In March 2010 at the American Counseling Association Annual Conference in Pittsburgh, delegates to the 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling initiative arrived at a consensus definition of counseling: a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education and career goals. The delegates then took the definition back to their respective counseling organizations and asked for their endorsement. Since that time, the unified definition has been used at seminars and conferences and in books written about the counseling profession.
Although the delegates believe a unified definition of counseling is a major achievement for 20/20 — an effort aimed at uniting the counseling profession and identifying how the profession wants to position itself by the year 2020 — they are also eager to tackle the next challenge in the multigoal endeavor: licensure portability. The delegates representing the 31 counseling organizations involved in 20/20 agree that, as things currently stand, licensure portability remains disjointed because requirements for professional counselors vary from state to state.
Earlier in the 20/20 process, the delegates identified seven principles that are important for moving the profession forward. One of those principles says that creating a portability system for licensure will benefit counselors and strengthen the counseling profession.
As part of 20/20’s Building Blocks to Licensure Portability initiative, each of the delegates has been asked to decide what qualities delineate a common licensure title, a licensure scope of practice and educational requirements for licensure. The delegates are currently weighing the merits of the various items to seek the best possible combination. After the 20/20 delegates reach consensus, the final results will be used to promote common requirements to state licensure boards.
J. Barry Mascari, a counselor educator at Kean University and a 20/20 delegate representing the American Association of State Counseling Boards, says licensure portability has long been a problem for counselors. “There have been changes in licensing, and that reflects the evolution of our profession and the licensing standards,” he says. “However, what is also represented is the fact that a licensing law, depending on when it was written, has different standards.”
Each state has its own set of licensing and accreditation requirements for counselors who are interested in practicing in that state, Mascari said. For some counselors who move from one state to another, this inconsistency in requirements to obtain a license can make it incredibly difficult to practice.
For example, he points out, New Jersey requires 4,500 hours of counseling experience and supervision (equal to approximately three years) before becoming officially licensed. But some states require only about one year’s worth of counseling experience, which equates to roughly 1,500 hours, he says.
This state-to-state inconsistency is the reason why the 20/20 delegates determined it was critical to tackle the topic of licensure portability, says Rhonda Bryant, a counselor educator and associate professor at Albany State University and a 20/20 delegate representing Counselors for Social Justice. “What we want to do is figure out a way to reduce the difficulty people have taking their counseling license from one state to another,” she says. “[Requirements] can vary pretty wildly, and that can be very difficult.”
In fact, the 20/20 initiative, which began in 2005, originally grew out of the challenges that licensure portability presented to counselors. AASCB’s presidential team approached ACA about cosponsoring an initiative that would work to implement AASCB’s portability plan nationwide. From those early discussions, 20/20 came to fruition, although with an expanded focus to strengthen and unite the counseling profession by pursuing certain goals that a diverse coalition of counseling organizations deemed critical to the profession’s future.
“What’s nice about this is we’re representing organizations that take an interest in the counseling profession, but we’re all doing different things,” Bryant says. “It’s a very diverse group.”
Cindy Chapman, executive director of the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification, says she became a 20/20 delegate so that rehabilitation counselors and the clients they serve would be represented in discussions about counseling’s future. This remains an important goal for her as the decision process for Building Blocks to Licensure Portability is ongoing.
“For me and CRCC, it’s kind of near and dear to us because we work with individuals with disabilities, who are typically an underserved portion of the population,” she says. “It’s important to us because our counselors are specifically qualified in understanding disability and the psychosocial aspects [that go along with it]. … We have a distinct accrediting organization, CORE (the Council on Rehabilitation Education), and because of that distinction, we want them to be recognized under [new guidelines regarding] licensure portability.”
Although each organization involved in 20/20 has a particular specialty or area of focus that it wants to represent well, Mascari says each organization also understands that the current state of licensure portability needs to be changed, especially for future generations of counselors.
“The fact is, we all want to find some kind of consensus,” he says. “We are trying to standardize something so the [counseling] graduate feels confident they can counsel anywhere.”
