School Counselor vs. School Social Worker: Differences

Updated July 22, 2023

Schools often employ staff to support students in various areas that can improve the students' academic performance. School counselors and school social workers are two positions that provide this support in different ways. If you hope to find a job supporting K-12 students, understanding the differences between these two positions can help you determine which career suits you best. 

In this article, we define what a school counselor is, what a school social worker is and list some of the differences between two to help you decide which career path may be best for you.

What is a school counselor?

A school counselor is a member of the school's educational team who primarily supports students in their academic career. They do this through programs designed to help large groups of students and through individualized, one-on-one consultation. They typically help students to overcome educational challenges, offer guidance on continuing their education after graduation and sometimes teach important life and classroom skills, such as active listening.

Read more: Learn About Being a School Counselor

What is a school social worker?

A school social worker supports students by helping them overcome personal challenges. This work primarily focuses on the students' private lives, which might present them with social, economic or psychological obstacles that may cause challenges during their academic study. A school social worker often assesses students individually to better understand their specific circumstances. This helps them provide individual aid in helping students successfully meet the challenges they face.

Read more: Learn About Being a School Social Worker

Differences between school counselors vs. school social workers

Though both school counselors and school social workers provide support for students, there are several differences between the two. Some of the key differences between these two positions are:


Most states require both school counselors and school social workers to have master's degrees. The required field of study for each advanced degree differs for each position. For school counselors, common master's degree choices are an M.A. or M.Ed. in counseling education or school counseling. School social workers typically need a master of social work or another related social work degree.

Related: Jobs You Can Pursue With a Master's Degree in Social Work

Certifications and licensure

All 50 states require counselors to earn a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) license. Each state has its own requirements whether school counselors need further credentials or a teaching certificate or license to work in schools. It's recommended to research the local laws and regulations for full school counselor credential requirements.

For school social workers, there are no universal standards for credentials. Some states require licensure, while others don't. Also, some individual schools prefer their social workers to be licensed, even if not required by the state. Consider researching the requirements for the school or state you hope to work in so you can prepare for your career properly.

Related: How To Become a School Counselor

Salary and job outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects both positions to grow over the next decade. They predict school counselor jobs to grow by 10% from 2021 to 2031. The BLS expects social worker jobs of all types to grow by 9% from 2021 to 2031. As school enrollment increases, so does the demand for both of these occupations.

On average, school counselors make $59,793 per year. Social workers can expect a slightly lower average salary of $57,635 per year

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the links provided.

Related: 10 Reasons To Become a School Counselor


Typically, school counselors are direct employees of the school in which they work. Most schools in the United States employ counselors as members of their staff.

School social workers are typically employed by a school district or county agency, which can be funded by the state or local government of that area. Because of this, not all schools have social workers. Consider researching which schools in your area have social workers and which governing body supplies them to help you determine where to apply.

Related: 41 School Counselor Interview Questions (And Sample Answers)

Solutions to challenges

A school counselor's solutions to student challenges might focus on implementing individualized learning plans and communicating with the students' instructors or guardians. Conversely, a school social worker's solutions to challenges may focus on activities or resources not directly related to school that improve a student's ability to learn.

Related: Social Worker Career Goals

Job duties

Since the two positions focus on different areas of support to help students, each has its own list of day-to-day job duties they perform. On a typical day, a school counselor's job duties are:

  • Meeting with students to establish individual academic goals

  • Facilitating clear communication between students and teachers

  • Determining areas of improvement for students

  • Creating programs that help students learn new social skills, improve their grades and become better students

  • Helping students find suitable colleges and fill out college paperwork

  • Working together with the school board and other educational employees to improve learning conditions within their area's schools

School social workers' day-to-day job duties include:

  • Meeting with students to determine which social or personal issues require attention

  • Running individualized counseling sessions to help students overcome those issues

  • Determining which services can provide students with support in overcoming challenges

  • Helping parents and students understand these challenges

  • Tracking student progress through reports and case files

  • Finding resources that can help students and their families in their everyday needs

Related: 51 High-Paying Social Work Specializations (With Salaries)


Because school counselors and school social workers perform different job duties, each requires their own set of related skills. Though they do share some skills, such as empathy and communication, their skill sets diverge in several key areas. Skills most helpful for a school counselor include:

  • Ability to select and administer tests to assess students' academic abilities

  • Knowledge of colleges or other continuing education options that meet a student's educational goals

  • Ability to create individualized plans that can improve student engagement and performance

  • Thorough understanding of teaching methods and theory

Skills helpful for school social worker duties include:

  • Knowledge of psychology and therapy techniques

  • Understanding of crisis intervention methods

  • Ability to deescalate tense situations

  • Knowledge of local programs for those in need

  • Ability to identify mental health services appropriate for individual students

  • Thorough understanding of social and economic challenges and their potential solutions

Related: 16 Types of Social Workers and How They Make an Impact

Cultural competence

An important part of both roles is cultural competence. As school districts become more diverse, it's important for people working with students and families to understand different cultures and how they may respond to the services both roles provide.

Related: Average School Counselor Salaries and Highest-Paying Cities

Professional development

Both professions also encourage their practitioners to engage in continuous professional development. Doing so can allow you to state up-to-date on recent developments in education and child development and continue to provide the best services possible to students and their families. Individuals might pursue development through social work programs, additional master of social work or MSW programs or other programs that focus on developing counseling or social work skills.

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