Online Social Work Bachelor’s Degrees: 2016’s Best Programs

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As defined by the International Association of Schools of Social Work, social work has four major mandates: to promote social development, social change and social cohesion and to empower people. Whether through academic study or professional practice, the field draws upon the integrated social, cultural, economic and personal factors that impact human behavior and development. In turn, social workers are concerned for the well-being of others, providing direct practice advocacy, intervention and case management services in a variety of settings.

Social work is a growingly in-demand career field, one projected to display 19 percent growth nationally between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That should be good news to prospective students considering pursuing employment in the field. Workers in this diverse occupation are found in numerous industries, ranging from government organizations to nonprofit agencies, human services to health care. This guide serves as an introduction to the online social work degree, with an examination of education options as well as a Q&A with an experienced social worker.

Overview of the ONLINE Social Work Degree

The path to a career in social work includes multiple educational achievements at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The two most common degrees are the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and the Master of Social Work (MSW). BSW curriculum develops the core competencies of students, preparing them for generalist practice, while the MSW enhances those competencies through advanced study of particular areas of concentration.

MEET THE Expert: Caitlyn Wallace

Caitlyn Wallace has been volunteering or working in the social service field in one form or another since 2001. She graduated with an MSW from the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare in 2009, with a specialization in Community Mental Health. She has worked with children, adolescents, adults and seniors in inpatient and outpatient settings, as well as working as an advocate, community organizer and case manager. She is a clinical social work intern working in a community mental health center and is committed to providing mental health and wellbeing services to under-served populations.

Broadly, programs in social work combine conceptual, theory-based study with hands-on, application-based instruction in subjects such as intervention, counseling and therapy, policy, case management, advocacy and education. Coupled with experience-focused internships and practicums, online BSW and MSW programs provide students with a comprehensive understanding of social work practice, preparing them to pursue an assortment of professional opportunities. Entering this field requires more than just a degree, and the following guide offers insights into specific academic opportunities and specializations, with advice for selecting online programs.

Social work education programs are available in multiple distance-based formats, including the following:

Online. Social work degree is completed 100 percent online. Blended. Program includes hybrid mix of online courses with in-person classes or learning sessions. Online Degree Completion. Students who either have an associate degree or meet credit requirements can finish their BSW through online courses.

For social work and other subjects, web-based courses are delivered via both real-time synchronous and asynchronous formats, taking advantage of a variety of learning technologies and resources, such as interactive video, chat boards and other forms of instructional media.

Online Social Work Degree Timeline

Social work education at undergraduate and graduate levels (master’s and doctoral) is responsible for paving the way for future leaders within the professional community. To maintain continuity, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) – the main accrediting body for baccalaureate and master’s social work programs – has created an educational policy and accreditation standards. This policy provides the guiding context in which universities design their social work degree programs, specifically in three major areas: curriculum, field experience and student development. In turn, these items are important for the prospective student to review and understand. The program overview below analyzes the curriculum, field experience and student development components for each degree level. Program specifics such as the credits required and time to completion vary from university to university.

Online Bachelor of Social Work

Generally, online BSW programs require between 120 and 128 semester credit hours, with full-time students usually graduating in four years. BSW programs are designed to prepare graduates for entry-level positions as generalist practitioners in human service positions. Studies introduce an array of topics including ethics, diversity, human behavior, at-risk populations, social environments, psychology and more. These courses shape the fundamental skills of the profession: assessment, case management, social work practice, social welfare policy and research methods.

Divided between general education and classes for the major, the BSW emphasizes both academics and real-world experience. Students admitted to the major typically complete core coursework during the first two years of the program and transition to social work courses in the final two years, culminating in a supervised internship with a social services agency. The number of required field work hours varies, but usually falls between 400 and 500. For the field education component, students work with a faculty advisor or site placement coordinator to arrange placement in an agency or organization. Students may interact with a variety of individuals, groups and families dealing with a range of personal, behavioral and social issues.

