Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors, also called addiction counselors, support clients struggling with alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, and other addictions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that all 50 states require full licensure for counselors in private practice, including substance abuse and behavioral disorder specialists. The requirements for substance abuse counselors outside of private practice vary by state. Some states require a college degree and/or a passing score on an addiction counselor certification or licensing exam.

An online substance abuse counseling degree helps students develop the foundational knowledge and skills needed to enter the workforce. The best online programs also prepare prospective counselors to tackle the licensure requirements in their state, including the licensing exam. The web-based format is ideal for students who must balance schoolwork with other commitments, such as employment or childcare.

Learn about what to expect and what you can do with a bachelor’s degree in addiction counseling online with this comprehensive guide.

Will an Online Substance Abuse Counseling Program Provide Me With the Skills I Need to Advance My Career?

A bachelor’s degree is the first step toward a successful career in substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling. Students learn about the psychological impulses behind addiction, as well as different techniques for administering client therapy. Most colleges and universities tailor online bachelor’s programs to state licensure requirements, and many programs include internships to help students meet state clinical requirements. According to the BLS, state clinical requirements range between 2,000 and 4,000 supervised hours.

Will an Online Substance Abuse Counseling Program Work With My Schedule?

Online bachelor’s programs offer a flexible alternative to traditional, on-campus education. Most programs offer asynchronous coursework, allowing students to submit assignments and take exams at their convenience. Technology also enables students to study anywhere that has Wi-Fi capabilities. Substance abuse counseling programs usually allow online students to coordinate clinical internships and practicum courses at sites near their residence.

What Jobs Can I Get With My Substance Abuse Counseling Degree?

Graduates with a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse counseling and a state-issued license can provide services in private practice. These candidates are also prepared for positions in outpatient centers, addiction rehabilitation facilities, and other healthcare establishments. Many substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors eventually pursue a master’s degree to expand employment opportunities.

What are the Best Online Substance Abuse Counseling Programs?

Below, we ranked the top bachelor’s in substance abuse counseling programs in the country. If you are considering an online bachelor’s in substance abuse counseling, be sure to review these top schools.

Rank School Description Toggle
1 Washburn University Topeka, KS

Misericordia offers its Addictions Counseling Certificate program entirely online. Those who intend to terminate their studies with the completion of this certificate have the option of replacing the field practicum with another 3-credit course. This program prepares students for the Certified Addiction Counseling (CAC) exam process. Applicants who reside in Pennsylvania should keep in mind that the minimum education requirements for state certification include a bachelor's degree.

Students attending online classes use the popular Blackboard learning management system to access digital course materials, discuss class topics on message boards and join interactive web conferences. Students use the e-MU system to access additional remote services, like campus announcements, grades, complimentary software and course calendars.

2 Misericordia University Dallas, PA Cost: $$$$$

Prospective UC students may enroll in the Substance Abuse Counseling certificate program if they are currently pursuing or have completed a bachelor's degree. The courses for this certificate program are provided exclusively in an online format. While program graduates will meet the academic requirements of state licensure, they must also complete practice hours in the field to be eligible to take the exam in Ohio.

Online students sign onto the widespread Blackboard platform to access a virtual learning environment complete with features like multimedia web conferences, shared academic files and discussion boards. Distance learners can get technical support seven days a week by emailing or calling 513-556-HELP. Online students can also take advantage of other digital resources, including personal web hosting, online journal databases and webmail.

3 University of Great Falls Great Falls, MT Cost: $$$$$

The Associate of Science in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling at National University blends an entirely online curriculum with a seven month campus-based practicum experience. Both the certificate and associate degree programs meet the basic requirements in all 50 states, as well as 72 countries for drug and alcohol counselor certification.

Students must take two prerequisite courses in psychology or sociology before they can move onto the nine required courses for this major. Undergraduates are expected to follow the standards of practice and ethics set forth in the counseling curriculum.

Each online course runs for one month at a time. Distance learners use the Blackboard Learn digital classroom to read academic texts, chat with classmates and submit their assignments to instructors. Courses are delivered asynchronously, so that students have the flexibility to sign on and participate 24/7.

4 Community College of Vermont Winooski, VT

The online Associate Degree in Addictions Counseling offered by the University of Great Falls is designed to meet Montana state licensure requirements. Through this program, students explore coursework on human services, pharmacology, and counseling. Prospective students must be able to present completion of a high school diploma or GED to be considered for this program.

