Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Guide: 2023 Costs, Requirements & Job Opportunities

Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Guide: 2023 Costs, Requirements & Job Opportunities
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

For those passionate about using their skills to aid others in overcoming substance abuse, a degree in substance abuse counseling can be the perfect avenue for realizing this goal. The degree leads to job roles as varied as counselors in the public or private sector and social workers dealing with problems in drugs and alcohol at an individual or institutional level such as college drug abuse.

Many who soldier on down this career path often have a motivation beyond the pay. After all, Payscale put the median pay for substance abuse counselors at $43,000 per year, significantly lower than STEM jobs. If you are one of those who dream of making a difference in society, a substance abuse counseling degree can help you fulfill such mission.

In general, you will find yourself dealing with the patient’s psychological problems including the underlying medical conditions. You will develop a treatment plan tailored to individual patients and provide progressive advice that empathizes with the patient’s situation.

Below, we discuss the scope and skills requirements of a substance abuse counseling degree. We will also touch on the costs of studying for this degree in various education levels as well as other related majors such as psychology degrees.

Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Table of Contents

  1. What is a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?
  2. Cost of Substance Abuse Counseling Degree
  3. Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Jobs
  4. Types of Degrees in Substance Abuse Counseling
  5. Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Requirements
  6. What to Look for in a Substance Abuse Counseling Program
  7. Majors Related to Substance Abuse Counseling

What is a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?

Substance abuse counselors, or addiction counselors, work with individuals who are struggling with addiction to alcohol and/or drugs. Substance abuse counseling definition covers the evaluation of the client issues and the assessment of whether they need treatment. Once that is determined, they come up with a treatment plan. During that phase, they work with family and friends to develop the best strategy (Cote, 2020).

For the duration of the study, students will undergo activities in the classroom and in experiential settings that give them an overview of chemical independence. They will also learn about psychological and sociological processes that may lead to substance abuse and the twelve core functions of a substance abuse counselor. Students will also encounter discussions on interviewing and counseling theories, intervention in an addicted family, and case management (Wake Technical Community College, 2021).

Learners will have the opportunity to apply what they learned in real-life settings in practicum or field experience (Dallas College, 2021).

Average Costs of Substance Counselling Degree

 Public In-StatePublic Out-of-StatePrivate
Associate Degree$3,570$13,791$14,587
Bachelor's Degree$9,580$27,437$37,200
Master's Degree$8,670$30,000$40,000
Doctoral Degree $11,120$18,000$44,020
*Values are estimates.
Sources: College Pricing & Student Aid, 2020; College Tuition Compare, 2021

What can you do with a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?

A substance abuse counseling degree can lead to a private organization, public institution, or private practice. Holders of this degree can enter clinics or hospitals and work as a counselor there. But if they choose public, then they can take on the role of a social worker or a counselor attached to a social services agency. They can also move immediately to private practice to work independently with clients (Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate, 2020). And with leadership training, they can assume a role of motivational speakers or community leaders advocating for a healthier society.

Cost of Substance Abuse Counseling Degree

The substance abuse counseling degree tuition varies depending on whether you are taking an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. If you are getting into higher education, then a master’s or a doctorate degree would be more costly than an undergraduate degree. This is why it is best to know which schools you want to attend early on to have a grasp of your future tuition.

How much does it cost to get a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?

Generally, a substance abuse counseling degree tuition would be the same as most degrees. But to give you an idea, the median in-state public tuition for a substance abuse counseling degree is $5,871. Meanwhile, the median out-of-state private tuition is $26,500.

Core Functions of a Substance Abuse Counselor

ScreeningCase Management
IntakeCrisis Intervention
OrientationClient Education
Treatment PlanningReport and Recordkeeping
Source:, 2020

Is a degree in substance abuse counseling worth it?

Yes, a degree in substance abuse counseling will be worth it. The job outlook is high (25%) and it can lead to careers in private and public agencies. You can even become a private practitioner. And it can be fulfilling when you have helped patients overcome their substance abuse.

Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Jobs

As mentioned previously, substance abuse counseling jobs are available in private practice, public service, and private work in clinics and hospitals. Should you choose to do so, you can also become an educator.

Is substance abuse counseling in high demand?

According to BLS, the demand for substance abuse counselors is forecast to reach 25% from 2019 to 2029. This is faster than the US national average of 4%. Another source states that substance abuse counselor job growth is 8% or higher. This may be a smaller figure but it is still a positive outlook.

