Earning an Online Addiction Counseling Bachelor’s Degree

Earning a substance abuse degree online prepares you for a career in helping people battle substance abuse and addiction, a national health crisis in the United States. Addiction counselors typically collaborate with doctors and other specialists to tailor treatment plans to meet each patient's needs. As addiction becomes a bigger societal issue, addicts increasingly attend counseling as an alternative to jail time. As a result, the demand for substance abuse counselors increases every year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects careers in this field to increase by 23% between 2016 and 2026. In most states, substance abuse counselors must hold at least an undergraduate degree.

Overview of Addiction Counseling Degrees

Substance abuse counselor degree programs online include classes in abnormal psychology, human development and cognition, addictions, and psychiatric disabilities. Students can pursue either a bachelor of arts (BA) or a bachelor of science (BS) in substance abuse counseling, depending on their intended career path. Typically, students looking to enter the medical field pursue a BS to focus on the physiological elements of addiction. Most students earn their online addiction bachelor’s degree within four years, though some distance learners choose to accelerate their education or complete their degree part-time.

Addiction counselors work with clients in all phases of addiction to create methods of coping with and ultimately overcoming addiction. Addiction counseling professionals work well with others and in high-pressure situations. After their bachelor's, substance abuse counselors often return to school to pursue further specialization in their field.

Application Process

Most states require substance abuse counselors to hold at least an undergraduate degree in counseling or a related field, such as psychology or behavioral studies. Applying to substance abuse counselor degrees online often requires a personal statement and letters of recommendation, preferably from teachers or supervisors. Many schools offer prompts for personal statements, but some applications allow candidates to choose their own essay topics, in which cases applicants might describe their character and reasons why they would succeed in an addiction counseling career. Students completing substance abuse degrees online may also have to watch a short orientation to the school's online learning platform.

Higher education institutions require applicants to provide transcripts from their previously attended schools. Graduating high school seniors may only provide their high school transcript. Students transferring to other colleges or universities should supply both their high school and college transcripts.

What Will I Learn?

Individuals pursuing a substance abuse counselor degree online must first complete general education credits in science, math, liberal arts, and social sciences. Curricula typically include detailed coursework in psychology, clinical counseling, addiction, ethics in clinical and social work, pharmacology, and psychopathology. Classes also cover the respective counseling methods required for patients of different age groups, from youth to geriatric patients. Some online degrees in substance abuse counseling feature practicums, courses which allow students to work alongside professional counselors in clinical facilities.

Most students complete their substance abuse degree programs online within four years. Substance abuse degrees typically comprise 120-133 credit hours. Online students may accelerate their degrees, completing these credits in two to three years. Many schools also offer part-time enrollment, through which students typically graduate in six to seven years.

Specific classes may vary by school, but most accredited programs implement the same core curriculum for substance abuse counseling students. The list below features common classes most students take when completing substance abuse counseling degrees online.

Case Management

Case management classes cover how counselors should assess client needs, create treatment systems, and assist patients in navigating the services they need for treatment. Some schools tailor these classes to teach basic counselor requirements as established by the Mental Health Services Administration.

Dynamics of Group Counseling

Coursework focuses on the different approaches counselors may take when working with groups of patients, as opposed to individual clients. Group dynamics may vary based on the level or type of substance abuse. Students learn to focus group goals and form relationships between group session members.

Foundations of Addiction

Students learn which psychological issues or environmental triggers are associated with addiction. In many cases, an individual’s environment and experiences help contribute to substance abuse. Learners examine these triggers and outline potential steps toward sobriety.

Behavioral Disorders

Addiction and substance abuse commonly coincide with behavioral disorders. Students learn to identify common behavior disorders and understand how they may relate to or trigger substance abuse. Classes cover treatment and counseling methods for patients suffering from these disorders.


This class explores how prescription and nonprescription drugs affect the mind and influence behavior. Students learn about drugs that treat addiction and other behavioral disorders. Coursework focuses on the makeup of and appropriate contexts for various prescriptions.

Working with Families/Alcohol & Drug Issues

Drug abuse often leads to family problems -- for example, children with addicted parents are more likely to abuse substances themselves. This course focuses on the best methods of treatment for families with one or more members who struggle with addiction.

What Can I Do with an Online Bachelor’s Degree in Addiction Counseling?

Most states require substance abuse counselors to hold at least a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse, behavioral sciences, psychology, or a related field. Earning an undergraduate degree prepares candidates for entry- and mid-level careers in addiction counseling. Students with degrees in fields unrelated to substance abuse counseling might obtain certification in the subject, instead.

Core Skills

Completing an online addiction counseling degree at the undergraduate level prepares you for an entry- or mid-level career in substance abuse counseling. These programs cover the basics of addiction and how to treat substance abuse, both medically and through counseling. Coursework also covers physiological triggers to addiction, such as brain chemistry and drug reactions within the body. Substance abuse is a deeply psychological and sensitive disorder, requiring counselors to undergo extensive training through both book learning and experience. Many online addiction counseling degrees also require students to complete internships and practicums by working with local practicing counselors. These clinical hours demonstrate that students have the skills to work directly with patients.