Synchronous class lectures and discussions are hosted through the Microsoft Lync system, a highly interactive platform where students can follow along with presentation slides, streaming video of speakers, and even whiteboard alterations. Asynchronous coursework is delivered through the Moodle course management system, which supports students and instructor communications through webmail, chat, and discussion boards.

5 Tompkins Cortland Community College Dryden, NY

This two-year college provides students with an opportunity to earn an Associate of Applied Science in Addictions and Prevention Studies completely online. The program is designed so that students can easily transition into a bachelor's program at a Kansas state academic institution upon graduation. To qualify for admission, applicants must submit their high school or GED transcripts, along with test scores such as the ACT, SAT or COMPASS.

Distance learners log into the Blackboard system to access online classes, discuss course materials via chat and electronically submit assignments. Students can sign on at their convenience, as courses are delivered on an asynchronous schedule. Technical support can be reached by emailing

6 Vincennes University Vincennes, IN

Great Basin College's hybrid Certificate of Achievement in Substance Abuse Counselor Training blends several learning formats, including online, independent study and interactive video. Students must maintain a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.0 during their studies to earn the certificate. Prerequisite course topics include English, math and human relations. The entire program can be completed within a single year of study.

The Great Basin College WebCampus is powered by the Canvas learning management system, a versatile platform compatible with Macs, PCs and mobile devices. Through Canvas, students can access shared cloud documents, assemble ePortfolios, take quizzes and connect to synchronous web conferences. Students take interactive video courses in groups on campus or at satellite locations.

7 Mohave Community College Kingman, AZ

Washburn University's Addiction Counseling Certificate can be earned online with the completion of an internship in a student's area of residence. The curriculum is based on the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) standards. Students are familiarized with professional competencies as defined by the Technical Assistance Publications (TAP) 21.

Online courses at Washburn U are delivered through the Desire2Learn platform, a robust system where students can take quizzes, share academic materials, submit assignments and participate in threaded discussions. The webmail and course calendar systems are driven by Microsoft Office 365. The Information Technology Services department provides online students with assistance seven days a week through a hotline that can be reached at (785) 670-3000.

8 National University La Jolla, CA Cost: $$$$$

The certificate and Associate of Applied Science (AAS) programs in Chemical Dependency Counseling can both be earned in a blended format or 100% online at TCCC. The AAS can be completed within four semesters, while the certificate requires just two semesters. Students may also pursue re-credentialing through these programs. It is important to note that a full year of supervised field experience is required for both options.

Online learners use the Blackboard platform to read academic materials, connect with their classmates and instructors through discussion boards and view presentation slides from lectures. Courses are delivered asynchronously, allowing students to participate 24/7.

9 Great Basin College Elko, NV

Undergraduates can earn a certificate or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Addictions and Substance Use Disorders entirely online at Rio Salado College. Those wanting additional professional development can explore three certificate levels, designed to expand counseling skill sets. Generally, applicants should have a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.0 to be considered for these programs.

Rio Salado has a host of 24/7 resources for online students, including helpdesk support, remote tutoring and a digital library. Distance learners sign into the RioLearn system to access these services, along with course materials, assignments and educational software. Students can reach instructional technicians by phone or by signing onto a live chat session between 9am and 5pm daily.

10 Allen County Community College Iola, KS Cost: $$$$$

The Associate of Applied Science in Chemical Dependency program can be completed online through both synchronous and asynchronous learning modules. Additionally, students must participate in a field experience at a health care institution. Prerequisite course subjects include critical thinking, technology and communications. Mohave has partnered with 19 other Arizona-based colleges and universities to create online associate programs that seamlessly transfer into four-year degree programs. A minimum cumulative GPA of 2.0 in all courses is required to graduate.

Online learners sign into the ANGEL learning management suite to rent digital textbooks, read their course syllabi, turn in homework assignments and contribute to classroom discussions. The Mohave helpdesk is available via email ( or phone (866-664-2832) to assist distance learners with technical issues. Students should expect to spend 6-9 hours a week studying for each digital course.

This Certificate in Substance Abuse Services can be earned through the completion of nine fully online courses and a fieldwork study experience. The program takes approximately 12 months to complete. Students should note that the state of Vermont requires additional academic credentials beyond this undergraduate program to fulfill its certification requirements.

The Center for Online Learning manages their digital courses through Moodle, a system that features learning tools like shared classroom files, interactive wiki pages, surveys, quizzes and workshops. Prospective students are invited to try out the Moodle system with an online demo course. Distance learners have two technical support avenues to use when they need assistance: the Vermont State Colleges Help Desk at (802) 828-2810 or the online Moodle Medic.

