Counseling is one of those strange designations that is both vague in nature, and somewhat specific. Typically, we envision counselors as professionals who help people in need, people who are struggling through difficult periods in their lives or are beset by problems that are beyond their ability to control. Or, we might see the friendly face of a high school guidance counselor, helping students manage the challenge of preparing for college. There are marriage and family therapy counselors, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, mental health counselors, rehabilitation counselors, and many other subdivisions in the broad realm of counseling. And, while they share some ground with one another, they exists in very different neighborhoods, working with distinct populations, sorting out problems that are situational and unique.
One of the more challenging, rewarding, and progressively oriented specializations within the field of counseling falls under the heading of community counseling. Like other counseling specialists, community counselors work with individuals to overcome various problems and setbacks. However, community counseling is founded in a belief that the problems confronted by individuals are often symptoms of a larger ill, that broader social forces and cultural factors impact the psychology and general well-being of those in need, and that these societal issues — poverty, racism, sexism, discrimination, and income inequality, to name a few — need to be addressed as part of the fundamental work of counseling.
In other words, community counseling views society itself as a metaphorical body politic, with ills and ailments that must be taken into account when working with and treating members of that community. It’s a discipline that exists at the intersection of social work and psychology, a place where the work of a counselor extends well beyond the simple triage of moving from one person in need to the next. It’s also a field that has grown in prominence as the methods of community counseling have been integrated into emergency management and response protocols, particularly in the wake of man-made and natural disasters that create community-wide trauma. And, it’s a specialization that’s generally best addressed through the targeted training of a master’s degree in community counseling.
Who Gets a Master’s Degree in Community Counseling?
As with most master’s degree programs in sociology, psychology, and various types of counseling, a master’s in community counseling is open to students who have earned a bachelor’s degree. It helps to have majored in the social and/or behavioral sciences, or in counseling, but that is by no means a requirement. In fact, any master’s degree program in community counseling that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP) should furnish graduates with all of the tools and training they need to gain licensure and begin practice in the field of community counseling. As the American Counseling Association (ACA) points out, the steps to becoming a counselor are fairly straightforward:
- Obtain bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite, in a liberal arts major.
- Obtain master’s degree in a counseling program.
- A doctorate is not necessary to practice; most practitioners are educated at the masters-level. A doctorate is for professionals who want to become expert researchers, educators, supervisors, or consultants.
It is worth noting that counseling tends to demand certain personality traits. It takes patience, empathy, and well-developed communications and problem solving skills. Resourcefulness, perseverance, and a firm commitment to helping people in need are also key assets. And, for those who chose to pursue community counseling in particular, it’s important to realize that it encompasses a particular worldview or philosophy, one that emphasizes the proactive virtues of social advocacy, of speaking for those who perhaps don’t have a voice. Community counselors are taught to reach out to those in need, rather that waiting for them to show up at a clinic, hospital, or counseling center, and to work for social change within communities afflicted by crime, poverty, addiction, and other manifestations of societal dysfunction. They are also, as we mentioned, increasingly being called on to prepare for sudden disasters that can spread trauma throughout a community, and may require attention long after the initial disruption.
Master’s in Community Counseling Concepts
- Strategies to collaborate with agencies and institutions as determined by client needs
- Human development
- Personality assessments
- Various counseling methodologies
- Cognitive-behavioral theory
- Systems theory
- Clinical assessments and diagnostics
- Individual counseling
- Social and cultural foundations of community counseling
- Group counseling techniques
- Career and vocational counseling
- Statistics and psychometrics
- Strategies to facilitate human development
- Develop sound legal & ethical decision-making skills
What You’ll Learn in a Community Counseling Master’s Program
A typical master’s degree in community counseling is designed to be completed in two years of study, and includes a full two semesters of supervised internship in the field, working in a community counseling setting with professional supervision. Master’s programs in community counseling can be based in psychology departments, where the degree conferred may be an MA (master of arts) or MS (master of science), and others are housed in schools of education, in which case the degree might be an M.Ed., or master of education. In terms of career prospects and eventual licensure to practice as a community counselor, there is no real difference. However, there can be minor variations in individual courses from program to program, and it’s worth comparison shopping for a degree program that fits your needs.
