Online Social Work Degrees
What Is an Online Social Work Degree?
Unlike psychology, which is a much broader topic and more general area of study, social work is a very specific topic and a very specific area of study. Many make the mistake of conflating an online degree in psychology with an online degree in social work and while there is plenty of overlap and commonality between the two subjects, they are actually very different. Generally speaking, psychology is the study and application of psychology for the purpose of understanding, preventing, and relieving psychologically-based distress or dysfunction and to promote well-being. Social work is the study of using psychotherapy to help individuals deal with a variety of mental health and daily living problems to improve overall functioning. Psychologists and social workers likely study many of the same subjects, concepts and research methods during their educational careers, but they use those studies in very different manners which means that each program has areas of study that are unique to the subject.
Just as online psychology degree programs have grown in number and popularity, online social work degree programs have followed the same trend. The industry publication Social Work Today recognized "web-based social work education" as one of the 10 trends that has transformed the profession since 2001, saying that new technology has made it easier for students who otherwise wouldn't have access to social work education to take an industry in the profession. The publication also mentions that while there are concerns over the quality of online social work degree programs and how these programs handle hands-on requirements like field placements, online social work degree programs are becoming more accepted not only by colleges and universities but also by potential employers.
Spotlight Online MSW Programs
Researching online social work degree programs is much easier than researching other online degree programs and that is because social work is a much more narrowly-focused degree program and thus has a much smaller breadth of offerings across the board. There are only four types of online social work degrees available to students -- a Bachelor's degree, a Master's degree, a research doctorate (PhD) and an advanced practice doctorate (DSW). That said, there are less than 100 schools across the country and in Canada that offer doctoral degree programs in social work and according to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) that is because most industry professionals still consider the MSW to be the terminal degree in the field as it enables degree-holders to apply for licensure it all 50 states. Also, bachelor's degrees in social work aren't all that common and in large part that is become a bachelor's degree in social work often isn't enough of an education to become a licensed social worker. It will of course depend on the state regulations, but while some states allow those with bachelor's degrees in social work to apply for licensure, the vast majority of states want their licensed social workers to have at least a Master's degree in the subject. This obviously makes online Master's degrees in social work the most popular and prevalent online degree program in the field. No one is suggesting that students shouldn't try to earn an online bachelor's degree in social work or a online doctoral degree in social work, it is just worth pointing out that an online Master's degree in social work offers the most utility and upside for the students.
Despite the rather cut-and-dry online social work degree offerings, there are still plenty of variables associated with these programs that range from price and "traditional vs. for-profit" to determining how much of the program is online and what sort of career offerings the school can help with. When one also considers that it can be particularly important for students to get detailed and accurate information about online social work degree programs because of their infancy and the multitude of bad players in the space, it is important that students understand all aspects of the online social work degree program before they make a selection. Using feedback and information from professors in online social work degree programs as well as graduates of online degree programs, this is meant to be a resource guide and one-stop shop for students looking for accurate information about online social work degree programs. This information comes from expert sources but also keep in mind that every student’s experience is and can be different. The best way for students to pick the program is to contact schools individually.
Online Social Work Degree Options
It is always a good idea for any student interested in online social work degree programs to have a good idea of the type of program they are looking for before they begin their search. This doesn't necessarily mean choosing between schools that use the cohort model or schools that offer hybrid social work degree programs, getting organized is more about developing a general idea of what level of social work education the student wishes to obtain. Traditionally in higher education there are four options -- an Associate degree, a Bachelor's degree, a Master's degree and a Doctoral degree. However, because social work is a more narrowly-focused degree path, there are only three types of online social work degree programs and online doctoral degree programs in social work are still so rare that detailed information is sparse. There are four primary levels of online psychology degrees and each comes with its own unique characteristics. Some programs can be completed in just a few years and are more cost-effective while others can be time and research-intensive and can get pretty expensive. Of course, the expensive degrees will also help open the doors to employment opportunities that would be unavailable to those with a lesser degree. There is no right or wrong selection when choosing degrees. It all depends on the needs and circumstances and desires of the individual students. Students should take the time to research each option fully before making a selection, but here are some of the details of each program that will help students get started.