Rank School Cost Graduation Rate Description Toggle
1 Indiana Wesleyan University-Marion Marion, IN Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 70%

Indiana Wesleyan, an evangelical Christian university of the Wesleyan Church, is the biggest private college in Indiana and the largest member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The 350-acre campus in Marion is home to 3,000 students; an additional 10,000 adult learners attend classes at satellites in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and in virtual classrooms. IWU offers more than 80 undergraduate degree programs, including a bachelors in substance abuse counseling online.

IWU’s Bachelors of Science in addictions counseling explores substance abuse issues from a Christian perspective. The cohort-based degree is offered completely through the web, with a 350-hour, in-person practicum at an agreed-upon location. The curriculum delves into theory, physiology, pharmacology, personality types, dysfunctional families, and the best practices to deal with the growing problem of addiction. The degree can be earned in 22 months. Graduates meet the licensure requirements in most states. Five start dates are available for added flexibility. The school’s Off Campus Library Service is available to assist online learners.

2 University of Cincinnati-Main Campus Cincinnati, OH Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 62%

UC, one of the country’s leading research institutions, sits in Ohio’s third-largest city on a campus nationally recognized for its beauty. The school has a student population of 44,000. UC has a virtual campus where students can pursue more than 75 degrees and certificates, from the associate’s to the masters’ level. The bachelor’s in substance abuse counseling is offered by the university’s college of education, criminal justice and human services.

The addiction counseling degree online prepares students to become practicing clinicians in the field of chemical dependency treatment and prevention. Students can choose to concentrate in several areas, like child abuse, or another human-service field. Classes are designed to simulate clinical settings. The Blackboard platform is used to deliver curriculum materials in an asynchronous format. Even though UC’s distance learners are commonly part-time, they complete their degrees at a rate comparable to full-time on-campus students. Graduates meet the coursework requirements for licensure in Ohio; other states may differ. UC provides an array of support services to distance students, including OhioLink Library Resources, exam proctoring, and tutoring.

3 Northwestern State University of Louisiana Natchitoches, LA Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 36%

NSU, located in Natchitoches, was founded in 1884 as the state of Louisiana’s normal school. It’s a comprehensive public university with 9,000 students, the majority of whom are undergraduates. In addition to the main campus, the school has satellite facilities in Alexandria, Fort Polk, Shreveport, and online. NSU’s web arm, eNSU, has been offering web-based learning longer than any other college in the state and has the most options: 39 degree programs. These include a substance abuse counselor degree online.

ENSU’s bachelor of science in psychology with a concentration in substance abuse is a 120-credit program that explores human behavior, addictive personalities, and modern advances in the field of substance abuse treatment. The curriculum features classes like family dynamics, pharmacology of addiction, and group counseling. The program has been nationally ranked for both affordability and quality; online students pay in-state tuition. ENSU hosts a variety of support services for online learners including a Student Help Desk, advising, and tutoring.

4 City Vision University Kansas City, MO Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 50%

City Vision is a fully-accredited university with the mission of providing “radically affordable Christian education.” The school is based in Kansas City, Missouri, and was established in 1998 by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions. It offers web-based business administration, nonprofit management, technology ministry, and urban missions programs, along with an online substance abuse counseling degree.

The bachelors in addiction studies was developed in collaboration with the NET Institute, a national center for addiction and recovery education. It takes students through the twelve core functions of substance abuse counselors, from screening to aftercare. Designed to prepare graduates for licensure exams, the 120-credit curriculum explores crisis intervention, group therapy, counseling skills, and issues related to addiction, like family dynamics and mental illness. Up to 90 credits can be transferred from accredited programs. City Vision claims its tuition is cheaper than 95 percent of nonprofit, private colleges.

5 Ohio Christian University Circleville, OH Cost: $$$$$ Graduation Rate: 36%

Ohio Christian, based in Circleville, Ohio, was founded shortly after World War II as Circleville Bible College with the goal of educating ministers for the Churches of Christ in Christian Union. It has grown since, adding degrees in business, government, human services, and psychology, and adding online programs. More than 500 students live on the school’s campus, and another 4,000 are enrolled at satellites in Ohio, Georgia, and online.

