The American Counseling Association (ACA) is the primary organization to which professional counselors belong. The association includes 19 divisions, 56 branches, and 5 professional partners (i.e., affiliated organizations). Approximately 45,000 counselors from the United States and 50 other countries belong to ACA. The headquarters are in Alexandria, Virginia. According to the association’s bylaws, their mission is to “enhance quality of life in society by promoting the development of professional counselors, advancing the counseling profession, and using the profession and practice of counseling to promote respect for human dignity and diversity.” Members of the association actively advocate for social justice as well as the promotion of the profession.
Although the organization was incorporated in 1952, its history can be traced to the turn of the 20th century, when the association’s first division, the National Vocational Guidance Association (NVGA), was established independently in 1913. Eleven years later, in 1924, the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) was founded. The Student Personnel Association for Teacher Education (SPATE) was formed in 1931. The National Association of Guidance and Counselor Trainers (NAGCT) originated in 1940.
Discussion of unifying these four groups was introduced in 1949 at a meeting of the Council of Guidance and Personnel Associations. Proponents supported the notion of “one national voice speaking for the guidance and personnel profession” (Simmons, 2002, p. 8). In response, the members of these four existing organizations established the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA) in 1952. The annual dues were $6.00. The offices were leased from the American Psychological Association (APA), and many of the original members and leaders were psychologists. In fact, Donald Super, a psychologist who viewed the fledgling organization as an interest group, became the second president.
Despite Super’s perception of APGA as an interest group, the association prevailed and flourished, and each of the original divisions contributed a cornerstone to its diverse areas of identity and philosophy. For example, facilitation of career development remains a hallmark of professional counseling (NVGA’s influence). The notion of development extends across the life span, rather than remaining focused on childhood (ACPA’s influence). Additionally, counselors have actively participated in various educational enterprises. Counselors have championed ethical practice, unconditional positive regard, equality, advocacy, and human rights (SPATE’s influence). Founding members also recognized the importance of preparation for counselors, training standards, theory-based approaches to counseling, supervision, continuing education, and research (NAGCT’s influence).
As the subgroups’ identities evolved, their names were changed to the National Career Development Association (NCDA), the Counseling Association of Humanistic Education and Development (C-AHEAD), and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES). ACPA disaffiliated in 1992. Other divisions were chartered as the organization grew and responded to the needs of its members and society.
By the 1970s, members of APGA recognized the importance of licensure, certification, and accreditation. With the development of these three areas of credentialing emerged standardization of training procedures, identification of minimum qualifications for practice of counseling, and a stronger professional identity. The first licensure law was enacted in 1976 in Virginia. The Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) was established in 1981, and the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) was formed in 1982. These three separate but integrally related entities reflect consistency among standards for counselor education programs, licensure requirements, and certification criteria.
By 1987 APGA had grown to 57,000 members, and it became clear that the association had exceeded Super’s notion of an interest group. Evolution of the umbrella organization and the addition of divisions during the first 30 years necessitated a change in the association’s name. APGA reflected the emphases on students and guidance; it did not capture the essential philosophical underpinning of development or reflect the practice of counseling. Thus, in 1983, the members voted to change the name from APGA to the American Association for Counseling and Development (AACD). Although this name reflected the philosophy and practice of the association’s members, consumers did not easily understand it. Thus, in 1992, members selected the current name, American Counseling Association (ACA).
The early presence of three divisions reflected essential values and emphases among members of ACA. A forerunner of the Counseling Association of Humanistic Education and Development (C-AHEAD) was among the four founding divisions. The Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD) was chartered in 1972. The Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC) followed in 1974. In 1996 the Association for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Issues in Counseling (AGLBIC) was founded. Counselors for Social Justice (CSJ) received its charter in 2004. The sustained presence of these divisions has demonstrated (a) a consistent commitment to all members and all clients, regardless of their culture; (b) a recognition of the importance of spirituality in counseling as well as development; and (c) a devotion to humanistic principles as applied to human development and potential.
In addition to divisions and state branches, ACA has professional partnerships with five affiliates that operate with separate boards of directors.
ACA Insurance Trust
Through the insurance trust, ACA members purchase a variety of insurance packages. The professional liability insurance provides a program in response to the unique needs of professional counselors and counselor supervisors, regardless of their work settings. Policyholders also have access to legal advice.
The American Counseling Association Foundation
The foundation was formed to provide a mechanism for supporting counselors in training, recognizing excellence among ACA members, and publishing excellent materials. The foundation has responded to needs of children through the Growing Happy and Confident Kids program. Additionally, the foundation assists counselors adversely affected by natural disasters through the Counselors Care Fund.
