School Counselor vs. School Social Worker

If you have a desire to make a positive impact on the lives of children and their families, the role of either school counselor or school social worker may be an ideal career choice. Both support positions require a person with unique qualities such as analytical, interpersonal and listening skills, along with a healthy dose of compassion.

While there are overlaps between the job responsibilities for both careers, differences exist. To help you select the best career path between a school counselor and school social worker, we offer a closer look at education and licensure requirements, salaries and job descriptions for both.

What Is the Role of a School Counselor?

A school counselor’s main goal is to help students succeed in school through the development of academic and social skills. However, because a school counselor works in partnership with teachers, families and other professional staff, they often wear many hats.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, typical job duties for a school or career counselor may involve:

  • Initiating data assessment and interpretation.
  • Engaging in individual academic and career goal planning.
  • Identifying issues that affect school performance.
  • Guiding the development of organizational and time-management skills.
  • Promoting a safe school environment.
  • Identifying outside resources for additional support.

By no means is this list exhaustive, and responsibilities may differ according to school and individual needs. The specific duties can further vary based on the age groups of children.

What Are the Responsibilities of a School Social Worker?

Usually employed with a school district or an agency that provides services to a school district, a school social worker helps students, families and teachers address issues that affect a student’s emotional well-being and academic performance.

According to the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA), responsibilities for a school social worker may include:

  • Providing training for teachers and parents.
  • Assessing students for any number of issues, such as substance abuse.
  • Developing and implementing treatment plans.
  • Conducting biopsychosocial evaluations.
  • Providing crisis management.
  • Conducting home visits.
  • Supporting a multidisciplinary treatment team.

Akin to the job functions of a school counselor, those of a school social worker are many and vary according to the specific needs of the school and individual.

Differences in Education Between School Social Worker and School Counselor

School social worker

Although degree requirements vary from state to state, if you are interested in the position of a school social worker, you should expect to need a master’s in social work (MSW) degree. To receive a license, a student must attend a program accredited through the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

The most common undergraduate degree for this career path is a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). However, many students earn a baccalaureate degree in a related field before they obtain a Master of Social Work (MSW). Both programs are available in on-campus and online formats.

Students should look for coursework that incorporates multiple disciplines. For undergraduates, that may include anthropology, communication and philosophy. MSW students who study through one of the many CSWE-accredited programs are required to complete the following courses:

  • Human behavior and the social environment
  • Social welfare policies and services
  • Social work practice
  • Research
  • Field education

The latter represents a practicum or internship — a specified number of fieldwork hours that must be completed by the student. The number of hours the student must spend working with the public can range from several hundred to a few thousand.

School counselor

Similar to that of a school social worker, the position of a school counselor requires an advanced degree. Undergraduate degrees in related fields such as counseling, education or psychology can lay the groundwork for a master’s degree in school counseling.

The school you choose for your degree should fall under one of two accreditation councils, the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC). Typical coursework you will find in a recognized program includes:

  • Counseling theories
  • Human development
  • Testing and appraisal
  • Learning and behavioral disorders

A master’s degree in school counseling also requires an internship or practicum under the guidance of a certified/licensed counselor. This fieldwork can vary in the number of hours from 100 to 800.

State Certification Requirements for a School Counselor vs. School Social Worker

In addition to a master’s degree, school counseling students will need to obtain either licensure or certification. It is important to note that state requirements for school counselors vary and may include board exams, a history of full-time teaching or proof of professional educator certification. Because of such variation, you must check with your state’s education department for current requirements.

Several professional organizations, including the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), offer secondary certifications that cover an array of subjects. Furthermore, continuing education credits are required for school counselors to maintain certification/licensure.

As the state certification requirements vary for a school counselor, they differ for licensure as a school social worker and may involve exams or a period of supervised experience. An advanced license, while not necessary for all positions in social work, offers the student the opportunity to work directly with the public, such as in a school setting. You will need to review your state’s requirements for the certification of a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

School Social Worker vs. School Counselor Salary and Employment Projections

Based on figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a school counselor had a median salary of $60,510 in 2021, while a school social worker had a median salary of $29,150.

The job outlook for both positions is projected to grow over the next several years. According to the BLS, employment of school social workers should see an increase of around 12% between 2020 and 2030. During the same period, the employment of school counselors is expected to grow by 11%, which is considerably faster than the national average of 8% for all occupations.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to become a school counselor?

In order to become a school counselor, you will need a master’s degree in school counseling. Usually, this is paired with an undergraduate degree in related fields such as counseling, education or psychology. Outside the classroom, you’ll need between 100 and 800 hours of fieldwork. You will then need to check your state’s licensure requirements before beginning work.

How to become a school social worker?

Degree requirements vary from state to state, but typically to become a school social worker, you need a master’s of social work (MSW) degree. To receive a license, a student must attend a program accredited through the Council on Social Work Education. Prospective social workers need practical fieldwork. State requirements vary, but you may need to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

Who accredits school counselor programs?

The school you choose for your degree should fall under one of two accreditation councils: the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC).

Can you be a school counselor with an MSW?

Typically no. In order to become a school counselor, you need a degree in counseling, not social work. Undergraduate degrees can vary, but professional degrees should be in your field of study.

Can you be a school social worker with a master’s degree in counseling?

Typically no. In order to become a clinical social worker, you need a master’s degree in social work. Counseling and social work require different skills, training and practical education.

Your Career Path: School Counselor or School Social Worker

Most people who opt for a career path as a school counselor or school social worker have an altruistic disposition and consider the compensation secondary. In addition, both advocate for the student’s well-being and require an understanding of human development, human behavior and social environments.

Education and licensure requirements are comparable and vary among the states. While the job outlook for a school social worker is above average, the field of school counseling will recognize a greater increase over the next several years.

There is a sizable gap between the national median annual salaries of a school counselor and school social worker, with the latter falling short by more than $10,000 per year.

Whether you choose a career as a school counselor or as a school social worker, you can make a difference in a student’s life.

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Last updated: May 2022