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  7. Best Online Master’s Degrees in Social Work

Online Master’s of Social Work Programs

Updated on: 7/23/2018

While baccalaureate social work programs are designed to provide general skills, a Master of Social Work (MSW) program is your route to specialization and/or clinical work. Career opportunities tend to be limited for social workers who stop at the baccalaureate level, with most healthcare, school and even administrative jobs requiring a graduate education. Many credentials, like the Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology, even require it. Whether you’re looking for career advancement, a salary increase, paving the way for an advanced degree or changing careers, pursuing an online MSW is all but a necessity. Read on to learn about the top programs and what to expect during and after an online MSW program.

What Are the Best Online Master’s in Social Work Programs?

Several colleges across the country now offer accredited online MSW programs, which means prospective students have a lot of options. To help you find the right school and program we’ve carefully analyzed data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the U.S. Department of Education and individual universities’ published materials to come up with a list of the top 50 online MSW degrees. Find out which colleges made the list and why and get more information on the programs that meet your specific goals and interests.

What Can I Learn in an Online Master’s in Social Work Program?

To know what to expect from an online MSW, it’s helpful to remember the acquired competencies of a BSW program. According to standards developed by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), these are to:

  • Show professionalism and be ethical
  • Realize the effects of diversity on individuals’ experiences
  • Promote human rights and social justice
  • Draw on research to inform practice
  • Understand the links between policy and the practice of social work
  • Be able to assess and intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities

An MSW builds upon this generalist base and readies the student for specialized practice by integrating classroom learning and field work. Most colleges offer different concentrations but the five most common areas for graduate programs are in gerontology, school social work, addictions, child welfare and nonprofit management, according to CSWE’s 2016 annual survey. Mental health/clinical is also a common concentration area, particularly for those working towards clinical licensure. Here’s a brief overview of each:

Gerontology specialists learn how to work with older people, often in nursing homes, but also in hospitals and clinics. If you choose to pursue this concentration, you’ll take courses that explore topics such as adult psychosocial development and the effect of changing roles within a family later in life; social programs for the elderly, including social security and Medicare; and intervention strategies in areas such as guardianship, advance directives and elder abuse.

School social work specialists prepare to work, as the name suggests, in schools — not just with children, but also with parents, teachers and administrators. Coursework in this concentration explores child mental health and the services available to these demographic groups. Students may also take classes on how to support families who have children with disabilities or macro-level classes on education policy.

Addictions specialists learn how to counsel people with addictions, typically alcohol and drug abuse problems. Students pursuing this concentration will likely take pharmacology coursework so they can understand the biological forces behind addiction. But they’ll also study the intersection of substance abuse and mental health disorders, as well as services available to those with substance abuse issues.

Child welfare specialists study how to serve adolescents and their families. Students in this concentration will learn about social services and policies for minors, including juvenile justice and child protective services; and intervention strategies that help youth develop social skills, proper values and ethical behavior. Some students choose to further specialize in child development or adolescent development to understand the biological, interpersonal and psychological changes that correspond with each phase of development.

Nonprofit management specialists typically gear up to work in nonclinical settings. In this concentration, students study community organization and advocacy as well as public policy. In addition, they’ll become skilled at procuring funding via grants and project proposals.

Mental health specialists are trained in overall mental health, substance abuse and trauma in order to conduct and carry out crisis assessment and intervention. These professionals use their skills and knowledge to create treatment methods to increase an individual’s functional capacity. They may also work to improve local or regional systems or programs that address mental illness. Students who pursue this concentration are likely to find careers in a variety of mental health settings such as clinical practice, community health centers or even in policy and research.

Although the above are the most common social work specializations, there are many more. Often, mental health and substance abuse is combined into a single concentration, and it’s important to note that most states require additional licensure and internship work or supervised clinical hours for this specialty. Advocacy and social justice is another common specialization; it can lead to positions as a lobbyist, community organizer or analyst. Lastly, there’s military social work, which involves working with active duty members and veterans experiencing psychological issues as they face deployment or reintegration to civilian life, respectively.

However, regardless of the specialization, there are some courses that are foundational to any online MSW program. But before exploring these, it’s helpful to first understand the structure of the MSW.

The standard MSW is typically 60 credits, so completing the program will take about two years of full-time study or up to four years of part-time study. However, enrollees who already hold a BSW can often start an MSW with “advanced standing.” This status allows students to opt out of certain courses – usually with the university’s review and approval – and earn their master’s more quickly.

