Elsmere Education Market Insights: Potential for Mental Health Degrees

Surging Demand + Not Enough Providers = Potential for Mental Health Degrees

In a previous post, we investigated the online graduate business market by applying essential market analysis criteria. Now let’s shift our focus to another of the “Big 3” most popular online graduate education areas: the broad and diverse healthcare market.

Four healthcare fields appear among the top 15 online graduate programs nationally, ranked by the number of graduates in 2022 (National Center for Education Statistics, NCES, 2022): 

Social Work (#2) Family Practice Nursing (#9) 
Registered Nurse (#5) Health/Health Care Administration/Management (#15) 

With all the talk of medical personnel shortages in recent years, it may be surprising to see social work degrees at the top of the list. We see several market factors that indicate opportunity in this field, which the NCES classifies as “Social Workers: Community and Health Services” and “Social Workers and Counselors” — jobs that provide clinical mental health treatment and other social services. 

A Surging Demand for Mental Health Care

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, access to mental health care for Americans has increased due to changes in health insurance policies mandating more coverage. The demand for mental health services far outweighs the supply, and the US has been experiencing a mental healthcare crisis since before the pandemic.

Other factors driving increased demand for mental health treatment include the increased prevalence of telehealth, making treatment more accessible for people in rural areas, living with disabilities, or lacking transportation to get treatment. And finally, there is a movement in corporate America to address mental health as part of programs to help employees deal with stress, burnout, and other mental health issues that impact the workforce. 

Why Online Degree Programs in This Field Deserve a Look 

Here are some reasons why mental health degrees are worth considering as a new online program: 

1. They prepare graduates to work across industries 
Social workers and mental health counselors work in government, education, healthcare, substance abuse treatment, and in private practice with patients across the lifespan. This provides a broad array of settings and options for graduates. 

2. The degree is required for professional licensure  
There are many popular graduate degrees that are beneficial but not required for licensure and/or employment. On the other hand, social workers and mental health counselors typically need to complete a degree from an accredited program to qualify for licensure to practice. Although requirements vary slightly by state, this requirement is an advantage when defining the market for this degree. 

3. There are surprisingly few online programs 

It is increasingly rare to find degree programs with less than half the providers offering them online. In the combined field of social work and counseling, only 28% of these programs are offered online. Does this present a possible opportunity? Absolutely. The data points to a strong preference for online programs when you consider that in 2020, almost half of these students (48%) graduated from online programs despite less than a third being offered online. Further, these graduates started their programs before the pandemic accelerated demand for online learning, so the demand for online programs is likely to be even higher moving forward.  

4. Job openings are outpacing supply of new graduates 

In 2020, there were 155,678 unique job postings for social workers and counselors with a master’s degree required or preferred (Lightcast, 2022), compared to 45,494 new master’s level graduates (NCES, 2021). This resulted in one graduate for every three jobs. There are three times the number of job openings advertised for mental health counselors in 2022 compared to five years ago and twice the number of job openings for social workers (Lightcast, 2022).  

5. There is an increasing return on investment for these degrees  

In just the last five years, the median advertised salary for counselors has increased by 11.8%. The median advertised salary for social workers has increased by 3%. 

The data certainly points to potential opportunities in a field where demand greatly outstrips supply. The need for graduates is greatest in California, Texas, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, but there could be very successful programs in any state. If you are interested in a regional market analysis related to one of these programs for your state or region, please get in touch with us


  1. Lightcast™, https://lightcast.io/, 2022. 

Author: Linda Passamaneck, VP of Academic Research and Design


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