Substance Abuse Counselor Degree Programs and Training

Thanks to the federal health reform law, substance abuse counselors could find themselves in high demand during the coming years. Under the law, substance abuse disorder services are considered one of ten essential health services that must be covered by new health insurance plans. As a result, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) reports job growth for counselors will be much faster than average, and now may be a good time to get the training needed to fill new positions in the field.

Substance abuse counselor degree programs

Students interested in a career as a substance abuse counselor have several education options. While entry-level positions may be available for those directly out of high school or with only a certificate, a graduate degree is necessary for anyone who wants to work independently in private practice.

According to information posted on the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC) website, the career ladder for substance abuse counselors might include the following levels of education.

  • Certificate: For those who want to learn the basics of substance abuse counseling, a certificate in addiction studies or alcohol and drug abuse can provide a foundation from which to go onto entry level work or pursue jobs as a substance abuse disorder technician. These positions may involve screening for substance abuse disorders and monitoring treatment plan compliance.
  • Associate degree: As a two year program, an associate degree can be the basis for jobs involving greater responsibility. According to the NAADAC, an associate degree in a behavioral science field with a clinical focus may make students eligible for jobs as associate substance use disorder counselors. These professionals may provide client and family education, monitor treatment plans, make referrals and coordinate care.
  • Bachelor's degree: With a four year degree, individuals may be eligible for many substance abuse counselor jobs. They can complete screenings, draw up treatment plans and serve as case managers although their work must be supervised and provided through a licensed facility. While many professionals have bachelor's degrees in substance abuse counseling, others may have majors in social work or other related fields.
  • Master's degree: Counselors who would rather work independently in private practice will need a master's degree. These graduate programs can prepare individuals to become licensed clinical substance abuse counselors or supervisors.

Typical coursework for substance abuse counselors

While classes may vary from school to school, substance abuse counseling education generally includes a mix of science, counseling and communications among other requirements. For example, you may take the following courses as part of substance abuse counselor degree programs.

  • Introduction to Substance Abuse
  • Chemical Dependency Individual Counseling
  • Physiology and Pharmacology
  • Assessments, Tests and Measurements
  • Group and Family Counseling
  • Theories of Personality
  • English Composition
  • Human Biology

When selecting a degree program, students should not only check the school's accreditation and credentials but also inquire into their state's licensing requirements. All states require substance abuse counselors who work independently be licensed, and some states may require applicants possess a specific degree or meet other education requirements such as the completion of an internship.

Career outlook for substance abuse counselors

Job opportunities should be plentiful in the coming years for those with the right education and experience. The BLS estimates job growth for substance abuse counselors will be 31 percent from 2012-2022.

The bureau also reports the national average annual wages for substance abuse counselors in May 2013 was $41,090. However, actual salaries can vary depending upon where an individual lives, their degree and expertise. Michigan was the top paying state in 2013 with counselors earning average incomes of $50,890 there. Meanwhile, colleges and universities were the top paying industry with counselors in that sector earning average wages of $55,770.

With health reform requiring insurance coverage of substance abuse treatment, counselors may want to explore opportunities in private practice. However, that is not the only career path for substance abuse counselors. They may also work as part of a larger treatment or intervention team to meet the needs of specific populations such as teens, individuals with disabilities or those who are incarcerated.

The BLS says the following percentages represent where substance abuse counselors were employed in 2012:

  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers: 22 percent
  • Nursing and residential care facilities: 22 percent
  • Individual and family services: 13 percent
  • State and local governments: 11 percent
  • Hospitals: 10 percent

Regardless of which career opportunities interest you, they all begin the same way: with substance abuse counselor degree programs. Learn more about online and on-campus opportunities in your area today.


Essential Health Benefits, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.healthcare.gov/glossary/essential-health-benefits/

Scopes of Practice & Career Ladder for Substance Use Disorder Counseling, NAADAC, September 2011, http://www.addictioncareers.org/addictioncareers/resources/documents/PEP11-SCOPES.pdf

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm#tab-1

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211011.htm

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