Become a College Counselor – Education & Licensure Guide
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College counselors have an important role to play in preparing students for their college career and their post-college work lives. Within the broad career field of college counseling, there are many types of work counselors can do.
The term “college counselor” can refer to professionals who work in admissions, in college career services, or in academic advising within a particular college or school of the university. This type of college counselor works with students who have, for the most part, decided on a career path and need help ensuring that they are making good decisions to complete their degree effectively and on time.
College counselors can also work in placement counseling, which helps students navigate the college selection, admissions, and readiness process. They sometimes travel to high schools to recruit prospective students or represent the school at career fairs or educational events.
The term “college” itself is a broad term, which includes four-year colleges and universities, two-year colleges, technical and vocational schools, apprenticeships, and even military service. Advising on any sort of job training, whether it be a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, PhD, or license or certificate, could be considered part of college counseling. In whichever role they play, a college counselor helps prospective students or current students through some of the most important decisions they will make with regards to their careers and future earning potential.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019), the average salary for college counselors (education, guidance, and career counselors) is $57,620. The BLS (2020) predicts job growth of 8 percent for educational, guidance, and career counselors and advisors between 2019 and 2029. According to their data, colleges, universities, professional schools, and junior colleges will have the most employment opportunities within that decade.
In addition, college enrollment has increased considerably over the past 20 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, full-time college enrollment increased by 45 percent and part-time enrollment increased by 27 percent between 2000 and 2010. Between 2010 and 2018, full-time and part-time enrollments decreased by 10 and 4 percent, respectively. However, between 2018 and 2029, enrollments are expected to increase again by 1 and 4 percent, respectively. This continued increase in the number of students will sustain the demand for college counselors.
College counselors and guidance counselors have significant overlap, but some distinct differences in their job expectations. A college counselor’s responsibilities focus primarily on preparing students for the academic side of the school experience and the next steps leading to and successfully finishing a degree or job training program. A guidance counselor can help with academics, but their time is also spent in supporting the students through emotional difficulties to help them achieve a foundation for success in their general life.
Discover how to become a college counselor, including guides to the typical education, professional licensure, and salaries in this growing career.
How to Become a College Counselor
Education & Training to Become a College Counselor
The crux of becoming a successful college counselor lies within the title “counselor.” While the job is not the same as that of a therapist or other mental health professional, it does involve understanding things about the human condition such as decision making, difficulties in overcoming obstacles, the need to “fit in,” basic adolescent or developmental issues, and determinants of success such as like long-term planning. The prospective college counselor will benefit most from entering the job market with at least a bachelor’s degree in psychology, sociology, business, or education.
Most educational environments want college counselors to complete a master’s degree in school counseling from a university accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)—especially for those who want to work in the public school system. Within many schools’ college counseling programs is the option to specialize. A student could pursue a master’s degree in college counseling while also achieving a specialization toward working with a specific population, such as bilingual or multicultural students, LGBTQ youth, or those with addiction issues.
Some professionals with counseling experience could also earn a certificate in college counseling. For instance, the University of California, San Diego offers an online college counseling certificate that can be completed in six to nine months. Three required courses cover the topics of college counseling principles and strategies and a hands-on practicum. Elective courses cover topics related to navigating the admissions process, working with international students, admissions essay advising, and financial aid.
Earning a master’s degree in school counseling means committing to a school with a specific postsecondary or graduate counseling program just for college admissions counselors. Schools have their own requirements, which may or may not include a minimum GPA or graduate entrance examination scores. It takes time to prepare for graduate school exams, so that should ideally be factored into a student’s plan. According to the Princeton Review, it takes between four and 12 weeks to properly prepare for a GRE. Most schools have an application process that requires letters of recommendation, a personal essay, and an outline of related work or volunteer experience.
If the prospective student wants to work in a particular state, research the counseling requirements in that state, as each state has its own requirements for approved schools and experience. After completing the master’s program, the prospective college counselor must attain the proper licenses and credentials to practice in their state.
In order to meet state licensing requirements, most states require the student to have graduated from a master’s degree program that is approved by the state’s board of education. Other accreditations to look for when considering school counseling degree programs are those through the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Many states require graduates seeking licensure to have graduated from an accredited program, as do doctoral programs for those who wish to continue on for further graduate-level education.
Supervised Hour Requirements for College Counselors
To become board-certified as a National Certified School Counselor (NCSC), the graduates must have completed six semester-hours (or ten quarter-hours) of supervised school field experience. Becoming board certified is not a requirement for employment; however, the voluntary achievement ensures schools and other employers that the graduates have met the highest education and practice standards. Alternatives to six semester-hours of supervised school field experience are:
- Three semester-hours (or five quarter-hours) of supervised school field experience and ten continuous years as a fully state-licensed school counselor
- Three semester- hours (or five quarter-hours) of supervised school field experience and an additional 120 hours of direct supervision
The supervised hour requirements vary by state. All require a master’s degree, experiential hours, and a period of supervision. North Carolina State University, for example, offers an online master of education in college counseling and student development that prepares students for working in higher education counseling and advising positions. The program takes two-and-a-half to three years to complete, and students are eligible to take North Carolina state licensing exams in their field during the final semester of the program. Students complete a 600-hour supervised internship during the final year of study.
Most high-quality education-related programs are certified by CACREP, the highest level of accreditation for counselor education. This organization accredits programs in which students complete supervised counseling practicums of a minimum of 100 clock hours over a full academic term that is a minimum of ten weeks.
