Opinion, Reader Viewpoint

Are counseling degrees approaching an economic tipping point?

John McCarthy July 1, 2012

Imagine this scenario: A college senior enters the office of a counselor educator.

“You see, it was suggested that I come to see you,” the student starts. “I’ll be graduating in May, and I’m thinking about graduate school. I guess I’ve always been interested in counseling at a mental health facility, and I’ve done well in my undergraduate major. I’m pulling a 3.8 GPA, have done some presentations with my adviser at a couple of conferences and will have an article published with another professor. Well, I know that you teach in the counseling department here, and, um, do you think it might be a good decision to apply to the clinical mental health counseling program?”

The counselor educator looks away and ponders intently before responding. “Let me ask you three questions. First, are you prepared to be in a master’s degree program for two and a half or three years?”

“I think so,” the student replies.

“Second, unless someone is covering your tuition, are you ready to have to pay … oh, say $20,000 or more in tuition in order to get this master’s degree?”

“Hmm, that sounds like a lot of money,” the student says hesitantly.

“I understand,” the professor acknowledges. “And now to question No. 3. Your starting job, if you find one right after you graduate about three years from now, could be in the vicinity of $35,000. Is that OK with you?”

Now it is the student’s turn to look away, think intently and pause momentarily.

“Professor, thank you for your time today. I think I’ll go in a different direction. This counseling idea isn’t going to happen for me.”

End of conversation.

What is the economic tipping point related to the decision to pursue a degree in clinical mental health counseling? According to the 2009 CACREP Standards, “As of July 1, 2013, all applicant programs in Clinical Mental Health Counseling must require a minimum of 60 semester credit hours or 90 quarter credit hours for all students.” Under the same standards, a program accredited as “community counseling” and undergoing a name change to “clinical mental health counseling” is required to be 60 credits in duration by the time it applies for reaccreditation.

The point of this article is not to dispute the CACREP Standards, nor is it to dismiss the personal gratification received while engaged in a career as a clinical mental health counselor. Rather, it is to take a quick look at the costs of entering — and perhaps remaining in — the counseling profession and to raise questions about how much longer these costs will remain sustainable if the profession wants to keep attracting new counselors-in-training.

First, let’s begin by acknowledging that the college debt load for an undergraduate education is escalating. According to a recent New York Times article, student loans amount to more than $1 trillion, with 94 percent of students borrowing money to pay for their undergraduate education. The average amount of debt carried by students was $23,300 in 2011. Incurring such debt prior to even completing an application for a graduate program in counseling is significant.

Second, if pursuing a 60-credit clinical mental health counseling degree at a full-time, year-round pace (nine credits per semester), students would invest nearly eight semesters, including summers, to earn their degree in three years. For part-time students (six credits per semester) trying to juggle their studies with employment or other obligations, it could take as long as five years (without summer enrollment) to gain the master’s degree.

Third, the cost of graduate school tuition over these three to five years is significant, particularly when added to the possible student debt accumulated during undergraduate studies. Although tuition fees vary among institutions, the average price tag for a master’s degree in education is noteworthy. According to Mark Kantrowitz of FinAid.org, students earning a master’s degree in education have loans amounting to an average of $26,487 from their graduate education alone. Although financial aid, assistantships and scholarships may lighten this amount, the financial burden is still clearly considerable.

Finally, the paycheck earned after gaining a master’s degree is a critical ingredient. According to O*Net OnLine, the median annual income for “mental health counselors” in 2011 was $39,190. The Occupational Outlook Handbook offered a comparable median annual income of $38,150 for 2010. To place these figures in perspective, a U.S. Census Bureau report issued in September 2011 found that the median non-family income in 2010 was $29,730. This means many counselors may earn only about one-third more than the national non-family median.

Regardless, the trend is troubling. With graduate school tuition rising and programs lengthening for some students in this specialty, one can only wonder if the annual income of clinical mental health counselors will keep pace. If these patterns continue, to what extent would this area of counseling be affected in another, say, 20 years?

If considering a career in clinical mental health counseling today, I might have to think twice. From a personal perspective, the counseling profession would still hold the same level of attraction and for the same primary reason that initially drew me: the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. Yet, in 2012 and beyond, I would have to carefully consider the economics of the required investment, including the cost of a master’s degree, probable and consequent long-term debt, and the projected post-degree salary.

About three years ago, the following question was posed in Yahoo!®Answers: “I’m hopefully going to Graduate school next fall to pursue a masters degree in Counseling. Does anyone know what the starting salary is? What is the average salary? I’ve always been good at listening to people and helping them out. I really enjoy it. But it never occurred to me what the salary is until now. Anyone know?”

The designated “Best Answer” to this query? “Starting salary is about 30-35k/year. Few benefits. It’s not worth the cost of the degree. You’re better off going to law school or becoming a bartender or masseuse. It’s the same kind of work, you have less liability, and you’ll make more money.”

Disheartened to read this response? Me too. Surprised to read this response? Me neither.