Syracuse University
  • Enrollment: 25,932
  • Tuition: $39,004
  • College Type: Private
  • State: New York
  • Bachelor of Science in Social Work
Wayne State University
  • Enrollment: 23,232
  • Tuition: $10,190
  • College Type: Public
  • State: Michigan
  • Bachelor of Social Work in Social Work
Indiana Wesleyan University
  • Enrollment: 15,890
  • Tuition: $23,164
  • College Type: Private
  • State: Indiana
  • Bachelor of Social Work
Touro College
  • Enrollment: 8,931
  • Tuition: $14,850
  • College Type: Private
  • State: New York
  • Bachelor of Arts in Social Work
Washburn University
  • Enrollment: 7,386
  • Tuition: $5,486
  • College Type: Public
  • State: Kansas
  • Bachelor of Social Work
Brandman University
  • Enrollment: 5,805
  • Tuition: NR
  • College Type: Private
  • State: California
  • Bachelor of Arts in Social Work
Western New Mexico University
  • Enrollment: 3,798
  • Tuition: $4,314
  • College Type: Public
  • State: New Mexico
  • Bachelor of Social Work
Wayne State College
  • Enrollment: 3,248
  • Tuition: $5,520
  • College Type: Public
  • State: Nebraska
  • Bachelor of Social Work

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The MSW allows students to focus on their concentration, providing the opportunity to not only enhance their theoretical knowledge of the field, but become an advanced practitioner through hands-on clinical experience. Online MSW students can develop skills in myriad areas: policy development, intervention, counseling, advocacy, primary prevention and more. Visit our full guide to online MSW programs to get detailed information about this advanced degree option, including how to identify the best schools, admissions and graduation requirements, and top careers after college.

Online Doctoral Degrees in Social Work

Students interested in education post-MSW have two paths to select from: the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and the Doctor of Social Work (DSW). These degrees represent the highest level education available to social workers and students. On the one hand, the social work PhD is an academic, research-focused degree for individuals seeking to become researchers or faculty members at higher education institutions. On the other, the DSW is a professional degree aimed at those interested in developing their knowledge and skills to become advanced clinical practitioners. Learn more about these advanced options and see which online doctorate in social work makes the most sense for you.

Find the Right Program for a Social Work Degree Online

With such a diversity of educational options, figuring out the appropriate fit for the online student can be challenging. There are several factors that impact the choice of undergraduate and graduate programs alike.

CSWE accreditation.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the primary accrediting body for academic programs, whether on-campus or online. As of February 2015, the CSWE has accredited 504 BSW and 235 MSW programs in the United States, including blended and distance learning options.

Faculty background.

Social work faculty members are one of the primary drivers of the quality and success of both undergraduate and graduate programs. Prospective students should consider the faculty mix of the department, each instructor’s professional and educational background, experience, licenses and specialized certifications.

Field placement process.

At all levels, hands-on experience is vital to an education in social work. Prospective students should investigate the field placement process, specifically site selection and whether opportunities are available in their own local communities. Applicants can also research the number of hours required to complete that portion of the degree.

Online and onsite courses.

The overall distance learning experience is among the key criteria for choosing an online degree program in social work. Students at all levels should be comfortable with alternative learning formats and understand how content is delivered (asynchronous or synchronous mode) and where (over the Internet or on campus).

Licensing and Certification for Social Work

For the clinical social worker, licensing and certifications are required in order to maintain the professional standards and ethics of the practice. Licensure is determined at the state level, as each state sets its own educational guidelines and policies. However – typically speaking – clinical licensure has the following basic requirements:

Completion and graduation from a CSWE accredited MSW program Finishing at least two years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience (post-graduation) Successfully passing credential examination from the Association of Social Work Boards

There are several kinds of social work licenses, each one requiring different levels of experience, education and training. After earning a license, social workers may choose to acquire additional certifications from organizations such as the National Association of Social Workers. Below is a list of common social work licenses:

Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW).