Ohio Christian’s substance abuse counselor degree online is designed for adults and delivered with a Christian worldview. The BA in substance abuse counseling is a 120-credit program divided into three sections: general education (36 credits), electives (36 credits), and program requirements (48 credits). This includes courses like christian excellence and spiritual dimensions of illness and recovery. Classes are asynchronous, cohort-based, and offered sequentially. With a student-to-faculty ratio of 10:1, students are able to work closely with classmates and teachers. Students can earn credits through a prior learning assessment. The OCU Discovery Service allows online students to explore and access the library online. The school is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Timeline 4-5 years
Program Costs $10,000-$20,000 for annual tuition
Popular Minors and Dual Areas of Study Psychology, family and marriage counseling, community counseling, youth counseling, social work, child and family studies, human development and family studies, health services administration
Accreditation American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation (APA-CoA); Council on Rehabilitation Education Commission on Standards and Accreditation

Curriculum for an Online Bachelor's in Substance Abuse Counseling

Course requirements for an online addiction counseling degree differ by school, but all programs provide students with training in behavioral theory, psychopathology, pharmacology, and the clinical applications needed to provide counseling services. This list provides examples of common undergraduate courses offered in substance abuse programs.

Foundations of Addiction and Substance Use Disorders

This course provides students with foundational knowledge about the causes and treatment of addiction. Major themes include the stages, processes, and impact of addiction and substance use, and the role of the addiction counselor in prevention, intervention, and aftercare. The course also introduces future practitioners to the substance abuse counselors' code of ethics and legal issues affecting the profession.

The Physiology and Pharmacology of Substance Use

This course examines the neurochemical aspects of addiction and substance abuse with applications for clinical practice, diagnosis, and treatment. Students learn to recognize the effects of psychopharmaceutical chemicals, such as opiates and stimulants, on mood, sensation, cognition, and behavior.

Process Addictions

Students in this course learn about non-pharmacological process addictions, including compulsive behaviors such as gambling, video gaming, and sexual and eating disorders. Students study advanced counseling applications and best practices for screening, assessing, preventing, and treating these behavioral disorders.

Legal and Ethical Issues in Addiction and Substance Use Counseling

This course provides an overview of the professional responsibilities of counselors treating addiction and substance use disorders. The course covers ethical guidelines, legal standards, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and the federal Privacy Rule. Students also study burnout and compassion fatigue prevention, the importance of professional supervision and consultation, and licensure and certification processes.

Counseling in a Diverse Society

Students study cultural competency principles and how cultural components impact the development and implementation of individualized counseling approaches and treatment plans. This course focuses on values and belief systems; socioeconomic characteristics; and differences in drug use, abuse, and treatment among diverse populations.

How Long Does It Take to Get an Online Bachelor's in Substance Abuse Counseling?

Most online bachelor's degrees in substance abuse counseling are earned in four years of full-time enrollment, although some schools offer accelerated programs that may be completed in 18-24 months. Most undergraduate programs require students to complete between 120-140 credits, including general education requirements, core courses in the major, and electives.

Several factors determine the time to completion, including the program's graduation requirements and whether a student studies full time or part time. Internship or practicum requirements may extend the time to completion. Online learning formats also affect degree completion rates. Individually paced programs allow students to take courses at their own pace while cohort programs require students to study at the same pace as their peers.

Prospective students should always consider accreditation status when comparing schools. Vocational, technical, and for-profit schools typically receive national accreditation. Four-year, degree-granting institutions commonly hold regional accreditation.

National and regional accreditation indicate high academic standards and impact how employers, licensing boards, financial aid agencies, and graduate schools view the validity of a degree. Colleges and universities receive national or regional accreditation from independent regulatory accreditation agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The accreditation process considers many variables, including curriculum quality, faculty reputation, student services, and financial stability. Prospective students can find current directories of all accredited schools on the ED and CHEA websites.

Programs within schools may acquire specialized accreditation, certifying high standards in curriculum, teaching, and research. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs administers programmatic accreditation to graduate counseling programs. The American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation awards specialized accreditation for master's and doctoral clinical psychology and counseling programs. Currently, no U.S. addiction counseling bachelor's programs hold programmatic accreditation.

Job Placement

The career outlook for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is promising. An industry profile by U.S. News & World Report noted that the unemployment rate for counselors in this field is 3.1%; the national unemployment rate is 3.9%. The BLS projects positions in substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling to grow 23% through 2026, leading to roughly 60,300 new jobs nationwide.

The growth rate is comparable to projections for other counseling fields. Using BLS data, the table below compares the industry outlook for four counseling professions.

Profession Projected Growth Rate (2016-26) Projected Job Increase (2016-26)
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors 23% 60,300
School and Career Counselors 13% 36,700
Marriage and Family Therapists 23% 9,700
Rehabilitation Counselors 13% 15,100

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The BLS projects community and social service occupations, which includes counseling, to grow 14% through 2026.

