Social Worker Certification Programs

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How to Get Started, Gain Experience, and Earn a License in Your State

Social workers support individuals, families, and communities, helping clients work through challenges such as divorce, unemployment, addiction, and poverty. Licensed social workers offer treatment for emotional, mental, and behavioral issues. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for social workers to grow 13% between 2019-2029, a rate much faster than the national average for all occupations.

Social workers perform complex, challenging work, supporting some of society’s most vulnerable populations. In general, social workers need strong interpersonal skills. Problem-solving and organizational skills also help social workers succeed.

This guide offers an overview of licensed social worker degrees, including education requirements, general tuition costs, and common career paths after graduation.

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How to Become a Licensed Social Worker

A bachelor’s in social work prepares graduates for some entry-level social work careers, but licensed social workers in all U.S. states must hold at least a master of social work (MSW) from an accredited social work program. Other licensure requirements vary by state, but candidates must typically complete two years of supervised work in a clinical setting and pass a licensure exam.

Social Worker Specializations

More commonly available at the graduate level, specializations focus on specific areas of social work practice. Offerings vary by program, but the following list highlights three common social work specializations.

  • Children, Youth, and Families

    This specialization focuses on the development of children and family relationships. Social workers in this field often work directly with families in community settings, offering support to improve family dynamics. Students pursuing the specialization learn strategies for addressing issues such as family violence and child abuse. The concentration prepares graduates to pursue roles such as child and family social worker, child protection specialist, and case manager therapist.

  • Direct Practice/Clinical

    One of the most common social work concentrations, direct practice/clinical social work prepares candidates to provide direct services to clients. In general, clinical social work emphasizes support and behavioral changes to improve well-being. Students learn about research-informed assessment and intervention methods for individuals, families, and groups. Clinical social workers practice in many environments, such as social service agencies, private practices, and community organizations.

  • School Social Work

    School social workers help students address issues such as mental illness and poverty. Candidates in this concentration learn how to assess student needs, provide counseling, and perform crisis interventions for students and families. Most school social work graduates work in public K-12 schools. They may also work alongside other social services agencies to provide comprehensive care to students.

What Are the Education Requirements for a Licensed Social Worker?

Social workers can pursue degrees at all academic levels. In general, an undergrad social work degree prepares candidates for entry-level roles in the field, while graduate degrees lead to more advanced roles with greater responsibilities. This list offers an overview of the major social worker degrees.

  • Bachelor's

    A bachelor’s degree in social work prepares graduates for entry-level positions, including administrative and direct service roles. Bachelor’s courses introduce the fundamentals of social work, including general psychology, methods for supporting client populations, and assessment and intervention strategies. Graduates can work as mental health assistants, caseworkers, and lower-level administrators and managers. However, all clinical social work positions require at least a master’s degree.

  • Master's

    A master’s degree in social work prepares graduates for most positions in the social work field. At this level, candidates commonly focus their studies on one area of social work, such as clinical practice, program management, or addiction counseling. Courses cover topics such as clinical mental health counseling, program assessment, and social services law and policy. All master’s programs require applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree.

  • Doctorate

    Doctoral programs build highly specialized knowledge, preparing candidates to perform original social work research. Courses typically focus on advanced clinical and organizational concepts. Most social work jobs do not require a doctorate, but the degree serves candidates planning to pursue careers in academia, research, public policy, and advanced management. Doctoral programs typically require applicants to hold a master’s in social work.

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How Much Does a Licensed Social Worker Degree Cost?

Tuition for social worker degrees varies by factors such as program type, degree level, and enrollment format. Public schools typically offer lower tuition rates than private schools, and in-state students at public schools often pay lower tuition rates than out-of-state students.

At the bachelor’s level, tuition at all institutions costs an average of $23,835 per year in 2017-2018. This estimate includes school tuition rates and the added expenses of room and board. Graduate tuition, including master’s programs, costs an average of $12,171 per year at public institutions. At the doctoral level, most students receive full funding, paying no tuition in return for teaching or research duties as part of their academic program. While some doctoral students do take out loans, most candidates graduate without education debt.

Students may save money by enrolling in an online program. Distance learners often save on many of the expenses that on-campus students incur, such as housing and commuting costs. Plus, many schools offer tuition discounts to online students.

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How Much Do Social Work Majors Make?

Median: $51,760

Social workers may work for social services organizations, government agencies, nonprofits, or schools. Licensed social workers may also work as counselors at mental health agencies or in private practice. The BLS reports that social workers of all types earn an annual median salary of $51,760. After gaining professional experience, social workers can move into positions such as social and community service manager, earning a median salary of $69,600 annually.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers

Licensed clinical social workers can pursue counseling positions such as marriage and family therapist, earning a median salary of $51,340 per year. They may also work as school counselors and make a median $58,120 annually.


Social workers who earn a doctorate can pursue careers as postsecondary teachers. These professionals earn an annual median wage of $80,790.

Certifications and Licensure for Licensed Social Worker

Social workers can advance their careers by pursuing certifications and licensure. Some professional credentials focus on general social work practice, while others focus on specific competencies or client populations. This list highlights three common professional credentials for social workers.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

The most common license for clinical social workers, the LCSW qualifies social workers to provide clinical services to clients, including mental health counseling. Licensure requirements vary by state, but all LCSW applicants must hold an MSW, complete a set number of clinical hours, and pass an exam.

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Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW)

Serving experienced addiction counselors, the C-CATODSW credential showcases advanced skills in areas including counseling, treatment planning, and education. Applicants must hold an MSW, a current LCSW, 180 hours of relevant continuing education, and at least two years (3,000 hours) of post-MSW work experience.

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Certified Advanced Children, Youth and Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW)

Serving child and family specialist social workers, the C-ACYFSW credential indicates proficiency in direct practice, program development, and administration. Applicants need an MSW, a current master’s-level license, at least two years (3,000 hours) of post-MSW work experience, and at least 20 hours of continuing education.

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Becoming A Licensed Social Worker: How to Get Started, Gain Experience, and Earn a License in Your State

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