The job is fast-growing because of alarming substance abuse statistics. There have been over 700,00 drug overdose deaths in the US since 2000. And 19.4% of people have used illicit drugs at least. These statistics include Americans 12 years and older (National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 2020).

Of all drugs, marijuana is the most-used, representing 46% of all drug users. The same is the case for prescription stimulants. Opioids and methamphetamines are the choices of 36% of drug users and prescription pain medication is the go-to option for 31% of drug users (National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 2020).

Substance abuse counselors don’t have their work cut out for them. But they are making progress: in 2017, four million people out of 20.7 million individuals aged 12 and up received treatment for substance use disorder (Osbourne, 2020).

Source: BLS, 2021

What jobs can you get with a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?

  1. Substance Abuse Counselor. A substance abuse counselor interviews clients and works with other professionals to evaluate the mental and physical condition of patients. They develop client treatment plans and maintain accurate records of histories and progress. Part of their job is to assist patients in overcoming dependencies and making changes.
  2. Substance Abuse Social Worker. Substance abuse social workers usually work in government agencies. Their responsibilities are the same as those of the substance abuse counselor. However, they also collaborate with counselors themselves as well as physicians, nurses, and fellow social workers to coordinate treatment.
  3. Child, Family, and School Social Worker. People with a substance abuse counseling degree can go on to become child, family, and school social workers. This role entails interviewing children and their family members to assess their situations. They may also need to speak with school personnel to get a well-rounded idea of the attitudes and behaviors of the child outside of the family and community settings. Their main role is to help children who have problems like abuse and poverty.

What kind of salary can I earn with a Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?

According to Payscale, the median wage of substance abuse counselors is $43,000 this January 2023. Those who work with the government, though, earn $60,450 annually. SUD counselors affiliated with hospitals have an average take-home pay of $49,630 per year. Those offering individual and family services earn around $47,940 every year. Outpatient mental health and substance abuse professionals get average pay of $47,550 in a year. Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities workers earn the least: $42,900 per annum (BLS, 2022).

Other sources show that substance abuse counselors have an average salary of $57,230 per year. But most salaries range between $50,450 and $64,170 every year (, 2023).

Source: BLS, 2021

Types of Degrees in Substance Abuse Counseling

Like most disciplines, there are four substance abuse counseling degree types. These are associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate. Certifications and training are available to those who do not want to enroll in a full associate’s or bachelor’s degree program. Further, substance abuse counselors who want to augment their knowledge can apply for certifications, too.

What kinds of Substance Abuse Counseling Degrees are there?

1. Associate Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling

Average time to complete: 2 years

Typically, a student can finish an Associate Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling in two years. Colleges and universities require students to finish 60 or more credits to consider them as graduates of an associate degree. For example, the Northcentral Technical College (2021) credit requirement is 62 credits. Another example is the Chippewa Valley Technical College (2021), whose credit requirement is 67 credits.

Throughout the program, the student will learn about counseling theories and gain basic counseling skills. They will also have courses to help them understand addiction to alcohol and drugs. Students will also have a chance to study disorders related to substance abuse and addiction. In some cases, they will have courses focusing on development and abnormal psychology, group counseling, evaluation and assessment techniques, and patient discourse (Dickinson State University, 2021; Lone Star College, 2021).

Commonly, instruction for substance abuse counseling associate degree is done on-campus. Nowadays, however, it is possible to be admitted to an online program.

Entry-level jobs: substance abuse counselor, case manager, mental health counselor

2. Bachelor Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling

Average time to complete: 4 years

A bachelor’s program in substance abuse counseling prepares the student for practice by imparting information regarding the root causes and contributing factors of substance abuse. They will have courses in psychopharmacology, particularly in the treatment of addiction and substance use disorder. Students will gain knowledge of how they could help patients prevent relapse (Grand Canyon University, 2021).

During the course of the program, learners will understand the effect of addiction and substance abuse on the patients themselves as well as on their families and the people around them. They will learn how to work with the families and the communities of affected individuals (SUNY Empire State College, 2021). Additionally, depending on the nature of the higher education institution, there may be courses that will teach students how to integrate Christian teachings into counseling (Ohio Christian University, 2021).

