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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13 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
  6. Nikki

    Thank you so much for posting this and being an advocate for our profession. I have just sat at my computer for two hours looking for a qualified article on this subject for one of my assignments during my last semester in graduate school. I will have about $60,000 in school loans total and will be lucky to make $30,000 where I live. In addition, both of my internships were unpaid and I had to quit my paid job to focus on the workload of graduate school. I’ve come to the point where I’ve been in the field over 16 years and I’m so burnt out of the education. It’s been 16 years of training, workshops and 60 credit hours of learning the same things over and over and over again. Surely CACREP could find some way to cut back on the graduate credits we need…the classes are so redundant and I often hear counselors say “my graduate program was a joke.” Students are literally getting completely burnt out of education by the third year that they’re no longer paying attention. Again, thanks for this article and please continue to advocate!

    Reply
  7. Danute

    I’m in private practice, and my experience matches what Kyle describes. I would add that the growth of my practice seems to correspond with the growth of my self-awareness, and the fluctuations of my client load matche up quite reliably with my state of mind at different points in my growth curve. In other words, book-smart alone doesn’t cut it in this field, and with good reason.
    Do counseling schools teach about the integrated power of 3 types of intelligence? mental, emotional, and visceral (or gut/instinctual knowing). That’s what my post-grad continuing education has focused on, and my life and my income have improved correspondingly.

    Reply
  8. Robert Caldwell

    My Name is Robert. I’m a retired Marine. I served for 31 years. I’m 49 years old. I have four more classes to graduate with my BS in Psychology. As a Marine Sergeant Major, I counseled mentored, and coached hundreds of Marines and Sailors in my career. I’m trying to decide what my next move masters wise is. I’m leaning toward MS mental Health or Clinical Counseling (?). I would like to do something in counseling focused on service members suffering from Post-Traumatic Syndrome. Any recommendation on a career path.
    Robert

    Reply
    1. Samantha

      Thank you Robert for serving our country! Congratulations on nearing the end of a BS in Psychology. I am near the end of my Master’s in Counseling Psychology degree. My recommendation would be to call the locations you are interested in working at, or preview their employment web page (veterans hospitals, community centers, etc.) I believe that the VA has a history of hiring mostly Social Workers or Psychologists. However, I think that recently that have begun to hire Master’s level counselors, but you MUST attend a CACREP accredited Master’s program or you CANNOT work for the VA (at this moment in time). You can get creative with where you want to work. The VA, community mental health centers, or with licensure as a mental health counselor or licensed professional counselor (LPC), you could eventually open up your own private practice seeing clients specifically with PTSD. Good luck researching and moving forward with your goals!

  9. Gary J

    Hi Robert, and others regarding career path etc. After finding this forum, I feel COMPELLED to share my journey with others. Take from it what you will, but this is MY story. (your experience and mileage may vary). I am 46 years old and had to reinvent myself at age 42 when my pharmaceutical career fell apart. I have just finished my MS in Professional Counseling and am in the process of trying to get an LCPC Intern License. In addition to the classroom time, it took almost a year of working for free just to get my practicum hours and finish my degree. I have found that the practicum spots are extremely limited and extremely competitive for an LPC at least here in Nevada. (Practicum hours are something few people pay much attention to, but they really need to) I am not a negative Nellie, quite the opposite. However the reality is when planning out a route please plan on it taking more time, effort and money than you originally thought. Enter this endeavor with a realistic attitude and have both eyes open. I am now 46 years of age, $85,000 in debt still not in my field and he prospects are not very encouraging. I am struggling with the boards just to get my LCPC Intern license so I can spend another 2000 hours being underpaid while working on an unrestricted license. As a side note, there are Zero of my classmates that I am in contact with making over $20.00 per hour. That is just plain sad. When I started my program the bureau of labor statistics said that mental health counseling would be one of the fastest growing occupations until 2017. I am prior service and wanted to help service people with PTSD etc. so off to Grad school I went. Now, I am so buried in debt and the earning potential is looking so bleak, I am finding myself feeling depressed and hopeless! As far as I see it, as of this moment my only hope is to “back door” into school counseling or find a non profit and pray for a position that qualifies for loan forgiveness. Getting my MS in Mental Health counseling was the biggest mistake of my life and I wish to God that I had never done it!!! Now, I am trying to make the best of it and constantly looking for a “Plan B”. If anyone simply insists on proceeding with a counseling type career, take a good hard look at LCSW. They do pretty much the same type of work, yet the degree is way more flexible and respected. The pay is substantially better and it is truly unbelievable how many different types of organizations hire Licensed Clinical Social Workers. Good luck to everyone no matter what path you choose. Ps If anyone has any ideas or comes up with a brilliant solution for someone similarly situated, I am all ears!

    Reply
    1. Brent

      Gary,

      I am so thankful that your opened up about your experience. I am 43 and have been contemplating a Counseling degree. It is interesting to note that; when I was fresh out of high school I wanted to go into Psychology and Counseling. The adviser/counselor said I couldn’t make any money in that field so I should consider something in the business field. So, growing up poor, I threw the Psychology idea out and dove into Business Administration. I went to college for 2.5 years over two colleges and one had accreditation issues so, I ended up with no degree and became disillusioned with higher education.

      I am still good at helping others and am a very good listener. I can naturally draw out issues and solutions that people can not see themselves. It is a shame that college is so expensive. Good people that can make a difference sometimes just can’t mentally commit to so much debt. I hope you find a position that you will be good at and, do the most good. ~b

    2. Mary

      Gary — You are not alone. I am female, in another state, and a decade older than you. My previous career path hit a dead-end despite years of experience; I work multiple part-time jobs. I got my first level of counseling licensure the week my husband was laid off, last year. The quest for even a part-time counseling position (paid) is extremely disillusioning. I completed multiple internships at organizations, striving to be professional and to network. I am disappointed in my program faculty as well; they do not provide leads or mentorship. It seems to me that the only students among my cohort who have secured more advanced employment are those already somehow in the human services’ field. H.R. departments involved in hiring for counseling, in my opinion, perhaps do not understand what counselors offer. If one is of a nontraditional age, it is doubly discouraging. The investment in very costly tuition with no prospects for a living wage is indeed depressing. I hope something comes through for you.

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