In practice, that means students entering an MSW program without a BSW (but with a baccalaureate in another field) spend their first year doing coursework that’s typically found in the tail-end of a BSW program — courses with titles like Generalist Practice, Social Welfare Policy and Social Work Ethics — along with classes in their concentration and plenty of fieldwork. To break these down further:

  • A generalist practice course provides a theoretical framework for working with clients, exploring issues of accountability as well as philosophical imperatives behind intervention.

  • A policy course gives students insight into the American approach to social welfare and the provision of services, both in a historical context and in modern practice. After all, social workers need a strong understanding of the public and private resources their clients can draw upon for support and assistance.

  • Working with individuals requires balancing privacy concerns with a need to ensure client safety, which may be mutually exclusive, as in the case with suicidal patients. An ethics course teaches students how to balance competing interests, like the example above, and make appropriate, ethical decisions for their clients.

  • All of the fieldwork at this level is generalist. In other words, it’s foundational for social workers to understand how to work with other people, whether individuals or groups. Expect to intern in multiple locations to get a sampling of the different types of settings in which social work takes place.

The second year is where the advanced standing students jump in. Along with a few courses in their concentration, they’ll also take a few standard courses, the most common of which are Research Methods, Human Behavior and Clinical Social Work Practice (note that specific course names will vary by school).

  • In terms of research courses, students will be drilled in the scientific method and best practices. That includes designing a study, working with test subjects ethically and collecting appropriate data. While this may seem like a rehashing of one’s bachelor’s level research course, it’s not. The content overlaps, but students will be expected to design more sophisticated studies and tackle more complex topics. Additionally, they will be preparing research specifically within their specialization.

  • Human behavior courses, meanwhile, help the student understand how differences in age, race, gender, class and upbringing influence human behavior. Graduate-level coursework also explores how social disturbances are formed through biological and environmental factors.

  • Clinical social work practice courses vary by concentration. That is, they can be specific to the population the student will be working with. All students learn the theoretical concepts needed to assess patients and provide appropriate therapy. They’ll then apply this in fieldwork settings, which will be specific to their specialty.

Despite being Internet-based, online MSW programs still pack hundreds of hours of fieldwork into the curriculum. In fact, to attain CSWE accreditation, MSW programs must include at least 900 hours of fieldwork, compared to 400 for a BSW. One obvious question for someone looking to attain an online degree with so much fieldwork required is: How does that work?

The top online MSW programs usually have relationships with internship sites across the country. Moreover, they have dedicated staff to help place students in workplaces that are appropriate to their concentrations. Students in isolated or rural areas may have to work with their field coordinator to identify an appropriate setting near to them — whether a prison, hospital, local government office or other. The placement site will have a supervisor there for the student to report to; this person will also be responsible for ensuring the student is meeting the learning objectives of the placement.

At the end of the program, MSW graduates will have passed a key hurdle for licensure. In addition to holding the MSW, their coursework should also have prepared them for the licensure exam. There are two types they may be interested in:

Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)

Each state maintains its own qualification to sit for this exam, with two years of practice in a supervised setting typically required in addition to the MSW and passing a standardized test. As the name implies, LCSWs can work in clinical settings, directly with patients.

Licensed master social worker (LMSW)

Again, each state sets its own standards, but these typically include a passing test score and professional experience after graduating with an MSW. LMSWs can work as consultants, case managers or administrators. They are not involved in clinical work.

What Can I Do with a Master’s in Social Work Degree?

As mentioned, earning an MSW allows you to specialize in a particular area. You’ll gain targeted knowledge and skills that will help prepare you for advanced roles. As an example, here are some of the potential career paths:

  • Child welfare social worker

    Government agencies and nonprofits, as well as hospitals, hire child and family social workers to protect children. They work with states’ child protective services agencies to investigate allegations of mistreatment and evaluate the child’s home life, pulling minors out of dangerous or unhealthy situations as necessary and placing them in the custody of foster or adoptive families.

  • Clinical social worker

    This is the most common career path for MSW graduates. Licensed clinical social workers engage with individuals, families or groups to identify and alter negative behaviors. This can involve developing treatment plans alongside doctors, especially in residential treatment facilities. Many also work as counselors or therapists because there’s so much overlap between the fields. However, social workers have additional responsibilities, such as reaching out to others on behalf of their client. LCSWs can join the Clinical Social Work Association to keep current with professional development activities.

  • Community and organization social worker

    This career involves little, if any, direct involvement with clients. Colleges with such a specialty often incorporate coursework on planning, fiscal management and leadership, which helps prepare students for upper-level administrative roles. These administrators make policy decisions about how to deliver services to specific populations, and often work in social service agencies, probation departments, state mental health departments and hospitals.