Those who undertake a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse would also be in the midst of a paradigm shift. According to Lewis, Dana, and Blevin (2015), retired professor, Dean of Students, and Professor Emeritus, respectively, from Governors State University and the University of Maine, there is a revolution in the practice. In their book Substance Abuse Counseling, published by Cengage Learningthe authors relate that “practitioners are collaborating with clients… Coercion and scare tactics have given way to empowerment and a reliance on scientifically developed best practices. The client is truly at the center of the change equation.”

Students who are interested in the substance abuse counseling track may encounter bachelor of arts and bachelor of science offerings. The difference between the two often lies in which department provides the instruction for the program. At times, the program may be housed under applied sciences or health and human services departments. In other cases, they could be under an arts, humanities, and social sciences department or similar.

Entry-level jobs: social worker, chemical dependency practitioner, addiction specialist

3. Master’s Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling

Average time to complete: 2 years

A master’s degree in substance abuse counseling prepares an individual in dealing with multicultural concerns regarding the matter. Students also learn about other disorders that may occur together with substance abuse disorder. During the course of study, students will also gain additional information regarding addiction counseling in family systems. They will encounter more theories in counseling as well as mental health counseling (Ottawa University, 2021).

Further, they will have more experience in appraising, assessing, and planning treatments for patients. What they learned in their master’s courses will be applied in a practicum.

And once they have received their master’s degree, they can proceed to open a private practice. They can also work in law enforcement or with military agencies.

High-level positions: private practitioner, military addiction and substance abuse counselor, parole and probation officers

4. Doctoral Degree in Substance Abuse Counseling

Average time to complete: 3 years

A doctoral degree in substance abuse counseling helps an individual get ready to become administrators or clinicians for treatment programs. Getting a Ph.D. can also pave the way for a career in academia or research. This can lead to a specialization in substance and clinical counseling, rehabilitation research, vocational evaluation, or other areas (East Carolina University, 2021).

An example of research those with Ph.D. in substance abuse counseling can engage in is the use of avatars in therapy. Researchers from Friends Research Institute in Baltimore, Maryland embarked on a study to treat substance use disorders using avatars. According to the researchers, “avatar-assisted therapy (AAT) is a novel and emerging technology that uses the Internet to enable clinicians and clients in substance abuse treatment to participate in group counseling sessions from separate and remote locations in real time through the use of avatars and virtual environments.” (Gordon, et al., 2017)

While undertaking a Ph.D., individuals will have field experience, too. During that time, they will be able to apply the advanced counseling skills and techniques they learned. They will also be able to put into use the additional knowledge they have on addictive behaviors and substance abuse (Regent University, 2021).

High-level positions: psychologist, researcher, college or university professor

5. Certificate in Substance Abuse Counseling

Average time to complete: 2 weeks to 3 months

Certificates in substance abuse counseling are available for enrollment only to those who hold a baccalaureate degree. Master’s and doctorate degree holders can apply for certifications, too. Coursework in a certificate program includes theories, techniques, and core functions of substance abuse counseling. Students will gain or reinforce their knowledge of the diagnosis and treatment of addictive disorders as well. They may also encounter discussions on the professional, legal, and ethical issues in counseling as well as in clinical psychology, art therapy, and couple and family therapy (Adler University, 2021).

Substance abuse counseling certification programs would have hands-on experience, too, on top of coursework. In the case of the National University’s program (2020), it consists of 255 practicum hours and 2,080 hours of supervised work experience. Courses may also touch on the specific laws or standards in the state or at the national level.

Entry-level jobs: alcohol and drug counselor, social and human service assistant, psychiatric technician

 Public In-StatePublic Out-Of-StatePrivate
Associate Degree$2,800 - $26,000$7,000 - $31,000$7,000 - $37,000
Bachelor’s Degree$11,000 - $19,000$17,000 - $52,000$38,000 - $61,000
Master’s Degree$6,800 - $25,000$6,800 - $50,000$20,000 - $57,000
Doctoral Degreeabout $9,000about $9,000about $20,000
*Values are estimates.

Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Requirements

Getting into a substance abuse counseling degree program requires more than just a high school degree. Certain institutions may want to see that applicants to the program excel in certain subjects in high school. The selection committee may also consider how well the student applicants do in interviews if any. And substance degree counseling prerequisites may include a demonstration of important skills.

Admission Requirements


Incoming freshmen would be required to show their official high school transcripts. To be admitted to a college or university, they must have a GPA of at least 2.7 (University of Cincinnati, 2021) or higher. Those who do not meet the GPA threshold may still be admitted under certain circumstances.


