Substance abuse counseling is a growing field throughout the country so it's an excellent job choice if you wish to help others and make an impact on addiction. Because all states require licensed counselors working in the private practice sector to hold at least a master's degree many who choose this field don't realize the value of an associate's degree in substance abuse counseling.

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If your state doesn't require a degree to become an addiction counselor you'll still need to show counseling and addiction related coursework for most entry level positions. An Associate's degree can be the perfect platform to launch your counseling career because it gives you the option of attending community or online college at a lower cost than a four-year university.

What is an Associate’s in Substance Abuse Counseling?


In about two years, your Associate's degree will cover the basics of behavioral health counseling as part of addiction treatment and treating patients. You'll learn the causes of addiction, treatment plans, and substance use and behavioral issues as well as how to counsel family members. You'll also learn the ethics and laws of counseling, prevention methods, and behavioral science in regards to addiction susceptibility. Upon graduation you'll be eligible for entry level positions such as:

  • Administration in halfway houses
  • Human service assistant
  • Counselor for adolescents
  • Substance abuse counselor

While substance abuse counseling most often deals with substance use alcoholism and drug addiction, it can also envelop eating disorders, gambling, and other mental illness. Substance abuse counselors work to provide support and treatment options to help their clients overcome addiction or problematic behaviors.

Ideal Candidate

Substance abuse counseling is a high stress occupation and it's important that your personality is a good fit for the field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the ideal substance abuse counselor candidate has the following attributes:

  • To be a substance abuse counselor, you must be compassionate. Counselors work with clients who are trying to deal with difficult and stressful life situations and mental illness and must be able to empathize with people.
  • To be a substance abuse counselor, you must be good listener. A counselor must be able to listen carefully and understand clients' values and problems.
  • To be a substance abuse counselor, you must have interpersonal skills are a must because counselors must work with people from all walks of life. The ideal candidate must be able to nurture and develop good relationships with others.
  • To be a substance abuse counselor, you must be a good speaker. A substance abuse counselor must be able to speak clearly and communicate effectively so their clients can understand the ideas and information given.
  • To become a substance abuse counselor, you must have patience. Above all, a counselor must have patience and the ability to remain calm even when their client is angry or upset.

Besides being people-oriented, substance abuse counselors must have a specific skill set in regars to their office work. The ideal social work candidate must be able to organize, plan, and prioritize their work in order to effectively maintain their client caseload. Here are some skills you'll need to perform the job:

  • Obtaining information: receiving, observing, and researching to get all relevant facts and details of a case.
  • Documentation: transcribing, entering, and maintaining all information about each client.

In addition, you'll need a wide range of technology skills such as how to use database informational software, Email software, medical software systems, office suite software, and spreadsheet software.

Career Outlook

The career outlook for substance abuse counselors is excellent. The BLS reports job growth between now and 2026 is projected at 23 percent, which is much higher than the national average for all substance abuse counselor jobs. The highest levels of employment are found in the following industries:

  • Outpatient care centers
  • Residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health, and substance abuse Facilities
  • Individual and family services
  • Local government (OES designation)
  • General medical and surgical hospitals

Demand for substance abuse counselors and social work is high for a wide range of reasons. The stigma of addiction is lower than in past years and there is also a trend of treatment instead of incarceration for addiction-related crimes. Substance abuse counseling is also being used to reduce recidivism rates and is growing in popularity as a treatment option for military veterans returning from deployment assignments. In addition, as the baby boomer generation ages the need is rising for more substance abuse treatment for that demographic.

Salary Expectations


In 2017 the median pay for substance abuse counselors was $43,300 per year. The lowest 10 percent, which typically reflects those with lower degrees, was $27,310 so that is a reasonable expectation for an entry level position with an Associate's degree. Keep in mind that the highest 10 percent in this career field earned over $70,000 so you can look at higher wages as an incentive to continue your education while you work. The top paying industries for substance abuse counselors in 2017 were:

  • Government
  • Hospitals: state, local, and private
  • Individual and family services
  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers
  • Nursing and residential care facilities

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The state or region in which you reside also plays a part in salary expectations. Here are the median incomes for the top paying states for substance abuse counselors:

  • New Mexico
  • Alaska
  • North Dakota
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • $59,090
  • $54,280
  • $53,680
  • $53,490
  • $50,350

While there is great need for substance abuse counselors in rural areas, the salary may be lower. When considering your location of practice you should remember to take into consideration the cost of living for specific areas to get a more concise look at your prospective salary in relation to the cost of housing and other living expenses.

School Curriculum


When enrolling in an associate degree program for substance abuse counseling it's important that you look at your long-term goals. If you plan to eventually earn your bachelor's degree and master's degree you should make sure your associate program encompasses the core classes you'll need for your graduate program. You should also ensure all coursework is transferable to a higher degree.

Your degree track will be either an Associate of Arts (A.A.) an Associate of Science (A.S.) or an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.). Take a close look at each program offered and how it articulates into a higher degree to make the most of your Associate's degree program. Besides your core classes in English and Mathematics your topics will most likely include:

  • Theories of Counseling
  • Case Management
  • Family and Group Counseling
  • Multicultural Counseling
  • Adolescent counseling
  • Psychology
  • Abnormal psychology
  • Crisis intervention
  • Communication
  • Pharmacology

Because the position relies heavily on computer technology for record keeping you should include this factor when choosing your coursework.

Choosing the Right School/Program


As previously stated, you should look at the big picture when choosing a school for your associate's degree in substance abuse. Check the state certification requirements for counselors and the transfer requirements for graduate degrees. If your school of choice has a clinical experience requirement make sure it meets the criteria for work experience under your state certification or licensure requirements.

Because all states require a master's degree for certification to work in private practice you should look for a school that will segue smoothly into that degree as a long-term goal. Once you have reached the second year of your Associate's program you'll have a clearer idea of career goals and will most likely know exactly where you'd like to specialize in the substance abuse counseling, drug counselor, or related field.



Just because a school claims to be accredited doesn't mean it is. A school that is not accredited cannot take part in federal programs and this can make a big impact on your financial situation in regards to state and federal grants.

Some "diploma mills" mislead prospective students with meaningless accreditation claims so you should research your school of choice in advance. Check accreditation claims with the U.S. Department of Education to make sure the school is properly accredited before you enroll in your program of choice.

Accreditation for associate's degrees in substance abuse are on a regional basis so you should make sure your school of choice meets these standards. While there are no national accreditation criteria for associates degrees there are for doctorates. The American Psychological Association (APA) accredits doctorate programs, so if you have a bachelor's degree or master's degree program in mind for your future education you should make sure your associate's program of choice meets the criteria for a graduate degree transfer. In addition, most states use the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) so you should strive to meet their standards for your state of residence.

The Directory of Addiction Study Programs has a comprehensive list of schools offering an associate, bachelor, master and doctoral program in substance disorders.

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