The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs
The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), mentioned previously, was created to provide standards and procedures for accrediting counselor education master’s degree and doctoral programs. A separate board governs CACREP; however, there is a strong affiliation among ACA, CACREP, and NBCC in order to maintain consistent training and certification standards that meet appropriate levels of rigor.
National Board for Certified Counselors
NBCC was formed in 1982 to provide a voluntary credential for professional counselors. Requirements for certification parallel those established by CACREP. Additionally, NBCC monitors specialization credentials such as national certified school counselor and certified clinical mental health counselor. NBCC has developed a variety of examinations that are used by counselor licensure boards (e.g., the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification) and counselor education programs (e.g., the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination). Its Web site contains an array of materials such as What to Expect as a Client.
Chi Sigma Iota
Chi Sigma Iota (CSI), which was founded in 1985, is the official international honor society of the counseling profession. The society’s mission is to promote scholarship, research, professionalism, leadership, and excellence in all aspects of counseling. Additionally, CSI leaders endorse the importance of CACREP accreditation. CSI includes at least 277 chapters and nearly 12,000 active members, which include counselors in training, professional counselors in a range of practices, and counselor educators. An essential requirement of membership is a clear identification with the profession of counseling, evidenced by counselor education as one’s highest or terminal degree.
The Journal of Counseling and Development (JCD) is the flagship journal; its history of title changes (six) reflects the development of the counseling profession.
For example, the original title was The National Vocational Guidance Bulletin, which was first published in 1921. The title was changed to Personnel and Guidance Journal in 1952 to parallel the formation of APGA. Counseling Today is the primary newsletter; it was originally called Guidepost. Divisions and branches also publish journals and newsletters.
Additionally a variety of books and other materials are published by ACA. Resources for counselors and counselors in training as well as clients are available on the association’s Web site. One practical electronic document is the Layperson’s Guide to Counselor Ethics: What You Should Know About the Ethical Practice of Professional Counseling.
ACA, several of its divisions, and NBCC have published codes of ethics and standards of practice. These documents are available for review on the various associations’ Web sites.
The organizational structure of ACA is not unlike that of many other professional groups. Subgroups of the association, known as divisions, are numerous and diverse. As special focus or interest groups, divisions vary in size and mission. State groups, known as branches, of ACA also have state divisions. Additionally, ACA has regional groupings of state branches and divisions as intermediate-level groupings. Representatives of the various divisions and regional groups, coupled with elected and appointed associational officers, compose the ACA Executive Council, the policy-making body of the ACA.
A significant revision in the ACA affiliation framework occurred in the 1990s. Prior to that time, one could be a member of an ACA division only if one were a member of the larger association. However, amid a variety of internal pressures and financial circumstances, the ACA Executive Council determined that a change was needed in the affiliation framework. Beginning in 1998, ACA divisions were allowed to determine whether one could participate in divisional membership without associational membership in the ACA. The previous model was sometimes described as a spoked wheel with strength stemming from the interrelationship between the hub and the various spokes of the wheel. The newer model emphasized the strength of the various spokes of the wheel. Some divisions retained the original affiliation framework, requiring associational membership for divisional membership (e.g., Association for Counselor Education and Supervision), while others adopted the newer framework (e.g., American Mental Health Counselors Association).
Elements of fragmentation within ACA were obvious during the final decade of the 20th century. Thomas Sweeney noted a specific example in his Article “Accreditation, Credentialing, Professionalization: The Role of Specialties” (p. 123): An invited speaker addressing a group of ACA leaders queried, “Is this a group of groups or a group of the whole?” This statement was context for the speaker’s next observation that “if the ACA is a group of groups, then the membership can expect to be ineffective in influencing external groups.” However, he further noted that as a single discipline, “counseling could become a core healthcare provider through an amendment to the Public Health Services Act of 1973 similar to what social work, psychology, and marriage and family therapy had done.” In this regard, the future of the ACA, while hopeful, remains precariously linked to whether it retains a centralized identity as a group of counselors or a fragmented identity as an amalgam of specialized practitioners and interest groups.
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- Sweeney, T. J. (1995). Accreditation, credentialing, professionalization: The role of specialties. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74, 117-125.
- West, J. D., Osborn, C. J., & Bubenzer, D. L. (2003). Leaders and legacies: Contributions to the profession of counseling. New York: Brunner-Routledge.