The below examples describe potential careers for graduates with their bachelor’s in addiction counseling. Those pursuing specialized or advanced careers in the field may seek specialized certifications or an advanced degree in substance abuse counseling.

Potential Careers & Salaries

Individuals who have earned their degrees in substance abuse counseling may find employment in rehabilitation centers, treatment facilities, community outreach centers, hospitals, or clinics. According to the BLS, many addiction counselors work in nursing, residential care facilities, and various outpatient care centers. Counselors with specialized training and certification in crisis intervention may work with law enforcement agencies. Some may concentrate their careers in working with adolescents or individuals with disabilities. These professionals may find employment in schools or as in-home caregivers.

Continuing your education can increase your earning potential and open doors to more advanced career opportunities and leadership roles. Still, graduates with only an undergraduate degree in substance abuse counseling may qualify for the career examples below. Certification and degree requirements may vary between states.

Career Profiles

Substance Abuse Counselor

Annual Median Salary: $43,300

These counselors work with and advise people who suffer from substance abuse and behavioral disorders. Patients often struggle with drug addiction and alcoholism. Counselors collaborate with patients to create treatment plans.

Addiction Counselor

Annual Median Salary: $43,300

Like substance abuse counselors, addiction counselors work directly with patients suffering from behavioral disorders or substance abuse. These counselors may also treat patients with eating disorders or other compulsive behavioral issues.

Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist

Annual Median Salary: $37,702

Substance abuse prevention specialists work to stop addiction in at-risk patients before it begins. These professionals work to prevent addictions to all forms of substances, including alcohol, nicotine, and illicit and prescription drugs. Specialists typically work in areas deemed at-risk based on environmental surveys and rates of incarceration.

Treatment Counselor

Annual Median Salary: $39,998

Similar to substance abuse counselors, these professionals focus primarily on the treatment rather than the cause of addiction. These counselors work directly with patients diagnosed with addiction or another behavioral disorders to form step-by-step treatment plans. These treatments may be counseling-based or pharmacologically based.

Mental Health Clinician

Annual Median Salary: $45,324

Mental health clinicians work with patients in individual or group settings to promote optimum mental health. These counselors often help patients cope with behavioral disorders and addiction. They also are trained to assist patients with an array of mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, stress, and interpersonal relationship problems.

Will I Need a Graduate Degree for a Career in Addiction Counseling?

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in substance abuse counseling or behavioral disorders prepares graduates for most entry- and mid-level careers in the field. To enter more advanced positions and leadership roles, some individuals may need to earn a master’s degree in substance abuse or counseling. For example, to become a clinical substance abuse counselor, many states require individuals to earn a master's degree in a related field. Students pursuing their graduate degrees often gain more specialized skills, as well, earning more leverage in the job market.

Obtaining further education may help you advance your career more quickly, but you may also use work experience to move up the ladder. Many professionals work their way into leadership positions through prior experience, without having to earn a higher-level degree.

Accreditation for Addiction Counseling Bachelor’s Programs

In choosing any degree, prospective students should make sure their school of choice holds proper accreditation. Accreditation verifies that an institution meets a certain standard of education, adequately preparing all graduates prepared for careers in their chosen fields. Three main forms of accreditation exist: national, regional, and programmatic.

National accrediting bodies focus primarily on technical and vocational schools. Regional accreditation, often considered more prestigious, comes from six major accrediting agencies, each of which awards accreditation in its specific geographic region. Regional accreditation is the most widely recognized by employers and other accredited institutions. Programmatic accreditation applies to specific departments, degrees, and schools within larger universities. This accreditation usually only applies to programs in schools with regional accreditation.

Addiction Counseling Professional Organizations

Professional organizations offer students, recent graduates, and professionals opportunities to remain active in their communities and learn more about their fields. Students earning their substance abuse counselor degrees online may join professional organizations for networking events, job postings, and continued education opportunities. These groups also provide access to networks of like-minded professionals with similar career aspirations.

American Counseling Association
ACA includes members from various fields under the larger umbrella of counseling. Members can access an online job board and continuing education opportunities, including classes and seminars. ACA also manages online journals such as Counseling Today and The Journal of Counseling and Development.

NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals
With more than 100,000 members, NAADAC represents one of the largest organizations for addiction professionals and counselors. Members can access professional development opportunities, continued education seminars, and networking events. NAADAC also offers counseling certification programs to members looking to advance their careers.

Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network
ATTC brings addiction counselors, treatment facilities, and communities together to fund further research opportunities. Members of ATTC can attend sponsored training events, and the organization encourages members to share their research with their peers and local community groups.