Online Bachelor's Degrees in Social Work
Unlike psychology, where bachelor's degrees in the subject are by far the most popular form of online degree in the field. In terms of online social work-specific programs, the bachelor's degree is viewed as a stepping stone to the Master's degree program. Strict state regulations in conjunction with the fact that the majority of opportunities in the field are open only to those with at least a Master's degree make Online BSWs hard to find. In fact, a common mistake that some prospective students make is that they conflate online bachelor's degrees in Human Services and Psychology with specific online bachelor's degrees in Social Work. There is plenty of overlap between the programs and the coursework, but social work-specific degrees are going to include courses designed to help students work towards an advanced degree in the subject and eventually licensure. An online degree in a more general psychology subject doesn't exclude them from pursuing advanced degrees in social work, but it does leave them farther away from obtaining licensure than students who enroll in a social work-specific program.
Read more about CSWE Accredited Online BSW Programs.
The prerequisites for an online bachelor's degree program in social work are refreshingly simple. Each school will have different credit requirements, but all schools that offer an online bachelor's degree in social work require that students have completed between 12-45 credits before they are eligible to enroll in the program. Interested students can obtain these credits in a number of different ways depending on how many credits are required for enrollment. For example, if the program of interest only requires 12 baccalaureate level credits, a student may be able to enroll in a local community colleges and take a semester of coursework and then become eligible for the bachelor's degree program. If the credit requirements are stricter and require upwards of 36 credits, there are some associate degree programs in human services and psychology that will not only help a student satisfy the credit requirements but will also allow them to get a jump start on some of the coursework they will be seeing once they get to the bachelor's degree program.
Interested students will also obviously need to complete an application packet that can include essays and personal statements; and in some cases, interested students will also need to maintain a minimum grade point average in the classes they are taking so that the schools can see that you are capable and committed to the learning.
Cost of Online Bachelor Degree Programs
What is nice about online schools and online degree programs is that cost is usually a pretty normalized variable no matter the degree program. Most online schools do not actually differentiate cost per program. There may be additional costs for things like technology and lab materials if the class requires that, but for the most part, online schools and degree programs charge a flat rate per credit hour for their classes. Online bachelor's degree programs in social work are no different. An unscientific study of the costs of online bachelor’s degree programs in social work found that tuition can range from $370-$545 per credit. The total cost to the student will depend on the number of courses required to complete the program. The math is relatively easy to do but some schools offer full-time online bachelor's degree programs in the subject that require a minimum of 120 credits for graduation. Other schools advertise their online bachelor's degree programs as "degree completion" programs that serve more a prerequisite for some of the advanced degree options. Those programs require significantly less credits for graduation and are especially good for students who know they want to go on and enroll in an advanced degree program in social work because that is what the degree completion program is intended for in the first place.
The curriculum for an online bachelor’s degree in social work is actually pretty much spelled out by the CSWE in its comprehensive educational policy and accreditation standards. The standards were written for traditional on-campus programs but online social work degree programs that want to earn accreditation from the CSWE use the same standards. Basically, the organization asks all universities that offer accredited social work degrees to focus its curriculum in five areas: human behavior, policy, practice methods, research, and field education/work. Each of the areas is pretty self-explanatory and the best online social work degree programs include coursework that covers all five areas extensively.
Human behavior is the de facto introductory area. General human behavior and social work classes give students a macro-look at the field. The reason for this is that human behavior is the underlying subject in all of social work. The entire profession is built on the study and understanding of human behavior. Policy is an important area as well because the treatment and aid of disenfranchised people is heavily regulated and for good reason. Any social worker expecting to make a lasting contribution in the professional social work sphere must understand the policies and regulations and best practices that are a key component of the field. Practice methods is the nuts and bolts area of the curriculum. This is the area where students will actually learn techniques, practices, theories and strategies that social workers use every day. Research is a stat-heavy area and that is because research and statistics are the backbone of any respectable social work organization. Deeper understanding of human conditions, behavior and treatments wouldn't be possible without comprehensive research and statistics, so all social workers must be well-versed in the subjects. The field education area is when students are required to get experience working for legitimate social work agencies or social welfare organizations. This is where the students learn what the daily responsibilities of a social worker are and get to experience different segments of the field.
Not all of the social work curriculum requirements are the same. Some online bachelor's degree programs require 36 credits for graduation while others require as many as 49 to 60 credits. The courses that comprise those credits cover all five of the required areas and there usually isn't a lot of course-to-course diversity in terms of the actual different subjects of courses. Because social work is a hands-on profession where professionals are treating and helping actual people, there isn't a lot of room for creativity within the curriculum.
