Online Degree in Addiction Counseling

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College degrees for battling substance abuse

Addictions can be devastating. They can ruin finances, careers, families and even lives. Fortunately, there are kind souls who make it their life’s work to help those in the grips of addiction. Given the complexity of any addiction, that help requires specialized education and training. That’s where addiction counseling programs come in. This guide will explore available online addiction counseling degree programs and share what students need to know before applying to and attending one.

Career Milestone Map

The journey to becoming an addiction counselor can start as early as high school and may involve many twists and turns along the way. The path below shows what someone might expect to accomplish in their own professional and academic life.

High School

Volunteers at a homeless shelter after school

Bachelor’s Degree

Majors in psychology and interns at a substance abuse clinic

Entry-level Job

Works as researcher at alma mater’s department of psychology

Master’s Degree

Obtains an online master’s degree in addiction counseling

Job Change

Begins working in private practice


Co-writes a widely recognized paper on treating opiate addiction

Addiction Counseling Degrees: Learning Online

Students who obtain their addiction counseling degree through an online program have the advantage of tremendous flexibility. Like most other online programs, online addiction counseling programs offer students the ability to study at their own pace, take classes when it’s convenient for them and continuing working while taking those classes.

In order to take advantage of the flexibility made possible through distance learning, students need a broadband Internet connection and a computer with enough memory to run specific software. Once online, students can watch live or recorded video lectures, ask questions at any time through message boards or chat rooms, review class work and participate in discussions with other students.

Even though online addiction counseling degree programs offer classes that are fully online, some certificate programs require students to attend online lectures at specific times, or synchronously. Additionally, most programs have a supervised internship or practicum requirement. However, many schools allow these hands-on elements to be fulfilled at locations near the student as long as the site and/or internship is approved by a program director.

Types of Online Degrees in Addiction Counseling

For those interested in getting an online addiction counseling degree, there are several options. The most prevalent online programs are at the graduate level, either as certificates or master’s degrees, but bachelor’s degrees are also available.

Because each state has its own requirements for what it takes to be a licensed or certified counselor, every school tailors its program to meet the requirements of the state in which it is located. Therefore, many degree requirements are state-specific. However, a general overview can be given:

  • Bachelor’s
    (4 years)
  • Master’s
    (2 years)
  • Doctorate
    (3 to 6+ years)
  • Graduate Certificates
    (less than 1 year)

Those who want to become an addiction counselor must hold at least a bachelor’s degree, but baccalaureate programs in addiction counseling are not very common. Prospective students are more likely to find psychology programs with concentrations in addiction or substance abuse.

To enroll in a bachelor’s degree program, students must have a high school diploma or GED and meet typical admissions requirements. However, some bachelor’s programs are designed for students who already have at least two years of undergraduate class credits.

The bachelor’s curriculum prepares students to obtain their certifications or move on to additional graduate studies. The typical program consists of about 120 to 130 credits and lasts about four years, although some accelerated programs can be completed in two to three years.

In addition to general education requirements, such as English and math, students can expect to learn about general psychology principles, pharmacology, theories of addiction, and abnormal behavior. They will likely also be required to take an in-person counseling practicum.

Online master’s degrees in addiction counseling (also commonly called addiction studies) are very popular. That’s because a master’s degree is often required by the state to provide client counseling services. Master’s programs are ideal for those who want to begin treating addiction patients in addition to other types of patients. It is also good for those who are already treating addiction patients but desire the increased responsibility and autonomy that comes with a more advanced degree.

Typically lasting two years and totaling between 30 and 50 credits, most graduate programs bestow either a Master of Science or a Master of Arts. Practically, there is very little difference between the two because they both prepare students to meet the licensure or certification requirements of the state or organization they choose. Depending on the program and the student’s prior background, the number of credits required to graduate might be reduced. To enroll, students need to have a bachelor’s degree, preferably in an area similar to addiction counseling.

Students at this level can expect to learn the same general concepts that are taught in a bachelor’s degree program. However, there are opportunities to specialize in a more specific area of addiction counseling, such as public health, children and youth, families, and trauma counseling. In addition to the required coursework, all master’s level programs in addiction counseling have a hands-on requirement, whether it’s called a residency, practicum or internship, that consists of at least several hundred hours of supervised experience. This component cannot be completed online.