Currently, Mascari says, there are at least nine different ways that a counselor can be identified, including as a licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed professional counselor of mental health (LPCMH) or licensed mental health counselor (LMHC). “I did a workshop a few years ago titled ‘They All Came to the Game Wearing Different Uniforms,’” Mascari says. “To some extent, that still [describes] us.”
To see real progress in the area of licensure portability, Mascari believes the entire counseling profession needs to come together to reach an agreement. “AASCB and licensing boards cannot do it alone,” he says. “Although they have the power to change regulations, there is reluctance because it often means opening a statute, and that can allow for changes and grandparenting to reopen again. The second problem is that all of us see our own silos — licensing, CACREP (the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs), university counselor preparation programs and ACA. We need to seriously get our act together so we are on the same page with preparation standards and so we stop opening the door to vaguely related fields. At one time it may have made sense to allow psychology graduates to become licensed [as counselors] because that seemed to be a strategy to gain traction in numbers. That is no longer the case. We are preparing a lot of counselors, and there is no need to take ‘closely related’ fields.
“This loops to … national program accreditation. We have a national standard, CACREP, just as do social work and psychology. Sure, there are some exceptions in those professions, but the vast majority of states use the standards set by those professional bodies. You can’t offer a social work degree program if it is not NASW (National Association of Social Workers) accredited. It really might be time for counseling to do that. Recently, the Masters in Psychology Accreditation Council announced program accreditation for counseling programs as an alternative to CACREP. Do we need another accrediting body muddying the waters? And should it be from an organization outside of the counseling family? I don’t think so. The public and students are already confused enough.”
Chapman says she and CRCC recognize the importance of establishing a common set of criteria for licensed counselors nationwide. “Common criteria that recognize the various pathways counselors can take to achieve their postsecondary education and the various national exams that measure counseling knowledge, including the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination, are critical to ensuring that all counselors are able to practice in the settings for which they are qualified,” she says. “In addition to identifying a consensus licensure title and scope of practice, work under way to identify education requirements is especially important to CRCC because the majority of our counselors graduate from programs accredited by the Council on Rehabilitation Education. CORE predates other counseling accreditation agencies and has established accreditation standards that require course work in all counseling content areas. Rehabilitation counselors are uniquely trained to provide services to individuals with disabilities, including those with mental health disabilities. Through participation in the 20/20 initiative, and currently with the building blocks to portability project, we are working to maintain recognition of graduates from CORE-accredited programs in order to promote access to care for individuals with disabilities and to avoid disenfranchisement of a significant number of counselors who are legitimately trained to provide professional counseling services.”
Bryant says she believes 20/20 is the right venue in which to face the issue of portability because the initiative’s overall aim is to unite all counselors. She is optimistic that 20/20 will have a positive impact on the counseling profession as a whole and on licensure portability in particular, and that leaves her feeling hopeful about the profession’s future.
“I think this is an interesting time for our profession because this initiative has provided an opportunity for us to see where we have been and to see where we want to go,” Bryant says. “This kind of initiative shows the public that we hold ourselves accountable [and are] keeping the profession viable.”
Says ACA President Don Locke, “It is apparent from my discussions with members throughout the country that they are of the opinion that portability of licensure is a high-priority item for all professional counselors. Counselors are sharing with me that from a marketing, reputation and reimbursement standpoint, the fact that all 50 states have [counseling] licensure is significant, but the lack of consistency of licensure requirements, titles and scope of practice from state to state may be an unexpected downside.”
Locke is confident the 20/20 delegates will be able to outline what needs to be done to rectify the long-standing problem of portability in the not so distant future.
“I personally am very pleased with the efforts of the 20/20 commission’s Building Blocks to Licensure Portability initiative to address these issues,” he says, “and am looking forward to the status report that we will receive at the [2012 ACA Annual Conference in] San Francisco or before.”
For additional background on the 20/20 initiative, including participating organizations, a list of delegates, a statement of principles and concepts for future exploration, visit http://www.counseling.org/20-20/index.aspx.
Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her firstname.lastname@example.org.