Career Options with Bachelor Degrees in Social Work
It's been mentioned above but it bears repeating. All 50 states in the United States require licensed social workers in their states to have obtained at least a master's degree in social work, which is why bachelor's degrees in social work are much rarer and usually used only to serve as a launching point for a student's graduate studies in the field. The bottom line is that those with only online bachelor's degrees in social work will find their career options severely limited by the education requirements in the field. There are administrative positions and mental health assistant or caseworker positions that are available to those with bachelor's degrees in social work. But even most entry-level jobs in the profession require at least a Master's degree in the subject and all jobs involving clinical work -- which are, not coincidentally, also the highest paying positions -- are only for those who have graduated with a master's degree in the field. It is highly encouraged and recommended that all students who get an online bachelor's degree in social work also consider an online or traditional master's degree in the subject as well.
Online Master's Degrees in Social Work (MSW)
In the world of online social work degrees, for all intents and purposes, online master's degrees in social work are really the only ones worth talking about. The problem with bachelor's degrees in the subject is that they don't educate the student enough to allow them to apply for licensure as a social worker. And doctoral degrees in social work, especially online ones, are so few and far between that it is hard to draw conclusions on the quality and the financial benefit of the programs. Not only does nearly every for-profit online school worth its salt offer an online master's degree in social work, but huge research institutions like Arizona State University, and prestigious private schools like USC, have begun offering online master's degrees in the subject.
The variety and diversity of programs can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, the variety of options for students makes it something of a buyer's market where students can pick and choose which program fits their interests and needs best without needing to worry about being pigeonholed in a particular program. On the other hand, with so much information out there and so many different online master's degree programs being advertised by the schools that offer them. Researching all of the different schools and institutions and programs can be an overwhelming endeavor for students who are adamant about doing their homework. The good news for students is that because social work is somewhat of a standardized field, the curriculum and individual offerings of each school aren't that different from one another. But that doesn't mean that each one doesn't have unique traits and characteristics. No two programs will be exactly the same, but most share some similar characteristics. Here are some of the basics of what to know about online master's degree programs in the field.
Featured Online MSW Program
It is important to discern the different between a prerequisites and admissions standards. The prerequisites are academic resume traits that each student must have to even be considered as an eligible applicant for the online MSW program. Admissions standards vary from school to school but they will include the other aspects of a student's academic resume while they determine whether or not to accept the student in to the program. Each program will be different, but most programs require:
- a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university
- completion of at least 20 credits' worth of courses in humanities classes such as economics, ethnic studies, gerontology, political science and public health. Some programs will also require a number of those courses to be centered on behavior such as sociology and psychology
- completion of at least one course in introductory or elementary statistics and most programs will also require that students not just pass the class but also earn a 80 or better
- completion of at least one course in anatomy and physiology
- at least three personal references
- perhaps a letter of recommendation
- a personal essay
It could be argued that the last three bullet points count as admissions standards, but they probably fall in between both categories. Almost all schools require those pieces of information and will use the essay and references and letters of recommendation to make an informed decision on a student's candidacy. The other pieces of information that will matter to institutions when it comes to admissions include: GPA; extracurriculars; internship history; volunteer history; practical experience and much more.
Cost of Online Master's Degree Programs
Cost is the least variable of all the basic characteristics that exist in online master's degree programs in social work. Most online schools do not actually differentiate cost per program and the major difference in price will come from how many credits a program requires for graduation and how many transfer credits they will allow from other programs or bachelor's degree programs. There may be additional costs for technology but for the most part, online social work degree programs charge a flat rate per credit hour for their classes.
By looking at 10 of the most popular online MSW programs, we found that most online MSW programs charged between $500-525 per credit and because most programs required at least 92 credits for graduation, costs ranged anywhere from $45,000-50,000 per year. The MSW program is almost always a two-year program. Some schools will allow students to transfer in upwards of 20 credits which means students realistically expect to pay anywhere between $40,000-50,000 per year in tuition and technology fees.
The curriculum for online MSW programs isn't all that straight-forward and that is because there are a variety of types of online MSW programs that a student can enroll in and that each one will have a different way for students to engage with the curriculum.
For starters, most schools that offer online MSW programs offer an option for students to enroll in the program either part-time or full-time. Full-time programs are designed to be completed in just two years, but they keep the student so busy with classes that it can be difficult to maintain a job outside of the classes because of classwork and fieldwork requirements. Part-time programs are designed to take between 2.5-3.5 years and while some allow for students to stagger the scheduling of their classes, most part-time programs still subscribe to the cohort model where students in the program all move through it together and thus classes are taken at a specific time.