There are few doctoral degrees specifically in addiction counseling available online. There are a handful of online options available in areas similar to addiction counseling. Those that are available include an online PhD in psychology with a specialization in addiction and a DSW (Doctor of Social Work) with a concentration in addictions.

Online graduate certificates are meant for those who are already professionals in a related field but desire specialized training in addiction. Doctors, nurses, social workers, counselors and therapists who seek expert instruction in addiction issues are ideal candidates for graduate certificates. At the completion of most certificate programs, students should be ready to take the necessary certification exams and obtain licensure.

Most online certificate programs consist of about 12 to 16 credits and can be completed in less than one year. Topics covered include cultural diversity, group counseling, chemical dependency and professional ethics. In most cases, students need to hold at least a bachelor’s degree for entry into a certificate program, usually in a field related to addiction counseling. In addition to classroom time and assignments, students often need to meet practicum or internship requirements as well. However, these requirements vary based on the state in which licensure or certification is sought. Students should make sure the certificate program contains the necessary requirements set forth by the state they want to work in.

Standard Addiction Counseling Degree Courses

Because each state has its own counseling requirements for licensures and/or certification, most schools tailor their addiction counseling curriculum to meet those requirements. However, the core courses are typically similar, no matter which school a student chooses to attend. Here are five common courses students might encounter.


Students learn how the human body interacts, utilizes and absorbs drugs. They also learn both the intended effects and side effects (including withdrawal) of commonly used and abused drugs and how the body becomes addicted to drugs.

Counseling Practicum

Students complete a supervised work experience session at a location approved by the practicum coordinator. Through this practicum, students apply the theories and concepts learned in class to actual patients.

Ethical and Cultural Addiction Treatment Considerations

Since addiction affects people from all cultures, students study techniques and strategies to more effectively treat a wide variety of patients from different backgrounds. This course also presents common ethical dilemmas and how to deal with them.

Individual and Group Counseling

The different techniques and protocols when treating individuals versus groups are examined in this class. How addiction affects individuals and groups, such as families, is also reviewed.

Drug and Alcohol Studies

This class focuses on alcohol and drugs, which make up a large percentage of addictions. Students learn how to apply scientific theories and research to more effectively treat patients for addiction.

Things to Check Before Enrolling

Enrolling in the right online addiction counseling degree program depends heavily on one’s professional goals. There are several major factors students should consider when choosing which school to attend.

  • Figure out which state you would like to practice in. Since each state has its own requirements for licensure or certification, you should choose the school that will help you meet these specific requirements.
  • If there are any addiction concentration areas you would like to practice in, make sure the school has electives or specializations in those areas.
  • Confirm the school’s accreditation. A degree without accreditation is most likely going to be worthless.
  • Check admission requirements and be sure you can meet them before applying.
  • Find out if the school has any financial aid or scholarship opportunities that can help limit the cost of tuition.
  • Research the school’s career services and alumni network. These can prove valuable in your job search after graduation.
  • Before enrolling, speak with current or past students to see if their opinion of the school coincides with your understanding of what to expect. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to speak to an admissions officer.

Accreditation of Addiction Counseling Programs

Whether the school is a brick-and-mortar college or an entirely online institution, accreditation is very important. Like other counseling disciplines, addiction counseling programs typically seek programmatic accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

For more information about the accreditation process, check out our Online Counseling Degrees & Programs guide and the Online Guide to Accredited Colleges & Universities.

Enrollment Steps: Master’s in Addiction Counseling

Getting an online master’s degree in addiction counseling can lead to a very rewarding career that provides much-needed assistance to some of the most vulnerable members of society. However, getting there doesn’t occur overnight. The below chart provides a rough step-by-step guide to enrolling in a master’s program.

