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.
With an associate's degree you can begin working in the field much faster, and because licensing also requires between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience you will be able to log credit hours while you work. In addition, depending on the regulations of your state the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC) may count your associate's degree as the equivalent of 1,000 hours of work experience credit towards your licensure.
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?
Your Associate's degree will cover the basics of counseling as part of addiction treatment and treating patients. You'll learn the causes of addiction, treatment options, 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:
While substance abuse counseling most often deals with alcoholism and drug addiction it can also envelop eating disorders, gambling, and other mental health issues. Counselors provide support and treatment options to help their clients overcome addiction or problematic behaviors.
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:
Besides being people-oriented substance abuse counselors must have a specific skill set in regars to their office work. The ideal 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:
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.
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 jobs. The highest levels of employment are found in the following industries:
Demand for substance abuse counselors 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.
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:
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:
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.
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 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:
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 work 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 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 or master's 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.