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What is the Difference Between a School Counselor and a Social Worker?

Image of a therapist and client for our FAQ on the difference between a school counselor and social worker

Difference Between School Counselor and School Social Worker

The main difference between a school social worker vs school counselor is in the scope of what they do. School counselors play a vital role in the education team, helping students to make the most of their educational opportunities by addressing issues such as conflicting class schedules, behavior modification and even serious issues such as substance abuse. School counselors, overall, deal with students one-on-one and interact with them often. On the other hand, when it comes to school counselor vs school social worker, social workers in the school system help children cope with challenges brought about by socioeconomic factors, including poverty, trauma and disabilities. They may deal more with systems and administrators than school counselors do. 

“Social worker,” in this article, refers to a social worker who works in education, which is the school social worker description we use in this article. Social workers also work in many other sectors, and there are many career options for a social worker besides working in education. Some of these include working as a medical social worker, hospice social worker, community outreach worker, veteran’s affairs social worker, social work administrator, probation officer, behavioral management aide, substance abuse counselor, or foster care social worker. If you are interested in a career that has many possible jobs involved, social work offers options. In an article entitled “Don’t Want to Be a Therapist? Alternative Careers for MSWs”, author Lucy Davies lists several career options for people with a Master of Social Work who want to explore the possibilities. Also, an article from Pacific Oaks College lists “10 Career Paths for Graduates with a Degree in Social Work.”

School Counselor vs Social Worker: Role of the School CounselorAn image of a school counselor talking with a student for our article on the difference between social worker and counselor

The school counselor, also referred to as guidance counselor, takes charge of designing and overseeing a comprehensive school counseling program that covers all aspects that may contribute to the best outcomes for students in terms of building academic competencies, developing life skills and guiding social skills as needed. The program should align with the school’s mission and should encourage parent or guardian participation. The school counseling program deals with day-to-day as well as long-term issues. The school counselor takes an active role in guiding students through challenges such as peer pressure, family problems, personal and health issues that may be interfering with their ability to cope with their academic goals. They administer or supervise the administration of tests to students.

School counselors may work as part of a team, but they also spend some on-on-one time with students and their families as needed. School counselors are employed by the school districts or directly by private schools. Due to the workload, school counselors are typically assigned to one school, and it is customary for high schools to have more than one school counselor at each campus to facilitate career counseling and college preparation.

What are the differences in day-to-day duties of a school counselor vs social worker? School counselors have more of a permanent role in the school. Students will recognize them as a familiar part of the school where they work. This means that school counselors have a chance to interact with students multiple times over the course of a school year, and have a great deal of time in which to make an impact. 

School Counselor vs Social Worker: Role of the Social WorkerAn image of a social worker having a serious discussion for our article on difference between social worker and counselor

The general role of the school social worker is to assess the needs of students, identifying their strengths and challenges to provide access to appropriate support services. Those who work in school social work jobs may be called upon to provide counseling and other support services in crisis situations, such as immediately after a traumatic incident affecting the student body. Social workers are the contact points for connecting students and their families to critical community services such as food stamps, healthcare services, and childcare alternatives. They may provide psychotherapy and similar therapies with a referral from school guidance counselors.

Those with school social work jobs may be assigned to the school district as a whole instead of to a single campus, which is one difference when it comes to employment as a school counselor vs social worker. It is important to understand this difference when researching a school social worker description. They may have a rotating schedule of school visits, or their services may be available when requested by the schools. For this reason, it is important for people with school social work jobs to be able to adapt quickly to new circumstances. They may be an unfamiliar face when visiting schools, and the children they are helping will not necessarily warm up to them immediately. They must be able to make the necessary impact in a short space of time. 

School Social Worker vs School Counselor: Career PathwaysAn image of a man studying for a test for our article on school counselor vs social worker duties

What is the difference between being a school counselor vs social worker when it comes to education levels?

The minimum requirements for school counselors are necessarily stringent, because special expertise is required to cope with the demands of the job. A master’s degree in psychology, counseling, educational counseling, or a similar field is typically required to be considered for the position. Relevant work experience in the school setting is preferred, although some school districts may consider experience in community work as valuable.

Social workers should have completed at least a bachelor’s degree in social work, psychology, sociology, or a similar field. They should have earned the certifications required to work in a school setting or a community environment.

School counselors and social workers play important roles in ensuring that students have a positive experience in schools, which will foster productive outcomes for their future. While they have a common goal, the primary difference between a school counselor and a social worker is related to their access to resources and to the students themselves. The school counselor has more direct access to the students and to school resources, while the social worker works at the behest of the school’s leadership. 