Counselors can make a difference in this scenario though. First, a silver lining may be emerging. Perhaps mental health counselors’ salaries are rising: The median salary for a mental health counselor in 2002 was $29,940, according to the 2004-2005 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook. When that figure is compared with the more recent data on annual salaries mentioned earlier, you’ll notice a sizable increase has taken place in a relatively short period of time. Advocacy on behalf of the profession can heighten awareness of the value of professional counselors, which will hopefully result in a continued rise in salary levels.

Because of the escalating costs associated with the pursuit of a graduate degree, however, I believe the path to becoming a counselor could be more difficult than ever. The availability of funding at many universities has shrunk or been eliminated, and competition for the monies that remain is fiercer. Grants, scholarships, monetary awards and fellowships are vital, and counselor educators can become critical facilitators of financial support by identifying these resources for students. Examples include the National Board for Certified Counselors Foundation Scholarships, the Corey Graduate Student and Ross Trust Graduate Student essay competitions administrated by the American Counseling Association Foundation, the American Mental Health Counselors Association Donald Mattson Award/Scholarship and awards associated with other professional associations.

Finally, although I acknowledge that counselor educators are not financial aid counselors, I do believe that sensitivity and empathy toward the monetary challenges associated with attending graduate school can be tremendously helpful to students. Even seemingly small, empathy-laden comments can be meaningful to trainees in the midst of their degree programs. In my mind, they are to be commended when successfully juggling various academic and life responsibilities, particularly when a considerable financial investment is overarching.

In the end, we need students — and good ones at that — if the counseling profession is going to survive and thrive into the future. I hope those same good students won’t be walking out of the professor’s office.

John McCarthy is a professor in the Department of Counseling at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Contact him at jmccarth@iup.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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6 Comments

  1. Erin Mason

    And one very easy, practical thing counselor educators can do to help cut costs is to eliminate or minimize expensive texts and course materials.

    Reply
  2. Kyle

    The starting salary listed sounds right, but I think the averages cited are low when considering how many counselors are in private practice. It’s hard to get accurate stats on private practitioners, but from the many I’ve interviewed, it’s safe to expect 80k to over 100k once your practice has good footing. Make no mistake, you can make good money in this profession, but like with everything, it takes A LOT of work and patience to get there!

    Reply
  3. Rayne Turner

    We must also account for the fact that not everyone can sustain “helping” for their entire career and that newbees coming into the field must be told the realities of how we are treated (and paid) in comparison with other helping professionals. I have also noted that in most well paid positions, it would appear that the standard is now a doctorate degree, when I was in graduate school, a doctorate degree in counseling was virtually unheard of and we were told that we could teach at the University level with a master’s degree. This is not the case today – although many will say you can. I have not found that to be true. Most students can still “help” if that is their true desire under a better paying title and more marketable title; Social Worker and Physician Assistant for example.

    Reply
  4. Ben

    This article speaks to my situation. I graduated several years ago with a M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in the Boston area. My program required three years of sacrifice and incredibly hard work to graduate to obtain 60 credit hours and experience hours, including two unpaid internships, a part-time job, and a full-time course load. My graduate loans amounted to ~$60K on top of undergrad loans of about $20K. My first job in the Boston area paid $38K, second one started at $41K, and I’ve since moved up to a supervisor role at $50K. After three years post grad, I’m lucky to be making $50K with $70K in loans still to be paid. My wife is also a mental health counselor and her combined college debt is around $50K. That means we have $120K in college debt and make a combined income of about $80K. From our experience, the only way to make decent money in the field is to move into non-profit management roles (not everyone’s cut out for this), join a group practice, or network and find a way to backdoor into a school counseling job. All counseling programs should offer business classes focused on how to start and build a private practice. I got into the field out of an interest in family therapy, social justice, and youth development. The work I’ve found offers what I was looking for with a living wage, but you would think a graduate degree and professional license would offer more income potential. We’re contemplating a move to the Midwest to reduce cost of living and be closer to family, but counseling jobs there start around $33-41K. I’m looking into Health Service Job Corps opportunities for loan forgiveness. Good luck to anyone in my position!

    Reply
  5. James Genovese, LPC, LCADC

    Prof. McCarthy,

    I did a state-by-state survey of median counselor salaries, comparing them to the median salaries for LCSW’s, in October 2013, roughly ten months after you published this article. My survey showed that the median salary, nationwide, was still just under $40,000. Equally disturbing was that LCSW’s–who are very comparable to LPC’s in terms of education level, licensure, and job responsibilities–earned an average of $14,000 more per year than LPC’s.

    If behavioral health is the poor cousin of the healthcare industry, then professional counseling is the poor cousin of behavioral health. Yet to the folks at Sallie Mae and other lenders, our monthly payments are just as due as those of the social workers. We just have to struggle more to pay them.

    Credential bias continues to loom large as an economic and occupational threat to members of the counseling profession, with few inroads having been made thus far to correct it. The meat of this threat is that it serves to undermine the morale of all of us who belong to this honorable and much needed profession.

    Reply

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