Substance abuse counseling is, quite literally, a life-saving field. One needs only to consider the opioid crisis in the United States to see how crucial it is to have people who know how to help individuals and families dealing with personal crises and help them learn how to cope. Opioids – in the form of prescription pain relievers or synthetics such as fentanyl and heroin – are killing an estimated 130 Americans a day, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2017 alone, 47,000 succumbed to the epidemic. In this battle and many others, substance abuse counselors are trained to help patients and their families adjust to the lifestyle and behavioral changes. Counselors also use best practices to evaluate patients undergoing therapy.
Counselors also need to know the ins and outs of drug and alcohol testing to make sure a patient is following a treatment plan and taking prescribed medicine. In many cases, they collaborate with physicians, nurses, and social workers to provide complete treatment and oversight to patients. In addition to drug abuse, substance abuse counselors can deal with behavioral addictions and eating disorders. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, substance abuse counselors (along with counselors of behavioral and mental health) tend to work at outpatient care centers, residential care centers, hospitals, private practice, and for local government.
The median salary in the U.S. for a substance abuse counselor is $44,630 as estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau also says the role is in high demand – employment in the field is expected to grow by about 20% by 2026, a much higher rate than most occupations. A master's degree in the discipline gives the graduate the ability to apply for a state license to work as a counselor in substance abuse. The universities and colleges on this list offer the best online master's degree programs in the U.S. In every case, though, it's important for prospective students to check licensure requirements in the state where they want to work, as the schools only can ensure licensing in their home state. All of the programs listed require some form of hands-on practicum or internship, which is an important part of the preparation for a crucial and potentially rewarding career.
Ranking Methodology: "It's science!"
The researchers and writers at Best Master's Degrees don't make recommendations based upon preference– we back our rankings with science. Here's a quick breakdown of how we organize ranking data:
- Finances (40%)
- Academic Rigor (35%)
- Student Gratification (25%)
Nearly half of the data used to score each ranking involves finances and are acquired from sources such as the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of Education, Glassdoor, and PayScale. Financial data encompasses the cost of tuition, fees, and class supplied; the average price of living; access to financial aid and social services; and lastly, the projected annual salary acquired from degree outcomes and income for loan repayment. The second largest category of information involves the quality of education, how competitive degree applicants should be for consideration, and how exclusive a degree program is overall. The final 25 percent of collected data is dependent on student and alumni reviews from sources such as PayScale, Rate My Professor, and Students Review.
Want to Learn More?
The amount of information available for specific degrees is plentiful, and Best Master's Degrees aims to provide as many resources as we can. Check out our Methodology page for more information and resource links.
#9 – Virginia Commonwealth University
MS in Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling
Virginia Commonwealth University offers an MS in Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling. VCU has a strong online program; its online graduate program in education is ranked No. 3 by U.S. News & World Report. Graduate of the master's program gain an understanding of counseling skills and theories, and can apply that knowledge to promote change and well-being to a broad scope of individuals and groups. A full-time student can conclude the program in two years as coursework is offered in fall, spring, and summer. The master's degree requires 60 graduate credit hours, which includes 48 credit hours of coursework and three credit hours of electives, along with 100 clock hours of fieldwork and 600 hours of internship. Classes include Theories of Professional Counseling, Multicultural Counseling, and Human Growth and Development. Admission requirements include successful completion of a bachelor's degree, GRE scores, a statement of goals for the program and professional career, a resume, and three letters of reference. An interview with a VCU faculty member also may be required.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $12,217 / $25,032
#8 – Union College
Master of Science in Substance Abuse (MSSA)
The Master of Science in Substance Abuse degree program from Union College is designed to prepare students to qualify as licensed substance abuse counselors in the state of Kentucky. It is the student's responsibility to check the licensing requirements of any other state. Students who apply to the program must have a minimum GPA of 2.5 in undergraduate work. A GRE requirement is waived if the student earned a Chemical Dependency Counselor Certificate at Union College. The master's program can be completed fully online. Union College offers six starting points for classes each calendar year, and the classes last for eight weeks. The program consists of 60 credit hours; 25 hours are foundation courses, 26 cover the substance abuse core, and nine are electives. Examples of classes include Recovery and Relapse, Personality Theories, and Biological Systems of Chemical Dependency. Students must maintain a GPA of at least 3.0 in all degree courses to qualify for graduation. They also must pass a comprehensive exam.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $25,440
#7 – West Virginia University
Master of Science in Clinical Rehabilitation & Mental Health Counseling
The master's program at West Virginia University is one of only 23 in the nation to offer two areas of specialization in this discipline under one degree. The degree gives graduates the skills to work in mental health centers, vocational rehabilitation facilities, and at hospitals and counseling center. Many graduates work at rehabilitation of mental health counselors in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The Master of Science in Clinical Rehabilitation & Mental Health Counseling consists of 21 courses and 63 credit hours. The coursework can mostly be completed online. There is a residency requirement in the program's second year, which includes a week on campus for a seminar and evaluation. The dual-specialization program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. Degree applicants must have a bachelor's degree and a minimum 2.8 GPA in all undergraduate work. Coursework that offered experience in human relations is preferred. Scores from the GRE or Miller Analogies Test is required. Other application requirements include transcripts and a statement of purpose.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $9,990 / $25,776
#6 – Walden University
MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
The MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Walden University is designed for mental health professionals with a bachelor's degree who want to extend their knowledge in the field. The program digs into the latest theories, research, and tools for diagnosing, treating and, if applicable, preventing disorders in mental health. Students sharpen their skills with case studies and role-playing in class, along with real-world experience with residencies. They then apply those skills with supervised fieldwork and a practicum. The degree is approved by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. A general path of coursework is available, along with five specializations: Addiction Counseling; Forensic Counseling; Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling; Military Families and Culture; and Trauma and Crisis Counseling. Walden works on a quarter system. The general master's program, for example, calls for 90-96 quarter credits – one foundation course, 80 credits worth of core courses, nine to 15 credits in field experience (100 clock hours for a practicum and 600 hours for an internship), and two pre-practicum labs. The classes are offered in sequence in 11-week quarters, two classes per quarter.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $11,739
#5 – Indiana Wesleyan University-Marion
Master of Arts with a Major in Clinical Addictions Counseling
The goal of the master's program at Indiana Wesleyan-Marion is to prepare graduates with a Christian-based skillset that can be applied to a career in addictions counseling in numerous professional setting. The Master of Arts with a Major in Clinical Addictions Counseling is accredited by the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission. The program consists of 48 semester credit hours, which include three credit hours of electives, plus a practicum and internship. The practicum requires 100 clock hours of supervised counseling experience. The internship calls for 240 hours of service in an off-campus, real-world setting (300 hours for students specializing in marriage and family therapy). Theories and Techniques in the Helping Relationship; Psychopharmacology; and Issues in Addiction Recovery. Application requirements include transcripts, three recommendations from professional sources, an essay that describes academic and professional goals, and GRE scores. Applicants also must submit to a background check.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $13,104
#4 – University of South Dakota
Master of Arts in Addiction Studies
The University of South Dakota's Master of Arts degree in Addiction Studies prepares students for licensing in the state. Of course, prospective students from out of state who want to pursue the USD degree online need to check their state's requirements for licensing in substance counseling and prevention. The program is accredited by the National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission. It requires from 33 to 45 semester credit hours, depending on the student's professional certification and academic background. Classes include Public Policy and Addiction; Relapse Prevention; and Gambling and Process Addiction. Both degree paths call for an internship. Application requirements include transcripts, three letters of recommendation, a resume, and a statement describing academic and professional goals. Prospective students also must submit to a background check. Undergraduate coursework with a minimum GPA of 3.0 or a bachelor's degree with a minimum 2.7 GPA is required. At least a year of professional or supervised volunteer experience is preferred.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $5,869 / $11,283
#3 – Capella University
Master of Science in Addiction Studies
Capella University specializes in online learning. Under its quarter calendar system, students can take one to three courses per 10-week quarter. The cost of the classes varies by course load or quarter term. Eligible students can apply for scholarships of up to $3,000. The Master of Science in Addiction Studies program prepares the graduate for licensing in addiction counseling or similar professions. As always, it's important to check with the state where you want to start your career to see what the licensing requirements are. The degree program consists of 48 quarter credit hours – 12 courses that include a residency and an internship. Classes include Group Therapy in Addiction Treatment; Theories and Models of Addiction Treatment; and Treatment Interventions for Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders. The residency is six days long and is held on campus. The internship requires at least 300 hours of paid or unpaid work. Application requirements include a bachelor's degree completed with a minimum GPA of 2.3, transcripts, two letters of recommendation, a resume, and a three- to six-page essay describing your academic journey and career aspirations.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $14,516
#2 – Grand Canyon University
Master Of Science In Addiction Counseling
Grand Canyon University is a proprietary, semester-based institution that specializes in offering courses that easily accessible to busy, professional people. GCU is rooted in the Christian faith, but students aren't required to state a particular faith or religious affiliation. The university's Master of Science in Addiction Counseling can be taken largely online. Classes begin at several points during the calendar year. Students study counseling theories and principles, along with psychopharmacology and chemical dependency. Graduates meet the requirements in Arizona for a licensed substance abuse counselor. Prospective students should check the license requirements of the state in which they plan to practice. The degree consists of 36 required semester credit hours, with classes such as Co-occurring Disorders; Group Counseling Theory and Practice; and Family Issues and Addictive Disorders. Required pre-practicum calls for at least 100 clock hours of supervised fieldwork in a counseling setting. Finally, the student will do an internship of at least 150 hours, under the supervision of a faculty member or on-site clinician.
Graduate Tuition/Fees: $9,916
#1 – Washburn University
MA in Human Services/Addiction Counseling
Washburn University earned a spot on U.S. News & World Report's list of top public schools in the Midwest, at No. 26. The MA in Human Services/Addiction Counseling calls for at least 36 semester credit hours, including 30 of required coursework and six in electives. It is designed to require two years to complete. Classes include Integrative Human Services; Professional Ethics and Practice; and Advanced Pharmacology and Substance Use Disorders. An on-site, supervised practicum is required. Undergraduate students at Washburn can apply for a fast-track approach, allowing them to take six credit hours of the degree's coursework before actually entering the program. Up to 12 credit hours from another university can be transferred and applied to the degree. Graduates will be qualified to apply for an addiction counseling license in Kansas. Prospective students should check the licensure requirements in the state where they expect to work. Degree applicants must have a bachelor's degree, preferably in Human Services or a related field, and have a GPA of at least 3.0 in the last 60 hours of undergraduate coursework. Applicants also must supply a resume, transcript, statement of purpose, and three letters of recommendation.