School Psychologist vs School Counselor

Have you ever wondered, “What is a school counselor?” or, “What is school psychology?” You may have seen these important support professionals in elementary and secondary schools without knowing exactly what their role is in helping students. Below you will find some of the similarities and differences between school psychologists and school counselors.

School Psychologist Overview

How do school psychologists help students? They apply their expertise in mental health, learning, and behavior, to support students as they learn, and enable teachers to provide better education. Learn more about how to become a school psychologist and what you can do with your school psychology degree below.

School Psychologist Education Requirements

To become a school psychologist, you will need to complete a graduate degree in school psychology. You may either complete a specialist-level degree such as an EdS (Education Specialist), PsyS (Specialist in Psychology), a specialist-level master’s degree, or a doctoral-level degree (PhD, PsyD, or EdD). Not all master’s degrees are specialist-level degrees. Specialist-level degree programs require at least 60 graduate semester hours, an internship, and take longer to complete [PDF, 728 KB]. A specialist-level degree program takes a minimum of 3 years of full-time study to complete (including the internship), whereas a master’s degree typically requires 2 years of full-time study. 

There are online master of psychology programs available. You should check with the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) to determine whether a program is NASP-approved. Completion of a NASP-approved program is not required for licensing in all states. Check with your state education agency to be sure.

School Psychologist Responsibilities

The role of a school psychologist is to support students in collaboration with teachers, families, administrators, and other school mental health professionals. Typical school psychologist duties include administering psychological and academic tests for students who need them, creating appropriate individualized education plans for students with disabilities, promoting positive behavior modification, and intervention planning for special education needs. It is important to note that schools do not diagnose children; doctors and clinicians do. 

School Psychologist Jobs and Work Settings

Where do school psychologists work? While most school psychologists work in public K-12 schools, they can also work in:

  • Private or charter schools
  • Early education centers
  • Community health centers
  • Colleges and universities
  • Juvenile justice programs
  • Foster care group/private homes
  • Independent practice

Psychologists can work in more than one school and may also choose to work in a combination of elementary, middle, and high schools.

School Psychologist License Requirements

To become a licensed school psychologist, you will need a school psychologist credential. These credentials or licenses are typically issued by state education agencies, so requirements for licensure and continuing education will vary from state to state. There is also the Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) credential that is issued by NASP. Many states and school districts align their credential requirements with the NCSP credential, but you should not view the NCSP as an automatic path to state licensure or certification.

School Psychologist Salary and Outlook

The annual mean wage of a school psychologist working in elementary or secondary school settings was $78,970 as of May 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The highest-earning clinical, school, and counseling psychologists live in California. 

School psychologists are in high demand. The NASP cites a shortage of school psychologists. Its recommended student to psychologist ratio is 1:500-700. The national ratio however is 1:1,382. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for school psychologists, along with clinical and counseling psychologists, is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations between 2018 and 2028. 

School Counselor Overview

How do school counselors help students? School counselors advise students on academic planning, provide counseling for students who have attendance or disciplinary issues, and consult with teachers and administrators about connecting with students to ensure student success, among many other responsibilities [PDF, 57 KB]. Learn more about education and licensing requirements, pay, and potential work settings for school counselors below.

School Counselor Education Requirements

Becoming a school counselor requires specific education and training that may vary by state. Most states require a master’s degree from an accredited program that includes coursework in human growth and development, counseling theory and practice, testing/assessment, and research and program evaluation, among other topics. Many school counselor master’s programs, including online master of school counseling programs, also require a supervised internship and supervised practicum.

School Counselor Responsibilities

The school counselor job description has changed over the years from the historical description of a “guidance counselor” [PDF, 209KB] to a more proactive member of the education leadership team, according to the American School Counselor Association. As a key member of the educational team, a school counselor supports students in the areas of academic achievement, and personal, social and career development. School counselor duties [PDF, 197KB] may include providing:

  • Academic planning and goal setting with individual students
  • School counseling lessons in the classroom
  • Individual short-term counseling for personal, social, and behavioral problems
  • Referrals for long-term support
  • Consultation and collaboration with teachers, families, administrators, and community members in order to support student success
  • Advocacy for students at individualized education plan and other student meetings
  • Data analysis 

School Counselor Jobs and Work Settings

School counselor jobs can be found in a variety of academic settings. School counselors are equally important at all grade levels. Elementary school counselors help students develop their learning abilities, communication, decision-making and life skills. Middle school counselors help students navigate the challenging transition from childhood to adolescence by identifying students’ academic and social/emotional needs and providing any necessary interventions. High school counselors provide advice on postsecondary education and careers in addition to social and emotional support. 

School Counselor License Requirements

To become a licensed school counselor, check with your state education department for current requirements. Some states require a separate licensing exam, while others only require completion of an accredited graduate program.

School Counselor Salary and Outlook

The annual mean wage of a school counselor working in elementary and/or secondary schools was $66,180 in May 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The highest-earning educational, guidance, school and vocational counselors are in California. Employment of school and career counselors is expected to grow 8 percent over the next decade, faster than average for all occupations.

How to Choose Which Career is Right for You?

Both school psychologists and school counselors play an essential part in the academic, social, and emotional development of students. There is some overlap in the roles and duties of a school psychologist and school counselor. Considering the similarities and differences between the two roles, as well as the educational path, can help you choose which one is the best fit for you.

School Counselor Career

If you want to work with a large variety of students and help to improve student success for all students, becoming a school counselor may be the better option for you. School counselors help students by developing and implementing a school counseling program that addresses the academic, career and social/emotional development of all students. 

In most cases, you need a master’s degree and a licensing exam to become a school counselor, but not a specialist or doctorate degree as required for school psychologists. While money is not the main motivation for most people pursuing a career in education, it is worth noting that the average salary for school counselors is lower than that of school psychologists.

School Psychologist Career

If you want to provide direct support and create interventions for students with more targeted needs, you might want to consider a career in school psychology. School psychologists work one-on-one with students but also have the opportunity to create a positive school climate overall. If you’re prepared to invest more time in a specialist-level master’s degree or doctoral degree, becoming a school psychologist can be a rewarding career choice.