Counselor Salary: How Much Do Counselors Make?

If you are considering a career in counseling, your paycheck is probably at least a little way down the list of things you are thinking about. You’re the kind of empathetic, caring, considerate person who is mostly in the game to help other people who are struggling. You probably already do that for friends and family for nothing at all.

But you have to eat, put a roof over your head, and, almost certainly, pay off some substantial college loans once you get into the counseling game. So you definitely need to be thinking about how much counselors make, and what you can do to get the most out of your counseling career – and your counselor salary?

Average counselor salaries are affected by a wide variety of different factors, though. Everything from the area you specialize in to your level of education to the region of the country you choose to work in will play a part.

Average Counselor Salary Varies by Specialty Area

There is something you will figure out immediately as you start searching for answers to the question, how much do counselors make: There are a lot of different kinds of counselors earning salaries that fall within a fairly broad range. Even the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the part of the federal government that tracks salaries by profession, doesn’t try to come up with just one number for all counselors.

Instead, they define three different broad groups of counselors, and track the salary statistics for each of them independently:

  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors - These counselors are primarily involved with mental health and addiction issues. They may lead group counseling in settings like prisons or recovery centers, or work with individuals one-on-one in hospitals, clinics, or private practice. The group also includes behavioral counselors who work with kids with autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
  • Rehabilitation counselors - This group of counselors assist people with physical, mental, or developmental problems in gaining or regaining lost functions and the ability to live happier, more independent lives. They often work individually with clients in their homes or in rehabilitation facilities, and assess people by their abilities, interests, and health to develop unique treatment plans. They may assist in acquiring additional services and support from other resources.
  • School and career counselors and advisors - This is probably the broadest group of counselors. School counselors work at every level of education, helping kids adjust to the educational system, addressing behavioral issues in school, and looking out for signs of difficultly at home and counseling or referring kids out for additional assistance. They also engage in some career advising and preparation for entering college or the workforce. Career counselors take over at that point, working with individuals to find their ideal workplace or career aptitudes, assisting with retraining, or helping with job hunting.

Each different type of counselor has their own unique challenges and job environment, leading to different salary expectations.

Each of them also has their own unique educational and training path, and similarly, they each have a different average counselor salary.

Learn More About Counseling Degrees and Programs

What is the average salary for a counselor?

The average counselor salary across all specialty areas in the United States in 2020 was $51,983 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most counselors have at least a master’s-level education, but the requirements may be different depending on what type of counseling career you choose to pursue.

The average counselor salary in the three main categories that year were:

  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselor salary - $51,550
  • Rehabilitation counselor salary - $42,080
  • School and career counselor and advisor salary - $62,320

What type of counselors get paid the most?

To determine what type of counselor gets paid the most, you have to go past the average salary levels for each group and instead look at the top end of those professions. The results are a bit different for who gets the highest paycheck in the top ten percent of each group:

  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors – more than $78,700
  • Rehabilitation counselors – more than $66,180
  • School and career counselors and advisors – more than $97,910

You can expect the most experienced and best-educated people in each category to hit those high salary levels.

Where You Work Has a Big Impact on Counselor Salary

You already understand that the average cost of living varies from state to state and town to town. That has an impact on what people get paid in every type of job, including as counselors.

You can see some of those geographic impacts by looking at the differences in a set of representative states below:

  • California
    • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors - $56,860
    • Rehabilitation counselors - $39,640
    • School and career counselors - $81,350
  • Florida
    • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors - $45,960
    • Rehabilitation counselors - $35,290
    • School and career counselors - $52,770
  • Georgia
    • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors - $45,780
    • Rehabilitation counselors - $41,260
    • School and career counselors - $58,290
  • Illinois
    • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors - $47,950
    • Rehabilitation counselors - $44,150
    • School and career counselors - $57,920
  • Kansas
    • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors - $45,780
    • Rehabilitation counselors - $34,070
    • School and career counselors - $55,020
  • New York
    • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors - $57,120
    • Rehabilitation counselors - $38,050
    • School and career counselors - $69,760
  • Pennsylvania
    • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors - $48,450
    • Rehabilitation counselors - $42,670
    • School and career counselors - $65,770
  • Texas
    • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors - $50,920
    • Rehabilitation counselors - $47,440
    • School and career counselors - $59,860
  • Washington
    • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors - $54,390
    • Rehabilitation counselors - $50,520
    • School and career counselors - $69,020

With online counseling degrees, of course, you can live just about anywhere you want and get the same great education you would if you relocated.

Do counselors make good money?

Whether or not counselors make good money depends a lot on who you are comparing them to. Geography has a big impact on whether counseling work is one of the better paying jobs in your area. For example, the annual mean wage in Washington is $66,870. School and career counselors there make $69,020 per year, or over $2,000 per year more than the average. But in Illinois, with an annual mean wage of $58,070, school counselors make $57,920, just a little below the average.

Counselor Salary is Affected By Who You Work For

Finally, your salary as a counselor will be determined by the industry you choose to work in. This is influenced by your specialization, but it’s not quite the same thing. A substance abuse treatment specialist working directly for a government agency, for example, earned a counselor salary of $54,070 in 2020, well above the overall average for the profession. At the same time, one employed by a residential treatment facility earned just over $40,000, or substantially less than average.

The top three industries by counselor salary level for each category are:

  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors
    • Government - $54,070
    • Hospitals - $50,460
    • Individual and family services - $47,580
  • Rehabilitation counselors
    • State government - $53,210
    • Individual and family services - $35,380
    • Community and vocational rehabilitation services - $35,510
  • School and career counselors
    • Elementary schools - $64,960
    • Other educational services - $52,590
    • Colleges and universities - $51,660

Becoming a licensed counselor is a big boost for your salary prospects, of course. Each state has different requirements and titles for the different types of counselors. You will have to check with your state licensing board to find out what kind of education, post-graduate training, and what tests you might need to pass in order to practice. Each state may also have different rules about what kind of activities require a license in the first place.

Does Becoming Certified Boost Your Counselor Salary?

Beyond state licensing is the option to pursue voluntary nationally-recognized professional certification. Certification is a process that is similar in some ways to licensing, but often more rigorous. Instead of being offered directly by states, certification is governed by professional bodies made up of counselors themselves. Their standards are often the basis for state license requirements, but earning a certification is always a sign that you are meeting the level of competency that your peers expect.

Some states accept certification in lieu of licensure, recognizing national certification as meeting equivalent requirements for addiction counselors.

Under any circumstances, professional certification is a great way to boost your potential counselor salary level. As a mark of extra expertise in the field, both employers and clients will recognize that you are bringing more value to the table than counselors without it.

The big player in national counseling certification is NBCC, the National Board for Certified Counselors. The National Certified Counselor (NCC) is the most basic and popular certification they offer. It verifies that you have earned a graduate degree in the field from an accredited university, passed a rigorous national exam, and have verified work experience in the field. And you can be sure that with all that knowledge and experience to back you up, you’ll be eligible for some of the best counselor salaries available.

Of course, like all counselors, you’ll measure your real compensation in terms of success. How many people you help through the dark forest of depression, how many addicts you set on the path to recovery, how many injured clients are able to return to meaningful, fulfilling lives. Certification helps you achieve those goals, too, but the extra bit it adds to your salary doesn’t hurt either!