Individuals with a bachelor’s degree in social work can apply for an LBSW license. Designed for entry-level social workers, this certification requires the applicant to meet educational and supervised clinical experience standards.

Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW).

The LMSW is for individuals who have completed a master’s or doctoral degree in the field. The requirements typically include post-graduate work experience hours and the successful completion of a standard examination.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LSCSW).

This is the primary designation for clinical practitioners. Work experience, an MSW degree and examinations are all part of the requirements for this certification.

Here are some of the major certification and membership organizations for social work:

Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

The ASWB focuses on social work regulation. It comprises the regulatory boards of all U.S. states except California, as well as the District of Columbia, Canada and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Four examinations are available: Bachelor’s, Master’s, Advanced Generalist and Clinical.

National Association of Social Workers.

The NASW organization, with 132,000 members, offers various career development opportunities. Credentials are divided into two groups: professional social work (e.g., diplomate in clinical social work) and advanced practice specialties, for example, qualified clinical social worker or certified school social work specialist.

American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work (ABE).

Social workers can select from ABE credentials in these areas: clinical supervision, children and their families, psychoanalysis and advanced generalist, also known as Board Certified Diplomate (BCD).

Interview with a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Suzette Doescher, LCSW-S, of Richardson, TX, has more than 15 years of experience in the field. Suzette came to this career later in life as a non-traditional student – completing her degree and becoming a social worker at the age of 50.

What is your current role?

I currently work in an independent practice that focuses on the adult population. I specialize in trauma, PTSD and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I am currently in the process of writing a paper on DID as an archetype to earn certification as an Archetypal Pattern Analyst, a type of depth psychology

Where did you get your degree?

Since graduating high school in the 1960s, I always dreamed of going to Tulane University. And, 30 years later, I had not one, but two degrees from the university.

Why did you choose a career in social work?

I cannot say I consciously chose my career. In fact, my life’s experiences put me into a position where the choice was made from me. I’m sure you have heard that most people enter the therapy professions because they have their own issues they are still dealing with. I am no exception to that rule. At the ripe old age of 50, I became a social worker. I wanted to go to graduate school but was terrified of the GRE. I didn’t believe I could pass it after being out of school for 30 years. Someone mentioned to me the school of social work at Tulane University did not require the GRE. Hence, you now have the story of how I chose my career.

What’s the best part of the social work profession?

The best thing about my profession is the diversity. There is always some area of social work that can be pursued, matched to what that individual wants to do. For me, being a social worker is not a job, not a career, but a vocation – it’s a calling. Many of the cases I handle are difficult. People frequently ask me how I can listen to such horrible life circumstances all day. Honestly, I don’t know if I could have done it when I was younger. I was not ready.

What advice do you have for prospective social work students?

My supervisees ask me that question quite often. My answer now is different than what I would have said when I was younger. If you want to help people, the first person you have to help is yourself. What I have learned in my experience is that it is important to take care of yourself if you are going to dedicate your life to caring for others. I routinely tell my clients that I’m not going to work harder at their recovery than they are: I’m going to teach you how to make yourself better, not try to make you feel better, so you can rely on that when you leave this office. But, I’ve also have had clients leave the office and never come back. So, students should know they can’t save the world – they can only save those who want to save themselves.

Social Work Education Degree Search Tool

Given the projected growth of the field, many students are now seeking online programs in social work. The good news is that many schools are answering this call with innovative degrees that can be completed fully online. Whether pursuing a bachelor’s degree or a doctorate, prospective students need programs that provide proper accreditation, excellent faculty credentials, field placement opportunities, and flexible course scheduling. The search tool below uses all of these criteria to provide each student with a tailored list of online programs in social work to meet their needs.

Degree Level:
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Best Online Social Work Degree for 2015-2016

For those who are interested in pursuing a career helping others, earning a degree in social work is a good first step. Students who are already employed, have families, or have other commitments, getting an online degree is a great way to advance their careers on a flexible schedule and without commuting to campus. A distance learning program offers all of the benefits and credibility of a traditional campus education. As more reputable universities begin to offer online social work degree programs, narrowing down the options and evaluating specific features can be daunting. We’ve done the research for you, compiling this list of the best online social work schools.