The other reason that curriculum for online MSW programs is somewhat complicated is because not only are there three separate degree tracks that a student can enroll in. There are also a number of concentrations and specializations that students can take that will slightly alter the curriculum.
In addition to the part-time enrollment options and the full-time enrollment options. Students who have already obtained a Bachelor's degree in Social Work are eligible for the Advanced Standing degree track. The advanced standing track allows students with bachelor's degrees to skip the basic coursework but it also requires students to carry at least a 3.0 GPA.
Even concentrations themselves can be broken down into general concentrations and then more specific concentrations. Given that social work is a wide-ranging profession with many subcategories and sub-industries, most online MSW programs offer a general program -- which is just a straightforward MSW degree -- and other more concentrated programs in areas such as; addiction; children, families, and couples; crisis and trauma; forensic populations and settings; medical social work; military families and culture.
Based on analysis and statistics from the CSWE's report, 2013 Statistics on Social Work Education in the U.S., other MSW concentrations include:
- Clinical/Direct Practice Social Work: This is the most straightforward concentration because it trains students for and exposing them to clinical social work. Training for clinical social work jobs includes learning the skills to diagnose and treat different physical and mental challenges that someone might face.
- Advanced Generalist: This concentration is for students who want to learn not only about clinical social work but also about more general approaches to the social work practice as well. Students may not get as in-depth in specific areas and concentrations of social work, but they will get a broader education in the subject and learn not just about clinical specifics that are meant to treat individual patients, but also broader-scale strategies that can be used to help a community at-large.
The other major and primary portion of online MSW curriculum is the fieldwork that is required of every student for graduation. Social work is a hands-on profession and it involves the treatment and health of people. Because of that, it would be foolish for any state to allow its social workers to administer treatments and medication to sick people without first ensuring that they are experienced working with people and treating them. There is no doubt that MSW students are in agreement when it comes to the simple fact that the fieldwork portion of the curriculum may be the most daunting, time-consuming and difficult part of the whole curriculum. A big part of that is because the requirements for graduation in terms of hours of fieldwork are comprehensive. The graduation requirements will vary from school to school, but most students will be expected to complete at least 1,000 hours of field work and it will be less for advanced standing students who have ostensibly already experienced some fieldwork.
Students don't just find an internship with an agency and stay there for the length of the class. Most students are asked to complete fieldwork at two different agencies so they can get a more well-rounded experience and can begin to understand what aspects of social work they like and what aspects they don't like. The fieldwork portion of the curriculum will happen in conjunction with the rest of the curriculum so most students will have to find an internship or volunteer job in their first year of the MSW program. The internship will need to be supervised and students can expect that not only will their fieldwork count as a certain number of credits but that the school they are enrolled in will be in communication with your internship supervisor from the start.
Learn more about CSWE Online MSW Programs.
Career Options with Master's Degrees in Social Work
The primary reason students even enter a MSW program is because every state in the country requires that its licensed social workers obtain at least a Master's degree in the field before they can even apply for licensure. So the obvious and most important career option for those with a master's degree in the field is to become a licensed clinical social worker.
Also, employment in the field is growing rapidly, in particular those with Master's degrees because that is the minimum threshold for nearly every job in the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment within the social work field is expected to grow 9% from 2021 to 2031.
Other careers that someone with a MSW degree should explore include:
- Mental health social worker
- Case worker
- Direct-service social worker
- Clinical social worker
- Child or family social worker
- School social worker
- Healthcare social worker
- Private or public agency leader or director
- Policy analyst
- Supervisor in social work field or agency
- Program director
- Social work opportunities within the medical and public health fields
Online Doctoral Degrees in Social Work
Doctoral degree programs in Social Work are something of rare birds. According to the 2021 study from the CSWE, there were only about 3,500 students in the entire country who completed or were enrolled in a doctoral degree program in social work. It is safe to assume that a very small fraction of those programs offer online doctoral courses in social work and it is even safer to assume that an even smaller fraction of those programs are fully online.
In fact, the programs are so few and far between and so distant in coursework and subject material from the MSW degree program that the CSWE doesn't even accredit doctoral degree programs in social work. Their reasoning is that, "doctoral degrees in social work are typically research-oriented and primarily prepare students for academic, research, or administrative positions. In most instances, persons seeking a doctorate in social work already have a master's degree in social work."
There are two types of social work doctorate -- the DSW and the PhD. The Doctor of Social Work is more practical and its curriculum is focused and centered around the practice of social work. The PhD is the more research-centric degree and is more abstract. People who earn a PhD in social work typically don't want to work as a clinical social worker anymore and would prefer to tackle more macro issues that are research-intensive.