Practicum students must complete at least 40 clock hours of direct client work that develops their counseling skills. Supervisors must interact with the students weekly at a minimum of one hour per week. Additionally, practicum students must join in 1.5 hours of group supervision weekly. During an internship, students must complete 600 clock hours of supervised work with clients within their specialty area. Internship students complete at least 240 clock hours of direct service. During the internship, students must again undergo weekly interaction with supervisors and their groups.
Licensure and Certification for College Counselors
Different states confer different titles on licensed counselors. Most college counselors have a general counseling degree and have then undertaken a specialization for working in schools. The most common title for a college counselor would be a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). Each title is issued by each state’s regulatory board and state licensure application processes vary.
There is a distinct difference between counselors pursuing a school or guidance counselor credential for Pre-K through 12 schools, and an individual pursuing a college counselor career. There is also a difference between seeking employment with a state school versus a private or online school.
Pre-K through 12 school counselors are subject to each individual state’s requirements per their board of education credentials for professionals working in public schools. Renewing or continuing a license as a school counselor or guidance counselor would also be contingent upon each state’s renewing requirements. Some states have very different requirements.
Check out the varying state requirements on the main school counselor career page.
What Do College Counselors Do?
At the most basic level, a college counselor helps an individual student think about and prepare for their academic majors and future careers. A college counselor will help a student organize their priorities to prepare for admission into a college of their choice, and will help them achieve their goals once they are admitted.
A college counselor who works for a specific school will meet with incoming or existing students to determine if they are a good fit for the college. They can help the students prepare for and meet the entrance requirements. These counselors will also likely travel to high schools or represent the college at job fairs or educational events as a representative of the school.
A college counselor who works in advising for a specific department or school within the college or university will help students prioritize their coursework and plan ahead to complete their specific degree field. These counselors will also spend a significant amount of time identifying and securing internship opportunities and will develop relationships with nearby employers to help their students find job placement once they have completed their degree.
College counselors in high school settings will educate themselves about various schools, so they can talk to the students about the differences between individual colleges and universities. They may actually visit colleges and lead trips to nearby colleges and universities so their students can get to know their in-state options. A college counselor will help students narrow down their list of options, and help them prepare for their greatest chance of success.
Independent College Counselors
Independent college counselors may be hired by families or students to work alongside their school counselor to enhance the help that the school counselor gives. These counselors may have their own independent careers as freelance advisors, or they may work at companies that are
An independent college counselor can help in a more personalized way than a school counselor can. Since they are hired to work with each individual student, they can invest more time and attention to the needs of the individual. Additionally, school counselors have other responsibilities to the school administration and to the general student body, whereas an independent college counselor has only the responsibility of serving the student they are hired for.
An independent college counselor works to find students the best schools based on personal interviews with the student and their families. They will be able to compare and contrast schools based on size and location, campus culture, quality of life, and the financial investment versus the salary return potential.
Some of the things that college counselors will do for individual students include:
- Refining the list of potential schools to focus on
- Crafting a personalized admission strategy for the chosen schools
- Advising on how to prepare and present applications in the best light
- Advising on each step of the college admissions process to keep tensions low
- Choosing courses of study and preparations that will enhance the student’s strengths
- Deciding which offer of admission or financial aid package to accept
Applying to college can be an overwhelming experience. College counselors can lower overall stress related to college because they are helping their students at each step along the way and ensuring that the colleges that students are applying to will be a good fit in the end.
From finding the best study aids for standardized test taking, helping bring out a student’s personality on application essays, asking teachers for letters of recommendation, to researching financial aid options, a college counselor can help in many ways before and during a university experience.
How Much Do College Counselors Make?
These numbers represent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2019 on “educational, guidance, and career counselors and advisors” in the United States:
- Number employed in the U.S.: 296,460
- Average annual salary (mean): $61,000
- 10th percentile: $34,380
- 25th percentile: $44,010
- 50th percentile (median): $57,040
- 75th percentile: $74,430
- 90th percentile: $96,090
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the occupational outlook for school and career counselors is growing at 8 percent nationally (2019-2029), which is much faster than other occupations.
College Counselor Professional Associations & Resources
- National Association for College Admission Counseling
- Higher Education Consultants Association
- Independent Educational Consultants Association
- National Association for College Admission Counseling
- Western Association for College Admission Counseling
- American College Counseling Association
- Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors
- American Counseling Association
- Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools
- International Association for College Admission Counseling
- American Association of Blacks in Higher Education
- American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers
- American Association of University Women
- American College Personnel Association
- Association of College Administration Professionals
- Association of Fraternity Advisors
- Association of Higher Education and Disability
- Association of Higher Education Parent/Family Programming Professionals
- Association for Orientation, Transition, Retention in Higher Education
- Association for Student Conduct Administration
- Atlantic Association of College and University Student Services
- Australian and New Zealand Student Services Association
- Canadian Association of College and University Student Services
- Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education
- Council of Higher Education Management Associations
- Council on International Educational Exchange
- Collegiate Information and Visitor Services Association
- Eastern Association of Colleges and Employers
- Institute of International Education
- Jesuit Association of Student Personnel Administrators
- Middle States Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers
- National Academic Advising Association
- National Association for Campus Activities
- National Association of Colleges and Employers
- National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals
- Association of International Educators
- National Association of Student Affairs Professionals
- National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators
- National Association of Student Personnel Administrators
- National Association of Veterans’ Program Administrators
- National Career Development Association
- Pacific Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers
- Southern Association of College Student Affairs
- Southern Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers
- University Professional and Continuing Education Association