To see how we selected the Nation’s Best Online Social Work Degrees, please visit our methodology page.

RANK COLLEGE ScoreStudent-Teacher RatioFinancial AidCost MORE INFO
1 Mid-Atlantic Christian University 97.4312:1100%

Practical skills with Christian values are the focus of Mid-Atlantic Christian University's online bachelor's degree program in family studies. The program guides students in becoming family life educators, teaching others about communication skills, typical human development, good decision-making skills, healthy relationships, and positive self-esteem. Graduates should be prepared to enter careers in ministry, public policy, administration, and as family life teachers. The online schedule is flexible, allowing students to complete coursework at their convenience, as long as they meet assignment deadlines. Upon graduation, students receive the same diploma as their on-campus peers.

2 Western New Mexico University 97.0814:197%

WNMU offers an online bachelor's in social work. Graduates often work in hospitals, government agencies, schools, correctional facilities and mental health facilities. To enroll, adults must have a minimum 2.5 GPA and must earn a C or higher on the SWK 101. The program generally takes four to five years to complete, with courses including ethics in social work and human services, diversity in social work practice, human behavior and the social environment and social work and the homeless. The university uses an online portal to store lectures, seminars, transcripts and class schedules. Students can connect with instructors and academic advisors using email, discussion boards and chat rooms.

3 Western Kentucky University 96.6217:193%

The Bachelor of Science in consumer and family sciences degree with an emphasis in child studies is designed to prepare students for the specific challenges associated with working with children. Students take courses in nutrition, child development, psychology and parenting, where they study how children develop mentally, emotionally and physically. Students are required to participate in an internship, during which they have the chance to apply the conceptual skills they learned in a real-world, hands-on environment. Students must complete 44 hours of general education credits as well as 17 courses in the major.

4 Wayne State University 96.3715:189%

Wayne State University's online degree completion program in social work - called BSW Where Online Works! - is open to students with at least 64 credits who want to finish their bachelor's degree through distance learning. The curriculum includes the study of research methods, social work practice, human behavior and social environment, and social welfare policy and services. Four recurring themes throughout the program are social justice, populations at risk, values and ethics, and oppression and discrimination. Field placements are incorporated into the program. Students can complete this requirement as a block placement during their fourth semester (winter), Monday through Thursday, for 8 hours per day.

5 Roosevelt University 96.3011:196%

Careers in counseling, education, and healthcare are some of the future opportunities for graduates of this online degree program in psychology. Students may also choose to pursue graduate school in fields such as social work, school counseling or psychology. Topics of study include learning and cognition, social and diversity psychology, human development, and applied/clinical psychology. The major is fully online, with no on-campus time required. It is a program intended for adult learners only, and students must be at least 24 years old when they start the program. Courses are asynchronous, allowing students to complete their work on their own schedule without having to log on at specific times. Up to 66 semester hours from community colleges may be transferred for credit.

6 Briar Cliff University 96.0412:197%

Briar Cliff University's online Bachelor of Science in Social Work takes approximately two years to complete. Students must have an associate degree to enroll. In addition to courses in social issues and policy, child welfare, and mental health, adult learners must complete a 450-hour internship. Another option is to transfer 77 credit hours of social work study into the program. Students log into BCYOU, the school's online portal, to order textbooks and connect with career counselors, academic advisors, instructors and classmates. They also use the portal to access recorded lectures, discussion boards, test scores, transcripts, class schedules and course assignments.