Earning a Living

According to the BLS, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors earn a median annual income of $43,300 per year; this salary equates to an hourly wage of $20.82. However, the salary for an addiction counselor increases with experience. The next table features the average salary for substance abuse counselors at four career benchmarks.

Career Stage Average Annual Salary
Entry-Level (0-5 Years) $34,000
Mid-Career (5-10 Years) $38,000
Experienced (10-20 Years) $41,000
Late-Career (20+ Years) $44,000

Source: PayScale

Substance abuse counselors increase their annual earnings by roughly 29% between the entry-level and late-career stages. PayScale also notes that average earnings for substance abuse counselors are on par with salaries for similar occupations, such as mental health counselors and licensed clinical counselors.

Career Opportunities

Students with a bachelor's degree in substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling and a state-issued license are qualified for a variety of jobs in counseling. Below, are four common positions for substance abuse counseling graduates.

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

These counselors work with clients who are battling addiction at any stage. They often focus on psychological and emotional issues that trigger addictive behaviors. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors may deliver therapy in one-on-one, couple, family, or group settings.

Marriage and Family Therapists

Marriage and family therapists typically address the same mental health issues from a family perspective. These professionals typically specialize in cognitive therapy, which enables patients to understand destructive tendencies and replace them with more positive, goal-oriented habits and routines. This profession commonly requires a master's degree.

School and Career Counselors

These counselors work with all grade levels in public and private schools across the United States. Elementary school counselors generally focus on identifying behavioral problems, learning disorders, and other issues that negatively impact a student's growth and academic progress. In middle and high schools, counselors support students with emotional issues while providing guidance on college, employment, and other post-diploma pathways for high school graduates. This career requires master's degree.

Rehabilitation Counselors

These counselors primarily offer services to patients with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. They evaluate clients' abilities and help them secure employment, prepare for college, and perform other tasks associated with independent living. Rehabilitation counselors also maintain active client files to track progress and pinpoint areas for improvement. Many employers require a master's degree.

Profession Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate (2016-26) Minimum Educational Attainment Licensure Requirements
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors $43,300 23% Bachelor's degree For private practice, counselors must log 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical training and pass a state-issued licensing exam. Annual continuing education courses are also required.
Marriage and Family Therapists $48,790 23% Master's degree For private practice, counselors must log 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised post-degree training and pass a state-issued licensing exam. Annual continuing education courses are also required.
School and Career Counselors $55,410 13% Master's degree For public school employment, counselors must receive state-issued certification. Some states also require one-two years of classroom experience and/or a teaching license.
Rehabilitation Counselors $34,860 13% Master's degree Rehabilitation counselors must log 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised post-degree training and pass a state-issued licensing exam. Annual continuing education courses are also required.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Professional Organizations

Professional organizations offer counseling students networking, career advancement, and learning opportunities. The following organizations host networking events, provide online trainings, maintain active job boards, and offer other services for students and graduates.

Students enjoy a variety of financial aid opportunities to help pay for their degree. Students should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to learn about their eligibility for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. Students should also explore grants and scholarships offered by nonprofit organizations, companies, and other sources.


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Rankings Archive

Best Online Substance Abuse Counseling Programs of 2016
Rank School Location
1 Stanford University Stanford, CA
2 Columbia University in the City of New York New York, NY
3 University of Michigan - Ann Arbor Ann Arbor, MI
4 University of Florida Gainesville, FL
5 University of Virginia Charlottesville, VA
6 John Hopkins University Baltimore, MD
7 Georgia Tech Atlanta, GA
8 Lehigh University Bethlehem, PA
9 North Carolina State University Raleigh, NC
10 Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh, PA
11 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Champaign, IL
12 Clemson University Clemson, SC
13 University of California - Los Angeles Los Angeles, CA
14 Texas A&M University College Station, TX
15 Villanova University Villanove, PA
16 Virginia Tech Blacksburg, VA
17 University of Maryland - College Park College Park, MD
18 Worcester Polytechnic Institute Worcester, MA
19 University of Wisconsin - Madison Madison, WI
20 Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago, IL
21 Purdue University West Lafayette, IN
22 Case Western Reserve University Cleveland, OH
23 University of Minnesota - Twin Cities Minneapolis, MN
24 Naval Postgraduate School Monterey, CA
25 New Jersey Institute of Technology Newark, NJ