  • Mental health social worker

    Mental health social workers, who must attain an LCSW, are responsible for assessment and diagnosis of patients, as well as crafting treatment plans that help patients with mental health disorders go about their daily life.

  • School social worker

    The School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA) notes that school social workers provide services to not only students but also parents and teachers. This can include crisis intervention and mobilizing resources to facilitate learning as well as developing programs to serve students with disciplinary problems or exceptional abilities. Individual states may have licensure requirements for school social workers separate from the LCSW or LMSW.

The National Association of Social Workers has more information on social work careers and provides 13 different credentials for MSW holders. Examples of credentials include:

  • Certified Clinical Alcohol Social Work
  • Tobacco & Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW)
  • Certified Advanced Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW)
  • Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G)

How Much Money Can I Make with a Master’s in Social Work Degree?

In some fields, master’s degrees do not necessarily equate to higher earnings. That’s not the case with social work. According to PayScale data, social workers with an MSW maintain a salary advantage over those with only a BSW throughout their careers:

Degree Entry (0-5 years’ experience) Midcareer (5-10 years) Experienced (10-20 years) Late career (20+ years)
Social worker (MSW) $43,328 $47,432 $53,466 $60,349
Social worker (BSW) $34,982 $40,256 $42,172 $44,300

Given the lack of disaggregated data, it’s difficult to determine how well MSW grads do compared to BSW grads across specialties. Some of the specialties listed below include non-clinical roles for those without a master’s degree. Nonetheless, the following numbers do offer some insight into salary patterns for social workers in different specialties:

Specialization Entry (0-5 years’ experience) Midcareer (5-10 years) Experienced (10-20 years) Late career (20+ years)
Child, family or school social worker $38,676 $42,100 $50,780 $53,000
Licensed clinical social worker $49,926 $55,402 $59,341 $62,048
Medical social worker $48,736 $51,791 $57,036 $59,545
School social worker $44,259 $49,978 $52,724 $61,986

When it comes to employment outlook, social workers are in high demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the profession to add nearly 110,000 jobs between 2016 and 2026, representing a 16 percent increase.

Of the jobs adds, certain specialties are expected to see more growth than others, according to BLS:

  • 45,000 jobs are expected for child, family and school social workers, a 14% increase on 2015 figures

  • 35,400 jobs are expected for healthcare social workers, a 20% increase

  • 23,900 jobs are expected for mental health and substance abuse social workers, a 19% increase

A closer look at changing political and social dynamics can partly explain the projected growth. Bipartisan efforts to reform the criminal justice system may further increase demand for substance abuse social workers. As the BLS points out, drug offenders are now being sent to treatment programs with social workers rather than jail. Meanwhile, increased access to healthcare through the Affordable Care Act, paired with the retiring generation of Baby Boomers, contributes to the need for healthcare social workers.

Online Master’s in Social Work Program Accreditation

When it comes to accreditation, there are two types you need to look for: regional accreditation for the college and programmatic accreditation of the MSW.

Regional accreditation is granted by regional agencies that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. In short, these bodies affirm that the school provides enrollees with an education that meets acceptable standards. Although schools can instead seek out national accreditation, as many technical and vocational schools do, this is far less valuable for social work students, who must have graduated from a BSW program at a regionally accredited school to enroll in an MSW program that is recognized by the Council on Social Work Education.

CSWE is the primary programmatic accrediting body for the discipline. Although each state maintains its own requirements for professional licensure, all states require a degree from a CSWE-accredited school. Once out of school, graduates from such programs can sit for one of two certifications previously mentioned, provided they meet all other requirements established by their state: licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) or licensed master social worker (LMSW).

As of 2018, CSWE accredits nearly 70 online MSW programs in the U.S. It maintains a list of accredited online programs as well as a list of all accredited institutions, both on-campus and off-campus, which can be filtered by concentration.

How to Pay for a Master’s in Social Work Degree

Like students of any other program, MSW-seekers must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to qualify for scholarships, grants and loans from the federal or state government. Colleges typically require a FAFSA to compete for their own grant and loan programs as well. For detailed information about FAFSA and scholarship sources, see our financial aid guides. Some that might be of interest are:

Speaking of alternative means of financing a degree, those holding a bachelor’s in social work have an advantage: They hold a job that’s in high demand. An online program gives them the flexibility to seek out a new degree without losing their current source of income. And some employers may provide tuition reimbursement for education that directly impacts their employees’ work. Contact your human resources department to find out whether your employer offer this benefit.