7 Union Institute & University 95.958:190%

Union Institute & University's online Bachelor of Science in Social Work emphasizes evidence-based strategies, as well as generalist methods and clinical processes. Upon graduation, adults should be prepared to sit for a license and certification in social work. Consisting of 120 credit-hours, the curriculum focuses on areas like social welfare policy, social environment, ethical standards, human diversity and research. Classes are delivered using seminars and recorded lectures. Distance learners log into MyUnion to apply for the program, review transcripts, submit assignments and take exams. Students also have access to career counseling, academic advising, a writing center and a technology help desk.

8 Touro University Worldwide 95.9416:184%

Touro College offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Social Work, which prepares adults to work as generalists and to counsel children and adults in social settings. The program also provides a foundation for a future master's degree in social work. Each course takes eight weeks to complete and a total of 120 credit-hours is required to graduate. Curriculum focuses on social work research, ethics and social policy, child welfare services and interviewing and assessment. The school's online portal, MyTUW, is used for student orientation, academic advising and career counseling, as well as downloading class schedules, test scores, transcripts and video lectures.

9 Wayne State College 95.9020:192%

Wayne State College offers two bachelor's in sociology degrees. Administered through the school's Sociology, Psychology and Criminal Justice Department, each takes approximately five years to graduate. Topics include lifestyle management, statistics for social science, principles of human communication and lifestyle assessment. Students gain skills in collecting, analyzing and presenting individual and group social data, preparing them to enter careers in generalist social work. Through eCampus and Wildcats Online, virtual learners download class schedules, submit assignments and take exams. Other electronic services include technology support, career services, academic advising and financial aid. Textbooks are ordered digitally through the library or campus bookstore.

10 Limestone College 95.8719:1100%

Students can choose to take online courses exclusively, or mix in-person and distance courses, as they pursue a bachelor's degree in social work through Limestone's online program. Curriculum focuses on the patterns of behavior that individuals, families and communities follow, and explores how to use an understanding of these patterns to prevent problems and improve social conditions. Students will learn how to recognize and understand differences in ethnicity, culture, race and gender, and how to accept and use these differences for a better society. Courses are offered in eight-week sessions, with six terms per year. Students can take two courses per term, allowing them to earn 36 credits in a year.

11 Touro University Worldwide 95.863:1100%

Through a combination of online courses and field work placements, this online bachelor's degree program prepares students to become entry-level social workers. Courses include social justice and diversity, child welfare services, ethics and social policy, and comparative social work. Students also choose eight electives from options including domestic violence, international social work, military approach to social work, and drug and alcohol treatment. Full-time students can complete the program in 312 years, while part-time students typically graduate in seven years. Students can transfer up to 45 credits for general education courses, and potentially earn additional credits from other social work programs.

12 Hope International University 95.8414:198%

Offering concentrations in family studies or community mental health and counseling, the online degree program in human development is aimed at aspiring social workers who want to focus on specific populations. Those in the family studies program will learn about the physical, cognitive and social development of children and adolescents, and will be positioned to undertake jobs such as adoption caseworkers, counselors or youth services directors. The community mental health specialization guides students in learning counseling theories, techniques for mental health interventions, case management, and abnormal psychology. Graduates can use this degree to pursue positions in mental health institutions, employee assistance programs or community-based counseling settings.

13 Indiana Wesleyan University 95.5115:180%

Indiana Wesleyan University's Bachelor of Social Work is taught fully online, and requires 124 credithours to graduate. The program is designed to prepare adults for careers as school counselors, social workers and social agency managers, and also serves as a foundation for a master's degree in social work. Curriculum focuses on human behavior and the social environment, social welfare organization, social research and statistics for social sciences. Students log into the school's online distance education portal, MyIWU, to access class schedules, transcripts and email. Additional communication and collaboration tools include Course Smart, ePortfolio, Data Connect and MyWritingLab.

14 Washburn University 94.3514:192%

Students in Washburn University's online bachelor's degree in human services choose an area of emphasis from five choices: addiction counseling, gerontology, mental health, victim and survivor services, and youth services. All courses are available online, although addiction counseling students must take two courses on campus in order to comply with the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board. Some specializations may also include internships, which can be local to the student. Students who are unfamiliar with basic computer and Internet applications are encouraged to take an entry-level computer course at the university to facilitate their online learning.