Difference Between Social Worker and Counselor: Career Outlook & Salary 

Social Workers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, reports that the job outlook for social workers should grow 12 percent over the next 10 years. This job outlook is faster than the average for all occupations. $51,760 was the average annual salary for social workers in 2020, which works out to about $24.88 per hour. California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Illinois had the highest number of social workers as of May 2020, while Vermont, South Dakota, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, and Kentucky had the highest concentration of jobs in the area of social work. The District of Columbia, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York were the top-paying states for social workers. The typical entry-level education requirement is a bachelor’s degree.  

School Counselors

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that job growth for “School and Career Counselors and Advisors” is projected to be 11 percent over the next decade, which is faster than the average for all professions. Average annual salary as of May 2020 was $58,120; the average hourly wage was $27.94. The highest number of school counselors are listed as being employed in California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois. Vermont, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Hawaii, and Arizona have the highest concentration of school counselors. The top-paying states for school counselors are California, New Jersey, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Maryland. A master’s degree is the typical entry-level education requirement. 

To summarize, the job growth projection for social workers is faster by one percent than the job growth projection for school counselors. Both are faster than average. The annual salary for school counselors is higher by $6,360. However, those who want to be employed in the area of social work are not required to spend the time and money that is required to earn a master’s degree. Higher education often leads to debt, and even when it does not, it is a significant investment of time and money. In the end, although considerations of salary, education, and job growth are significant, it is most important that you choose the career that fits you best. 

School Counselor vs School Social Worker: Which is Right for Me? An image of a counselor or social worker talking to a young student for our article on school counselor vs social worker duties

As described above, there are several differences between school counselors and social workers. However there are also quite a few similarities. Both work to help children who are in need. Both have to deal with school systems. They may both have to face some very similar situations. Both careers are known to be difficult yet rewarding professions.

Being a school counselor and a social worker both require a great deal of patience, as you will be dealing with people throughout the day. Not only that, but the people you’ll be dealing with are in stressful situations. As a social worker, you may have to deal with teachers, principals, or other school staff who are worried, frustrated, upset, or angry about the behavior of the children you’ll be helping. As a school counselor, you’ll have to deal with children who may have had bad experiences with authority, as well as with children who are going through difficult times. This may entail difficult conversations with parents or teachers. All of these challenges mean that you’ll need good interpersonal skills and conflict resolution skills. 

You’ll also need interpersonal skills for your day-to-day work, either as a social worker or as a school counselor. The children and adults you interact with need to feel that you are someone they can trust, and you will not always have much time to gain their trust. You must be able to immediately communicate that you care about people by your manner and the way you talk. 

Perhaps now you have a better idea of the difference between social worker and counselor. A question remains, though, even after sorting out school counselor vs school social worker differences. Is it better to be a school counselor or a social worker? The answer depends on your personal preference, as well as your abilities. Do you prefer face-to-face interaction with students, or would you rather change their lives by communication with those who have authority over them? Do you prefer to work on a large scale and change plans and policies, or would you like to work on a small scale and see the progress of the few children that you interact with? Would you rather move around and have an impact on a larger area, or do you want to stay more or less in the same place and get to know the children you are helping? 

If you answered that you prefer small-scale work, face-to-face interaction, and you would rather get to know the children you work with over a longer period of time, you may be well suited for work as a school counselor. You may deeply impact those that you are able to guide during their time at school, whether you help them in choosing their career paths or counsel them through a difficult time in their family life. 

If you would rather work on a larger scale and change many lives by advocating for them and communicating about them to the authorities over them, you might make a good social worker. Either way, you have the potential to change many lives through your work. 

What are the professional organizations for school counselors and social workers?

Professional Organizations for School Counselors

Bestcollegereviews.org lists five professional organizations for school counselors. These are: 

Professional Organizations for School Social Workers

Socialworklicensemap.com lists professional organizations for many different branches of social work. One of these is school social workers. 

What are some occupations that are similar to school counseling and social work?

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, along with data on salary and job growth, offers a list of similar occupations for each occupation described on their website. We list the ones for school counselors and social workers below. Note that several similar occupations overlap between the two lists. All of these occupations have several factors in common. The most prominent of these factors is that the career helps others to improve their lives. Each of these careers also involves some form of interpersonal interaction. See the Bureau of Labor Statistics website for more details on each of these occupations. 

Similar Occupations for School Counseling

  • High School Teachers
  • Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers
  • Marriage and Family Therapists
  • Middle School Teachers
  • Psychologists
  • Rehabilitation Counselors
  • Social and Community Service Managers
  • Social and Human Service Assistants
  • Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
  • Training and Development Specialists

Similar Occupations for Social Work

  • Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers
  • Marriage and Family Therapists
  • Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists
  • Psychologists
  • Rehabilitation Counselors
  • School and Career Counselors and Advisors
  • Social and Community Service Managers
  • Social and Human Service Assistants
  • Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors


January 2022

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This concludes our article on the difference between school counselor and school social worker duties.