One university has English speaking and writing requirements. To be considered for admission, applicants must have a grade of C or better in all English or language subjects (Old Dominion University, 2021). These are necessary because counseling entails a lot of communication.

SAT or ACT score

The College Board has suspended offering of SAT subject tests or SAT with essay. However, colleges and universities may still consider SAT scores for those who have them. But if you are an international student, you may still present your SAT scores on top of your English language proficiency certificate (College Board, 2021).

For other tests like the ACT and the CLT, admission offices may still ask for them.

Other Requirements

Higher education institutions would require incoming freshmen or transferees to submit an admission application. For those who are transferees or have previously been granted a bachelor’s degree, they would need to submit their official college transcripts. Some institutions may require an admission essay as well.

Skill Requirements

Listening Skills

Most of the time, you will be working with clients one-on-one. And you need to listen to them well to understand their situation and experiences to come up with the best treatment plan. Listening will also allow you to engage clients regarding their experiences to delve deeper into their issues and to explore other factors affecting their substance abuse. Moreover, active listening will make your clients feel that what they say matters and is valued and that they are understood (Sober College, 2021).


Among the important substance abuse degree skills is drawing and maintaining boundaries. You will be developing relationships with your clients. But you need to establish boundaries even if you do your utmost to help them recover and succeed. You must maintain boundaries for the integrity of your relationships and make sure that they do not take advantage of your empathy (Sober College, 2021).


Apart from clients, a substance abuse counselor will work together with social workers, nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists, and physicians to develop a treatment plan. They also need the help of the family and friends of the client to ensure that they stick to the regimen for long-term recovery (National University, 2020).

What to Look for in a Substance Abuse Counseling Program

As an incoming student, you need to be vigilant about the substance abuse counseling degree programs of the colleges and universities you are considering. Just a few of the things you need to consider are specializations, accreditation, student-teacher ratio, and financial aid.

Available Specializations

A career in counseling has specializations. Substance abuse counseling is one of those. However, there may be other tracks available that branch out from substance abuse counseling depending on whether you will go into public service or private practice. It may also matter whether you will go into individual counseling, multicultural counseling, or prevention and education (Lamar University, 2020).

You also need to note that substance abuse counseling may be offered as a specialization under other majors, such as social work, sociology, psychology, applied science, and human services.

Source: BLS, 2021


First, see if the university or college you are looking to enter is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission or is recognized by the Department of Education. Next, check what accreditations they have for their substance abuse counseling degree program. An accrediting body for undergraduate programs is the National Addiction Studies Commission. The postsecondary school itself may declare this. Still, you may want to double-check on the website of the commission.

Additionally, graduate degrees in substance abuse counseling are accredited by The Council for the Accreditation for Counseling and Related Educational Programs or CACREP. The accreditation body’s website says that it has accredited more than 880 specialty areas and programs at 406 colleges and universities (CACREP, 2021).

Student-Teacher Ratio

Discussion and engagement work best when there is a low student-teacher ratio. It is also possible to develop one-on-one mentoring relationships. Moreover, students can be more proactive during discussions in smaller groups. And while there is no standard for the student-teacher ratio, the average declined from 22:1 in 1970 to 15:1 in 2008 (The Hun School of Princeton, 2019).

Financial Aid Options

Undergraduate and graduate education are both expensive, especially if out-of-state or private. This is why it is important to be aware of the financial aid options offered by the school you wish to attend. Apart from your institution, you can research whether there are foundations or organizations that provide assistance to those taking substance abuse counseling degrees or similar. It may help, too, to look at Federal Student Aid.

Majors Related to Substance Abuse Counseling

A Degree of Significance

There are many reasons to take a degree in substance abuse counseling. For one, there is a drug epidemic in the US and other countries in the Americas. But substance abuse is not just about drugs; it can be about alcohol, too. And often, people who abuse substances do so because of environmental or internal factors.

Getting into a substance abuse degree program is not that difficult compared to other medical or health programs. The primary skill needed is communication and adeptness in English, whether spoken or written.

Additionally, a career as a substance abuse counselor is secure. The job outlook is very positive and grows way faster than the national average. And in case you do not like your current career path, there are plenty of options for you. Indeed, you can go on to have a private practice, have a role in law enforcement, or have a career treating military people who have a problem with substance abuse.

Studying to become a substance abuse counselor can be stressful, though. This is because you will encounter problematic scenarios and may feel empathy for patients you encounter during your field experience. When this happens, you need to cope with stress to be effective as a student counselor.



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