With that in mind, the following list details some of the core coursework one would expect to find in a CACREP-accredited master’s degree program in community counseling:
- Counseling and Psychotherapy
- Theories and Techniques of Counseling
- Professional Ethics and Legal Issues in Counseling
- Social Science Research Methods and Practices
- Developmental Psychology and Counseling
- Social Causes of Psychopathology
- Multi-Cultural Counseling and Community Building
- Substance Abuse: Social Causes and Effects
- Marriage, Family, and Couples Counseling
- Trauma Counseling
- Group and Community Counseling
Specializations in Community Counseling
Community counseling is itself a specialized area within the larger realm of counseling. Indeed, often the master’s degree in community counseling is offered as an area of concentration in a counseling program. But, in practice, community counseling can encompass many different aspects of the discipline, and this is reflected in the types of elective coursework that’s available to master’s degree candidates. For example, someone interested in family counseling would certainly take a course in family counseling, while someone drawn to substance abuse counseling might take a class in psychopharmacology in addition to a substance abuse counseling course. In general, though, community counseling as a discipline tends to view the various social ills that plague a particular population as connected in some vital way. In practical terms, this means that graduates with a master’s degree in community counseling should be prepared for all kinds of rewarding challenges.
Licensing, Career Options, and Salary Outlook
The term “counselor” is much less tightly regulated and more widely and loosely applied than, say, “psychologist.” To call yourself a psychologist, you have to be licensed by the state in which you practice, and that generally requires a PhD degree. Most states have fewer restrictions on the use of counselor as a designation, so it’s become more and more common for employers to look for NCC certification from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). And, passing the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) has become a standard that many states now accept for professional licensure. It’s also used in the USD military healthcare system as a standard requirement. In addition, the NBCC offers three specialty certifications in counseling: Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC); Master Addictions Counselor (MAC); and National Certified School Counselor (NCSC). Any of these certifications are available to individuals who have completed a master’s degree in community counseling.
Licensed community counselors with a master’s degree are qualified to apply for most positions in the field of counseling. This can mean working for a local or state governmental agency, a non-profit organization, a public or private hospital or clinic, a school or community center, or through a university program that studies, designs, and implements community counseling programs. And, with that broad range of career options come different expectations in terms of job growth and salary potential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t record data for counselors in general, rather it breaks counseling up into several subcategories, none of which exactly match the description of community counselor, so we’ll use the two charts below as a guide.
Job Growth through 2022 (BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook Data)
|Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors||31%|
|Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists||29%|
|Social and Community Service Managers||21%|
|Health Educators and Community Health Workers||21%|
Given that the average growth rate for jobs across the entire economy is expected to be around 12 percent, it’s clear from the data that significant expansion is expected in the community and social service sector.
Now let’s look at the average annual salaries for people who work in these sectors of the economy, as measured by the latest BLS data.
Mean Annual Wage per May 2014 BLS Occupational Employment Statistics
|Career||Median Annual Wage|
|Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors||$41,870|
|Marriage and Family Therapists||$51,730|
|Social and Community Service Managers||$67,730|
|Community Health Workers||$38,180|
|Child, Family, and School Social Workers||$46,180|
|Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers||$45,820|
|Social Workers, All Other||$58,419|
It’s safe to say that community counseling falls somewhere on the above continuum for average annual salary, between $38,000 and perhaps $68,000. But there are regional variables, and other factors that are hard to quantify. What is clear, particularly in the wake of the recent rioting in Baltimore, and social unrest in other parts of the country, is that there’s a growing awareness of the importance of building strong, resilient, healthy communities, and that’s something that community counselors are particularly well suited to do.