Time Before Program Start Date
Step 1

Obtain a bachelor’s degree

4 or more years
Step 2

Gain real-world experience at an entry-level job

3 years
Step 3

Take the GRE, if necessary

1 year
Step 4

Fill out and complete the FAFSA® to see if you’re eligible for federal financial aid

9 months, assuming fall enrollment

Step 5

Complete admissions applications and submit to admissions offices

6 to 9 months, depending on admissions type (rolling versus traditional)

In order to increase the chances of getting into the online master’s program of choice, students can do the following:

  • Take a workshop in interpersonal communications. The counseling profession is all about people, and the better you can communicate and relate to others from all walks of life, the more you will be able to help them.
  • Volunteer working in a shelter or clinic catering to people with addictions. It shows the school you have some insight into the population you’ll be working with.
  • Get an undergraduate degree in a field related to addiction counseling, such as social work, psychology or counseling.
  • Join a professional addiction or counseling organization such as the Association for Addiction Professionals, known as NAADAC, as an associate or student member.

Salary and Job Growth for Addiction Counselors

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for counselors is very bright. While the national average for all job growth between 2014 and 2024 is expected to be 7 percent, the job outlook for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is 22 percent. Much of this growth is due to the fact that more health insurance companies now cover counseling services.

The pay is also above average, with the 2014 median wage of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors at $39,270; the national average for all jobs is $35,540. Most available jobs for addiction counselors are at outpatient care and substance abuse facilities, although private practices also hire many addiction counselors if they hold master’s degrees.

The following table compares addiction counselor salary and job growth to related careers.

Career National Job Growth (2014-2024) National Median Annual Salary (May 2014) Minimum Education
Addiction Counselors 22% $39,270 Bachelor’s degree
Marriage and Family Therapists 15% $48,040 Master’s degree
Mental Health Counselors 20% $40,850 Master’s degree
Psychologists 19% $70,700 Master’s degree, but doctorate recommended
Social Workers 12% $45,500 Bachelor’s degree

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Becoming Licensed and Certified

First comes the education, then comes the licensing. Although not all addiction counseling jobs require licensure or certification, many require at least licensure. Even if neither are required, having one or both will dramatically increase a graduate’s marketability compared to someone who has the same training but is lacking certification or licensure. This is because addiction counselors need a master’s degree and licensure to enter into private practice.

Addiction Counselor State Licensure

The requirements to becoming licensed depend on the state in which the individual would like to work. Many states have similar requirements, but students should always check with their respective state’s counseling regulatory organization for precise requirements. The proper organization can be found by visiting the websites of the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network and American Counseling Association. Be sure to know and understand state requirements before choosing which online addiction counseling program to attend.

Each state has these general requirements in common:

  • Master’s degree in applicable field
  • Supervised counseling experience
  • Passing score on the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) and/or National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE)
Addiction Counseling Certifications

Unlike licensure, certification is usually not a prerequisite to practicing as an addiction counselor. However, it is strongly recommended, as it will improve an addiction counselor’s professional growth. There are several certifications available, including:

  • National Certified Counselor (NCC): This preeminent certification by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) is recognized in all states. It ensures that its holder has met certain professional counseling standards.
  • National Certified Addiction Counselor: This certification, offered by National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP), has three levels showing graduated knowledge in industry standards and recently developed addiction treatments.
  • Master Addictions Counselor (MAC): The MAC certification proves that its holder has met the high standards for addiction counseling knowledge and skills. It is bestowed by NBCC.

Similar Online Counseling Programs

Sometimes students research a degree program and realize that it isn’t quite right for them. Perhaps they still want to work in the helping professions but they don’t specifically want to work with addictions. The following careers allow for a related but distinct educational path.

Online Christian Counseling Degree

For a religious slant to counseling services, a Christian counseling degree may be ideal. Online Christian counseling degree programs teach aspiring counselors how to help those with a variety of problems in a way that follows the teachings of Christ.

Online Mental Health Counseling Degree

If a more diverse clientele is desired, a mental health counseling degree can give students an education that will help them treat people with all types of mental issues, in addition to addictions.

Online School Counseling Degree

For those who prefer to work with students in high school or college and help them achieve their academic and personal potential, an online school counseling degree may be a perfect fit.

Web Resources for Addiction Counselors