A guidance counselor listening to a student
Teaching Careers Updated October 31, 2019

Professional School Counselor: Job Requirements and Salary Information

By Alisa Bates, PhD October 2, 2012

Professional school counselors are certified educators with a minimum of a master’s degree in school counseling. These caring professionals are advocates for young students. Trained in child and adolescent psychology, they work with students to help them excel in school and create a safe learning environment. Professional school counselors design, implement, evaluate, and enhance comprehensive school counseling programs that promote student success.

School counselors are employed in a variety of academic settings, from elementary through postsecondary schools. These counselors work with students to address a variety of topics ranging from behavioral issues and violence prevention to college and career readiness.

At-a-glance: professional school counselors

A school counselor may work at any level of education: elementary, middle, and high school, as well as college, at both private and public schools.

School counselors are an invaluable resource to education. Counselors help students beyond the curriculum, attending to the mental and social stability of the youth in schools. They continue the development of the whole child by advocating for their students and connecting school curriculum to real-life career opportunities.

In general, counselors work a full-time schedule, in accordance with the school’s operating calendar. Depending on the district and position, they may work a ten- or eleven-month schedule. A counselor usually reports to the school principal.

School counselor job description

School counselors mostly meet with students individually. They also regularly hold small group sessions or workshops, and even present in school assemblies.

Typical duties include:

  • Creating comprehensive school counseling programs that focus on student outcomes and are focused around three domains: academic, career, and personal/social development
  • Reporting possible cases of neglect or abuse and referring outside sources for additional support
  • Using organizational assessments and tools to evaluate the school’s counseling needs
  • Using individual assessment tools to evaluate students’ abilities, interests, and personality characteristics
  • Delivering school counseling curriculum in partnership with other professional educators in classroom and group activities
  • Teaching students and staff about topics such as bullying, drug abuse, and college and career planning
  • Counseling students individually and within small groups regarding educational issues and personal or behavioral problems
  • Providing crisis intervention
  • Measuring and reporting the effectiveness of school counseling programs
  • Maintaining and coordinating school records

Who makes a good school counselor?

Someone who is:

  • Analytical
  • Compassionate
  • A good listener
  • Interpersonal
  • A clear communicator
  • Perceptive
  • Flexible; prepared to handle anything
  • Able to work with all types of personalities
  • Energized by working with young people
  • Emotionally stable and able to handle stress well

School counselors in-depth

Today’s professional school counselors provide leadership in creating safe and supportive learning environments and play an integral role in the school’s educational program.

There are many constants within the counseling profession, regardless of the level of education. However, some counseling duties can vary greatly, depending on the level of the student population.

Elementary school counselor

Elementary school counselors are professional educators with mental health training who work with children in kindergarten through grade five. They work closely with school administrators, teachers, and parents to effectively respond to challenges presented by a diverse student population.

A counselor at this level wears many hats and deals with school-related problems, home concerns, and the health and physical development of all of the students. School counselor curriculum may include subjects such as study skills, goal-setting, behavior management, problem-solving, and diversity awareness.

The work involves meeting with students individually and in small groups, communicating regularly with parents to address any concerns, creating behavioral management plans, and identifying at-risk children and developing success plans.

Middle school counselor

Middle school counselors work with students in grades six to eight to develop the skills and strategies necessary to succeed academically and socially. Middle school is an important time because students are transitioning from childhood to adolescence and are searching for their identity and relying on peers more for understanding and approval.

Successful middle school counselors have a strong understanding of adolescent psychology and are able to build trusting relationships with the students. As with elementary school counselors, middle school counselors also work closely with school administrators, teachers, and parents.  School counselor curriculum may include subjects such as social skills, substance abuse education, career exploration, and academic skills support.

High school counselor

During these adolescent years, students are evaluating their strengths, skills, and abilities, and are strongly influenced by their peers. High school counselors tend to be more focused on advising students in making academic and career plans, as well as personal problems that may interfere with their education. High school counselors provide information about choosing and applying for colleges and financial aid, provide guidance to help students make decisions about their future, and present career workshops.

Counselors at this level continue meeting with students individually and in small groups, communicating regularly with parents to address any concerns and creating behavioral management plans. School counselor curriculum may include subjects such as career planning, college planning, substance abuse education, and conflict-resolution skills.

Some counselors may work in private high schools specifically to help students find the college that best fits their goals, provide help with college applications and financial aid, and support the students in making the transition to college.