The Doctorate of Social Work in clinical practice program is for individuals interested in advancing their clinical knowledge and becoming leaders in clinical practice. The degree program differs from other social work doctorates in that it is specifically designed to prepare students for advanced clinical practice. The degree program is designed to be intensive and all students will be expected to earn the degree or at least complete the requirements for the degree after three years.
The goals of the PhD program in social work is to help students prepare for leadership positions in the field. The position is more research and theory-focused and so students are expected to complete a 72 credit program including:
- a course of study of 36 credits if the student has an MSW because of transfer credits and 48 credits if the student doesn't have an MSW
- research internship
- passing grade on a qualifying examination
- successful defense of a dissertation proposal, and
- successful defense of a dissertation (a minimum of 24 research credits while in candidacy) for 72 total credits
With a doctorate, you gain career options in higher education, government, and private and nonprofit sectors in a variety of new roles including; consultant; management/leadership role; college faculty member; practitioner; researcher
Featured Online Social Work PhD Program
Accreditation of Online Social Work Degrees
It should be common knowledge to all students applying to any type of degree program (not just the ones applying to online social work degree programs) that accreditation is important. The U.S. Department of Education describes it as the process for ensuring that institutions of higher learning meet “an acceptable level of quality”. If a student receives a degree from an accredited institution, it serves as an automatic stamp of approval of the quality of said student’s education for other institutions and potential employers. But whereas accreditation is more of a helpful guideline for some professions, in the field of social work, it is the industry minimum. Each state has a different set of requirements and standards that applicants must meet in order to become licensed social workers. For example, Indiana allows students with either a bachelor’s degree in Social Work or a Master’s degree in Social Work to apply for licensure; but California requires that all students possess a Master’s degree in Social Work in order to be considered for licensure. Despite all of these differences and unique characteristics of licensure, there is one thing that all 50 states agree on and that is that the applicants must have a degree from an institution that has been accredited by The Council on Social Work Education.
Accreditation is especially important for students considering online social work degree programs because unlike traditional nonprofit universities, almost all of which are accredited, online social work degree programs are still relatively new, which means it is more likely that a student will come across a program that isn't accredited or is still in the process of gaining accreditation. It may seem like a superfluous detail in the midst of information about the licensure exam, the supervised work experience and transcript requirements, but without the degree from an accredited institution, the rest of the application won’t matter. The good news is that unlike the actual licensure application process, the process for ensuring that the institution offering a degree in social work is accredited is relatively simple. The bad news is that the process for ensuring that the institution offering an online degree in social work is accredited is a good deal more convoluted.
There are two organizations that are approved to recognize accrediting bodies in any field and those organizations are the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). As if that wasn’t simple enough, there is only one organization that is recognized by CHEA as an accrediting agency of social work education and that organization is the aforementioned The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). There may be online social work degrees that are offered by institutions accredited by a different agency, but states are only going to accept degrees from institutions that have been accredited by CSWE and that is because CSWE takes the accreditation process very seriously. Two of the biggest and most important branches of the entire organization are the Commission on Accreditation which describes itself as being “responsible for developing accreditation standards that define competent preparation and ensuring that social work programs meet them,” and the Office of Social Work Accreditation which is responsible for “administering a multi-step accreditation process that involves program self-studies, site visits, and Commission on Accreditation reviews.”
Unfortunately, because of the relative recency of online degree programs, the CSWE hasn't quite figured out what to do about purely online social work degree providers. While they admit that they don't keep information about online social work degree programs in their accredited database, they do maintain a list of accredited programs that offer either full-time or part-time online degree programs in social work. These programs are all different in terms of not only the instructional delivery method but also the length of the program and whether they have campus-based requirements, so be sure to contact the school individually to ask about its online social work degree program. The list maintained by the CSWE isn't meant to be comprehensive, so it is totally possible and even likely that there are additional accredited programs offering online degrees in social work. This means that students would be wise to use the list of accredited institutions as a good baseline for picking programs and then once they have narrowed the list, they should contact each school individually and inquire about their accreditation. Students should remember that almost every state requires a social work degree from a CSWE-accredited institution to apply for a license and sit for the licensing exam.
Research Additional Social Work Topics:
- Social Work Careers
- Social Work Licensing
- Social Work Schools
- Best Online BSW Programs
- Social Work Experts
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for social workers are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed July 2023.
Featured Online MSW Program