensive exam.

Of course, whether a master’s in counseling is truly worth it—and whether you should pursue clinical or school counseling (or both)—depends on factors including your career goals, desired salary, and even where you plan to practice. Students in these programs often come from a variety of undergraduate backgrounds, though many have some experience in a human services field such as psychology or social work.

Before you take the leap into pursuing a master’s in counseling and start submitting applications, consider the following.

Career prospects with a master’s in counseling

A master’s in counseling opens the door to a lot of different job opportunities—and demand is currently high nationwide, especially in rural areas, says Kelly Duncan, executive director of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES).

If someone receives a clinical mental health counseling degree and license, they may look for positions in community mental health agencies, private practice settings, or other clinical settings in residential or hospital care, Duncan says. 

Those people who earn a master’s degree in school counseling, however, can consider positions working with school-aged populations in K-12 private, public, or charter schools, Duncan adds.

Demand for mental health counselors and other related roles, such as substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, is expected to grow 22% between 2021 and 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is considered “much faster than average.” Meanwhile, demand for school and career counselors and advisers is expected to grow 10% during that same time period.

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a much greater awareness of mental health and openness to seeking care, experts say. In fact, the percentage of U.S. adults of all ages who reported receiving any sort of mental health treatment—whether taking medication, receiving counseling or therapy, or both— increased to 21.6% in 2021 from 19.2% in 2019, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics. 

“With all of the issues that are out there in the areas of depression and anxiety, [counseling] is a profession—if one wants to go and help affect behavioral change—[that] is so gratifying and rewarding as well,” says LaVelle Hendricks, professor and department head of counseling at Texas A&M University–Commerce, which offers various master’s degree tracks in the field, including in a hybrid (both online and in-person) format.

Potential earnings and financial ROI

When deciding whether a master’s degree in counseling is worth it from a financial perspective, weigh potential earnings against the amount of debt you might incur from your education.

“Rarely did I ever have a student say to me, ‘I want to get a master’s degree in counseling because I want to make a lot of money,’” says Duncan, who has worked as a counselor educator since 2003. Usually, she says, it’s a desire to help others that draws someone to the profession.

That’s not to say there isn’t earning potential in the field. Usually, post-graduation clinical salaries start roughly in the $45,000 range, says Fredrick Dombrowski, president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association and assistant department chair for clinical mental health programs at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. The university is developing an online version of its master’s program.

Once you officially earn your license, that figure could rise to roughly $65,000, adds Dombrowski. Of course, earning potential varies depending on your specific role and where you work, and it will increase as you advance professionally, whether by working your way up the ladder in an agency or institution or opening a private practice. Salaries may also vary depending on geographic location.

As a certified school counselor, you will likely earn more than a beginning teacher with a bachelor’s, but less than a K-12 administrator such as a principal, Duncan says. (A beginning teacher in the U.S. makes on average $34,684 while an elementary school principal makes an average of $82,853 a year, according to ZipRecruiter).

To calculate the return on investment (ROI) of your master’s degree, you need to factor tuition into the equation. A master’s in clinical mental health counseling may be more expensive than a school counseling degree because they usually require more credit hours, Duncan says. From there, you can leverage employment and salary data to determine how long it would take you to pay off your debt after graduating. 

School costs will vary depending on whether you enroll at a public or private institution. You may also factor in travel requirements and associated costs for hybrid or online master’s programs, which are somewhat newer in the counseling area, Duncan says. 

Master’s in counseling vs. other degrees

To determine whether you should earn a master’s in counseling versus one in a related field (such as psychology or social work), consider your interests in addition to earning potential. Juliet Taylor earned her master’s degree in mental health counseling at the University of Bridgeport in May 2022. She decided to enroll in the program due to her military background and previous experience working with service members and then veterans as an employment counselor.

When looking into graduate programs, Taylor weighed degrees in other disciplines. But with clinical mental health counseling, “it was closest to what I needed to continue my work with veterans—and that was to identify coping skills, help to strengthen their self-esteem, learn about emotional regulation,” she says.

While there are similar degrees and careers out there, there are also some key differences. For example, psychologists—who typically need a doctorate in their field to practice—tend to focus more on research and assessment, while mental health counselors tend to focus more on treatment, Dombrowski says. 

Many master’s in counseling programs also prepare students for licensing exams, with specific test requirements varying from state to state. In most cases, aspiring clinical counselors will need to pass either the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination or the National Counselor Examination (NCE). Often, those people pursuing school counseling will take a Praxis teacher certification exam or the NCE, Duncan says.

Keeping all of these different pieces of the puzzle in mind, you can decide whether a master’s in counseling is right for you.

“It’s worth it,” Duncan says, “if your goal is to serve people and be able to help people through some of the most difficult transitions that they may be making in life, or difficult crises and traumas and situations they find themselves in.”

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