Postsecondary counselors

At the college level, counseling breaks into two distinct categories: psychological counselors and educational counselors (also known as academic advisors).

  • Psychological college counselors are mental health professionals who help students resolve personal problems that may interfere with studies, manage stress and test anxieties, adjust to college life and homesickness, provide crisis counseling, and help students make decisions about educational and career goals. According to the American College Counseling Association (ACCA), colleges and universities that employ college counselors benefit from increased student retention. Psychological college counselors have a master’s degree or PhD in psychology and may require licensing, depending on state laws. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychological school counselors earn a median salary of $75,760.
  • Academic advisors help students choose classes, meet graduation prerequisites, and provide information on placement testing and course-transfer requirements. Educational requirements for academic advisors vary widely. A few institutions require only a bachelor’s degree, while most will not consider candidates who do not hold a master’s degree.

Education requirements for school counselors

  • Education: Master’s degree or doctorate
  • Typical study time: 4-6 years

A master’s degree in school counseling or a related field is required by most states for school counselors in grades K-12. The degree is usually comprised of coursework in developmental theory, learning theory, social justice theory, multiculturalism, career development, and group and individual counseling. Most master’s degrees include a supervised practicum or internship. Some states allow full-time teaching experience to be substituted in place of the internship requirement.

A master’s degree is not necessarily required for educational college counselors, although some employers prefer it. College counselors who provide psychological services are required to have an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree or PhD.

Certification requirements

A school counselor typically holds a master’s in school counseling, has interned or completed a practicum under supervision of a licensed professional school counselor, and passed a testing requirement. Public school counselors have a state-issued credential: certification, license, or endorsement. Many states require 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. Some states also require applicants to have one to two years of classroom teaching experience, or to hold a teaching license, in order to be certified.

Private school counselors and educational college counselors are not required to be licensed.

Information about licensing requirements for each state is available from the ASCA. Both the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) offer school counseling certification.

Salary range for school counselors

Salary ranges for school counselors can vary depending on the state, education level of the position, counseling degree, experience, and expertise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a school counselor is $56,310. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $33,610 and the highest 10 percent earn more than $94,690.

According to ZipRecruiter.com, average pay for school counselors by state varies from $46,458 to $65,301.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, salary can also vary dependent on the institution of employment:

  • State, local, and private elementary and secondary schools: $56,310.
  • Other educational services: $52,440.
  • Postsecondary institutions: $50,050
  • Healthcare and social assistance: $38,790.

Here is a snapshot of average school counselor salaries:

  • Payscale.com: $50,861
  • Glassdoor.com: $49,837
  • Indeed.com: $52,814

School counselor employment projections

Employment of school and career counselors is projected to grow 8% from 2018 to 2028. While overall employment growth is expected because of increasing school enrollments, hiring will vary by geographic location, depending on state and local government budgets.

Postsecondary counseling positions will continue to grow in demand as many colleges open more onsite career centers geared toward the transition of students into the workforce. Also, executive legislation seeking to increase the number of school counselors nationally in an effort to bolster college attendance among low- and middle-income students will increase demand. The current national average is one counselor for every 471 students, but the ASCA recommends the ratio be adjusted to one counselor for every 250 students.

Advantages and disadvantages for school counselors

Pros:

  • This profession ranks high in terms of meaningful work, directly impacting the lives of young people
  • There’s a lot of variety, and every day is different
  • People who crave high social interaction find being a school counselor very rewarding
  • Fostering relationships and witnessing individual successes
  • Helping others cope and find independence in life

Cons:

  • Competition to land jobs is intense, particularly in some school districts
  • Public school counselors may spend a lot of their time on nonessential tasks, such as schedules, substitute teaching, bus duty, and disciplining students
  • The turnover rate is high, as 60 percent of new school counselors leave the field within two years

Professional development for school counselors

Staying current on the latest developments in education reform and the challenges students face is an important aspect of being a school counselor. To be considered for advancement and to stay effective in the field, it is important to take advantage of educational opportunities. Continuing education is also a requirement for sustained licensure in many states.

Professional organizations such as the ASCA offer professional development courses where school counselors may earn Continued Education Units (CEUs.)

Professional associations for school counselors

Best of the web

The web makes it easy for us to stay connected to prominent school counselors.

Favorite school counselor blogs

Resources to follow on Twitter and Instagram

Learn More: Click to view related resources.

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