15 The University of Texas of the Permian Basin 94.3119:192%

Aspiring social workers can pursue a bachelor of arts in child and family studies through the University of Texas's Online Consortium. The degree is structured to give students foundational knowledge about working with children and families, and has a learning and development track that focuses on all areas of a child's development, relationships between children and their families, and atypical development in children. The degree requires 120 credits, including 37 credits related to child and family studies and 21 credits of electives. Graduates should be prepared for careers working for local and state agencies, Head Start programs, infant stimulation programs, and in hospital settings. Many graduates go on to pursue further degrees or open childcare centers.

16 University of Washington-Seattle Campus 93.8015:155%

Students aspiring to work with children and families can undertake a two-year degree completion program in early childhood and family studies. The accelerated format allows students to transfer credits earned for an associate degree or in previous college courses to earn a bachelor of arts. The program uses the cohort model, with small groups of peers progressing through their courses together. Each course follows a weekly schedule that encompasses lectures, readings, activities and assignments, but students are free to complete their work at any time during the week. Sample courses include family studies research, child observation and assessment, and social policy and organization as related to early childhood.

17 The University of Alabama 93.7021:175%

Students can choose from two concentrations, one in child life and one as a child development practitioner, while pursuing an online bachelor's degree in human development and family studies. As a child life major, students will learn to be part of a healthcare team that promotes the development of babies, children and adolescents. Classes include work with hospitalized children and youth, and loss and bereavement. The child development practitioner track is specifically for students who want to work in Head Start programs. Curriculum covers the parent/child relationship, the development of young children, and how to design and evaluate preschool programs. Students can also earn credits for prior learning from work experience.

18 Brigham Young University-Idaho 93.5624:171%

The intricacies of family life are the focus of the online bachelor of science in marriage and family studies offered through Brigham Young University. Students interested in social work take courses that cover topics including communication, money management, family relationships, conflict management, family theory, and parenting. Graduates will be prepared to work in residential treatment homes, shelters, foster care programs, child protective services agencies, and similar settings. The online format allows students to interact frequently with each other and with instructors, yet programs are designed to be flexible and allow students to accelerate their coursework or take time off as needed.

19 University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point 93.3121:184%

Through its eCampus system, the University of Wisconsin offers an online bachelor's degree in human development and family studies. Students can complete the general program, or choose to specialize in gerontology. Graduates are prepared to work in an array of environments that focus on human services, including group homes, youth mentoring programs, corrections facilities, and family resource centers. Many students continue on to graduate school to for specialization and in-depth training in areas such as social work, mental health counseling and school counseling. Students may attend part- or full-time, with full-time students typically graduating in two years. Transfer credits are also accepted.

20 Pennsylvania State University-World Campus 92.0313:191%

Graduates of Penn State's World Campus online bachelor's degree program in human development and family studies should be prepared to begin careers as social workers, working in family and marriage counseling centers, drug and alcohol treatment centers, elder care and services agencies, and other healthcare facilities. Classes cover topics such as family relationships, problem resolution, and values and ethics in human development professions; students also complete an internship at a human service organization in their local area. Another component of the program is the opportunity for students to earn certificates as they complete courses for their degrees, such as an undergraduate certificate in children, youth, and family services. Such certificates help boost career credentials for working adults as they progress toward their degrees.

21 Brandman University 91.8414:1 N/A

Adults who are interested in exploring social work careers can enroll in Brandman University's Bachelor of Science in Social Work program. The degree can be completed fully-online with a minimum of 120 credit-hours and a GPA of 2.0 or higher. Core curriculum focuses on the areas of social work foundations, social policy, human behavior and social environment and diversity and social justice in a global society. Adults log into MyBrandman, the school's distance learning portal, to download course schedules, submit assignments and take tests. They can also use MyBrandman to view test scores, add and drop classes and consult with career advisors.