Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees: What You'll Study

Many substance abuse counselors earn master's degrees. Find out what all your degree options are.

What degree levels are available?

student in library with laptop

To reach your full potential as a substance abuse counselor, you'll need to earn a master's degree. 

If you're just starting out, you can find plenty of counseling degree programs that will help you toward your career path. 

Certificate Programs

Substance abuse counseling certificates are typically offered by community colleges and other schools that offer career training.

A certificate program can be used in one of two ways: As a preparatory program before students enroll in an associate's degree program or as a way to solidify your expertise in this path after earning a master's degree in counseling or social work.

Associate's Degree Programs

Going to drug and alcohol counseling school to earn an associate's degree is a good way to introduce you to the career. Before you invest a lot of time and money, you can get a sense of what to expect on the job and decide if it's right for you.

An associate's degree program will teach you the fundamentals about working with clients and their families. The program will also include a liberal arts education.

Before enrolling in an associate's degree program, find out what the state regulations are in order to counsel others. You may to earn a higher degree.

Bachelor's Degree Programs

A bachelor of science in psychology (BSPY) degree program will cover the history of psychology, human behavior and trends. In addition to this, some psychology schools will allow you to choose a concentration, such as substance abuse counseling. Your course work will veer in that direction as you make your way through the four-year program.

As an example of coursework in a BPSY program with a focus on substance abuse, Kaplan University offers the following curriculum:

  • Introduction to Cognitive Psychology
  • History of Psychology
  • Personality Development
  • General Biology
  • Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Case Management

A BSPY will also incorporate core classes, such as college composition, history and humanities.

Master's Degree Programs

In order to become certified as a substance abuse counselor, you'll need to complete a Master's degree program in social work or psychology. Your degree options include an MS, MA or MSW (Master's in Social Work).

Some programs will allow you to specialize in substance abuse counseling during your graduate work. If this isn't an option, you can take a certificate program after graduating to qualify you to work as a substance abuse counselor.

You'll focus your studies on different counseling approaches, research methods as well as participate in field work. Because many substance abuse counselors go on to run a private practice, some programs offer courses to prepare you for the business aspect of the field.

Pace University's MS in Mental Health Counseling offers the choice of focusing on substance abuse counseling. As an example of what to expect, course work includes: 

  • Human Growth and Development
  • Psychopathology and Personality Disorders
  • Social and Cultural Foundations of Counseling
  • Orientation to Addiction
  • Building Your Ideal Private Practice

What certification will I need?

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) administers an exam to allow counselors to become certified and in some states, is a step toward becoming licensed.

By passing the exam and becoming certified, you're telling potential employers and clients that you've met nationally-recognized standards. To become nationally certified, you'll need to meet the following requirements: 

  • Master's degree in counseling or related field from accredited college or university
     
  • 3,000 hours of counseling experience and 100 hours of supervision for two years after earning a master's degree (Requirement can be waived if student has completed CACREP accredited tracks)
     
  • Passing score on exam

As an aspiring substance abuse counselor, you can also take an exam to denote your specialization. The NBCC offers the Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) certification.

What will I learn in my courses?

Your undergraduate education will combine both a liberal arts education with your major in psychology. You'll often take core classes in the first half of your program and specific psychology courses in the latter portion.

If you decide to enroll in a master's degree program, your curriculum will include field experience along with courses such as:

  • Human Growth and Development
  • Group Dynamics
  • Social and Cultural Foundations
  • Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy

How long will it take?

The length of time it'll take to complete your schooling depends on which degree you pursue:

  • Associate's degrees typically take two years
  • Bachelor's degrees are usually completed in four years
  • Master's-level programs last about two years to three years

It's important to remember that if you plan to become certified by the NBCC, you'll also need to tack on an additional two years post-master's to gain supervised clinical experience.

Are online programs available?

Online programs offer students flexibility and the ability to take classes on their own time. You can find psychology and substance abuse counseling certificate and degree programs online at a variety of schools with some offering specializations.

One of the biggest advantages to getting your degree on line is the ability to move at your speed. If you're interested in finishing your degree quickly, some programs allow you to complete coursework at an accelerated rate.

How much will my education cost?

If you plan to earn an associate's degree to start your counseling career, expect the average cost* at public two-year colleges to be $3,264, according to College Board's Trends in College Pricing 2013-2014.

A BS degree from Kaplan University will run close to $67,000 for the entire program while an MS in psychology ranges from $22,080 to $27,600.

The College Board found that the average annual cost for a four-year private non-profit school is $30,094 and $15,130 for a private for-profit school.

Master's degree program tuition at in-state public institutions cost an average of $7,750 annually, and doctorate program tuition cost $9,804 annually at in-state public institutions.

*Cost of tuition only. Prices do not reflect other fees, books, room and board.

Are there prerequisites?

The degree level you're seeking will dictate your prerequisites. If you're enrolling in a substance abuse counseling associate's program, you'll generally need a high school diploma or GED equivalent.

For bachelor's degrees, most schools request some or all of the following elements: 

  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • Satisfactory SAT or ACT score
  • Personal essay
  • Entrance exam

Graduate degrees in psychology or substance abuse counseling usually require students to provide:

  • Minimum GPA
  • Satisfactory score on GRE
  • Bachelor's degree with coursework in psychology, counseling or other fields

Every school is different and may require more items (or less) from applicants, so always check with the admissions office to ensure you've provided all necessary information.

What accreditation is there for my program?

Enrolling in an accredited psychology program opens many doors for students since it's often a gateway to federal financial aid and state entitlement programs. Secondly, one degree from an accredited school allows a student to pursue further education at other accredited schools.

Attending an accredited school also allows you to apply for certification from the NBCC, as well.

Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges, such as The Higher Learning Commission. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates. 

Programs are also accredited by a specific organization within the field. In the case of psychology and counseling programs, you'll want to look for accreditation by the American Psychological Association (APA).

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