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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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