Counseling is an essential component of a school’s educational program. While the job varies day to day, guidance counselors and professional school counselors help students tackle many aspects of student life, including:
- Social and behavioral skills
- Mental and emotional health
- Career planning
Let’s explore the career possibilities, salary expectations and job outlook for school counseling professionals — and how you can become one yourself.
Guidance counselor vs. professional school counselor
For the most part, guidance counselors are called professional school counselors within the field of education. However, parents, students and even some school districts use the more familiar guidance counselor title instead.
According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the profession’s name has evolved to reflect an increased scope of responsibilities as well as an updated philosophical approach. ASCA has suggested that the term “guidance counselor” may be associated with a strictly reactive and exclusive approach, whereas “school counselor” suggests an increasingly proactive, inclusive approach.
Job descriptions and professional titles may include one or the other — or some other variation — but the work itself remains the same.
Roles and responsibilities
Terminology aside, counselors are school leaders who work collaboratively with teachers, administrators, students, parents and sometimes community members to develop and execute a comprehensive school counseling program. School counselors are there to help students thrive — and they do so through a combination of both reactive and proactive methods.
In a proactive sense, counselors are responsible for teaching a school counseling curriculum. This often involves in-class and school-wide education on topics such as bullying, drug abuse and postsecondary planning. School counselors may host hands-on workshops wherein students can practice essential skills in a supportive, structured environment.
Regardless of which grade level they’re working with, school counselors take a data-driven approach to student success. Data include metrics in academic, career, and social-emotional development. Armed with this information, a counselor typically supports students in establishing and achieving academic and career goals. They may also rely on success metrics to advocate for student issues within the school district.
As for the more reactive responsibilities, school counselors are called upon to identify student issues and intervene as needed. Through observations and formal assessments, school counselors identify behavioral problems and habits that negatively impact school performance. They then help students develop constructive behaviors and attitudes, study skills and other habits that are essential for academic and social success. Counselors often listen to and respond to concerns voiced by students, parents and teachers. They also may be required to report cases of child neglect or abuse to the appropriate authorities.
School counselors possess sound counseling skills to help students in their academic, career and personal-social development.
Where school counselors work
Counselors help students identify and eliminate barriers to academic and personal success. They also provide students with tools to thrive in the classroom and beyond. With the right educational background and licensure, a school counselor can work at an elementary school, middle school or high school. At the college level, counseling is often divided into an array of more highly specialized roles. But no matter the grade level, a school counselor’s work will relate directly to students’ progress toward intellectual growth and personal development.
As students acclimate to the school environment and reach developmental milestones, elementary, middle and high school counselors serve an essential role. They uncover students’ nascent strengths and weaknesses in social and academic contexts, helping them to articulate and explore basic interests and goals. At each stage, counselors will look out for students with additional needs so they may recommend the right support services.
Middle school counselors help students navigate the increasingly complex social, emotional and intellectual landscape of junior high. As students grapple with identity formation, peer influence and physical changes, counselors are often called upon to provide instruction and educational resources related to the process of maturing from childhood to adolescence. Counselors continue to guide middle schoolers through more sophisticated goal-setting processes, which may relate to starting off on the right track in high school.
High school counselors typically place a greater emphasis on academic achievement and life after graduation. They regularly help high schoolers navigate the range of postsecondary options, including higher education or entry into the workforce or the military. In addition to the standard responsibilities of a school counselor, those working in high school settings may be involved in career training, the college application process, financial aid advisement, internships, jobs and more. School counselors guide high schoolers through parental pressures and rigorous academic and extracurricular commitments. They also educate high schoolers about the responsibilities and consequences related to drug and alcohol use, sex, driving and other risky behaviors.
At the university level, a multitude of counseling resources may be available to students. Therefore, the college counselor role usually is split into an array of careers with more specialized responsibilities. For example, a university career counselor will help students identify possible career paths, secure internships and prepare to enter the workforce. Meanwhile, a licensed mental health counselor working on the same college campus will help students address their mental and emotional well-being.
A professional school counselor typically works out of a private office. This enables them to host appointments and speak with students, staff and small groups in confidence. No matter which grade level a school counselor serves, they will not be working alone. Instead, they’ll work in tandem with teachers and school administrators as well as parents and guardians.
Salary potential and occupational outlook
The job outlook for guidance counselors and professional school counselors remains strong. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which categorizes school and career counselors in the same occupational grouping, the average salary for these professions was $56,310 in 2018. In dividing school counselors into four sections based on their annual earnings, U.S. News & World Report revealed that the lowest-paid group made $42,290 on average while the highest-paid group averaged $72,240 in 2017. School counselors typically earn more than child and family social workers but less than school psychologists.
Although pay varies based on experience, location and employer, the top-paying cities are scattered along the East Coast, according to U.S. News & World Report. In Nassau County, New York, Danbury, Connecticut, and Ocean City, New Jersey, professional school counselors are compensated upwards of $80,000 per year, on average.
There were approximately 324,500 school and career counselor jobs in 2018, according to the BLS. Of these, 44% existed within private or public schools at the elementary or secondary level; 35% worked in colleges, universities or professional schools. A small minority worked in health care or educational organizations; a few were self-employed.
Between 2018 and 2028, the BLS expects counseling professions to grow faster than average, at a rate of 8%. This means an estimated 27,200 new school and career counselor jobs are anticipated by 2028. The BLS has cited rising school enrollment as the primary reason for this increased demand, but a desire to lower the student-to-counselor ratio may also contribute. Although the ASCA recommends a ratio of 250 students to one counselor, the average student-to-counselor ratio was 422 to 1 in 2018. In 2019, U.S. News & World Report ranked professional school counseling at No. 6 on its “Best Social Services Jobs” list and No. 63 on its “100 Best Jobs” index.
Start your counseling career at Bradley University
To work as a professional school counselor, nearly every U.S. state will require that you hold a graduate-level degree such as a Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) — ideally with an emphasis in school counseling — along with a state-approved license. You’ll need to complete a certain number of credit hours and supervised experience hours, complete a master’s degree program at an accredited university and pass an examination to earn your school counselor license.
Some states and school districts will ask that you also hold a teaching certificate or one to two years of in-class teaching experience if you want to become a professional school counselor. This makes the profession a great next step for current school teachers.
Whether you’re a recent graduate, a current teacher or school administrator, or an experienced professional seeking a career change, Bradley University’s online MAC program may be right for you. The Professional School Counseling (PSC) specialization at Bradley equips future professionals with the theory and practical skills necessary to thrive in the workplace — and to help students thrive at school. Plus, the online graduate-level curriculum is designed to help you achieve licensure eligibility while balancing other professional obligations.
Contact an enrollment advisor at Bradley University to learn more about the MAC program today.