Social workers assist individuals and communities with social problems such as mental health issues, homelessness, and substance abuse. Professionals with a social work degree help clients access resources including healthcare, mental health treatment, and housing.
Social workers commonly work in schools, social services agencies, nonprofits, and healthcare facilities. Social workers professionals in any setting need strong emotional and communication skills to understand client needs.
This guide offers an overview of the profession and details about online social work degrees. The following sections explore tuition rates, specializations, and career paths for social work degree-seekers.
How Much Does a Social Work Degree Cost?
Costs for social work degrees vary by factors such as degree level, program length, and school type. Public institutions generally offer lower tuition rates than private schools. Bachelor's programs usually require four years, while most master's programs take about two years.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average cost of attending a four-year school during the 2018-2019 academic year was $13,900 at public institutions and $27,000 at private schools. For the 2019-2020 academic year, the average cost of graduate tuition and fees at public and private schools was $12,410 and $28,430, respectively, according to NCES data.
Some schools offer online learners reduced tuition rates. Online students can also save on transportation, relocation, and childcare costs. Working professionals often choose online social work degrees to complete their studies while maintaining full-time employment.
Featured Online Programs in Social Work
How Much Do Social Workers Make?
According to the BLS, social workers of all types earn a median annual salary of $51,760. Factors that can affect salary potential include education level, location, and professional experience.
An individual's specialization can also impact earning potential. Healthcare social workers earn a median salary of $57,630 per year. Social workers in mental health and substance abuse treatment earn a median annual salary of $48,720.
Industry also affects earnings. Social workers in local government earn the highest median salary, $57,660 per year. Social work professionals who work for ambulatory healthcare services earn a median of $52,850 per year, while those in state government earn a median of $49,860 annually.
Earning an advanced degree or professional certifications can lead to additional career opportunities and higher salaries. Individuals with a doctoral-level social work degree can become college instructors, who earn an annual median salary of $80,560.
How to Become a Social Worker
Practicing social workers need education, licensure, and professional experience. Most social work positions require at least a bachelor's degree. Clinical social workers, who treat patients, need a master's degree and state licensure.
Aspiring social workers typically earn a bachelor's in social work. Many graduates then pursue a master's degree with a specialization area. Common specializations include children and family, substance abuse, and aging populations.
Master's programs in the field require internship and practicum hours. During their program, degree-seekers often complete the clinical hours necessary to apply for licensure. Licensure candidates take a state exam to obtain their credentials and qualify for social work positions.
Social Work Degrees
Students can pursue on-campus or online social work degrees at any level. This section highlights the three major degrees available to social work candidates. Each degree opens different career options with unique professional responsibilities and salary potentials.
A bachelor of social work (BSW) program helps learners build foundational knowledge and skills for social work careers. Degree-seekers study topics including counseling, psychology, and social work ethics. Graduates often pursue entry-level roles as mental health assistants and caseworkers.
Most bachelor's degrees require 120 credits and about four years of full-time study. BSW programs typically feature fieldwork that helps learners gain practical experience.
Students pursuing a master of social work (MSW) build on the knowledge gained during their BSW program. Graduate degree-seekers prepare for advanced social work practice. Many MSW graduates obtain social work licensure, which allows them to practice clinically. Master's degree-seekers often choose a specialization area, such as children and families or addiction counseling.
MSW-holders often pursue careers in clinical social work practice. Full-time students typically earn their master's degree in 1.5-2 years.
The highest level of education available to social workers, a doctorate in social work qualifies holders to teach at the college level and oversee social work research. Doctoral programs, such as Ph.D. programs, help learners gain advanced knowledge in social work research and clinical practice.
Many social work doctoral programs require applicants to hold an MSW. However, some doctoral programs accept bachelor's degree-holders. Most doctoral-level social work degrees take 3-7 years to complete.
Social Work Specialties
Many on-campus and online social work degree-seekers specialize to gain advanced skills in a practice area. Also known as concentrations or tracks, specializations can help students customize their degree and improve their job prospects.
Some specializations prepare learners to serve specific populations, such as children or the elderly. Others focus on a practice area such as community advocacy or healthcare. Students typically choose specializations based on their personal and professional interests.
The following list highlights five common social worker degree specializations. These concentrations represent a few of the many options available.
Child, Family, and School
Child, family, and school social workers primarily serve children and their families. These social workers often help families and children experiencing problems such as abuse, houselessness, and mental illness. They may also address problems in K-12 schools, such as bullying.
Child and family social workers often work for child welfare agencies or other social services agencies. They can also work in elementary, middle, and high schools.
Medical and Public Health
Medical and public health social workers help patients experiencing illness or injury. They help patients understand their diagnoses and navigate the medical system. Medical social workers may also connect patients with resources such as healthcare providers and housing.
Medical social work programs typically emphasize healthcare regulations and policy. Graduates often work in healthcare settings such as hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse
These social workers assist clients experiencing mental health and addictions issues. Master's degree-holders in this area can provide psychiatric counseling. Substance abuse and mental health social workers often treat alcoholism and drug addiction, along with mental health issues such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Coursework in the specialization covers advanced psychology and psychiatry topics. Graduates often work in mental health treatment facilities such as hospitals and social services agencies.
Advocacy and Community
Community social workers connect clients with social programs and resources. They may serve individuals, families, and communities. These professionals often work with community organizations to serve specific neighborhoods or populations.
Education for community social workers may focus on community organizing, program administration, and counseling. Community social workers can secure employment with nonprofits, government agencies, and community organizations.
Also known as gerontological social workers, these specialists work with aging populations. They connect members of older populations with resources such as housing and healthcare. Gerontological social workers may help seniors navigate life changes, such as lack of mobility and medical ailments.
Gerontological social work courses focus on lifespan development and issues affecting aging populations. These professionals can work in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and adult protection services.
Choosing a Social Work Program
Many aspiring social workers choose a program based on their professional goals and interests. Prospective students should research each school's faculty, specialization options, and licensure preparation components.
Learners pursuing a social work degree should also research tuition costs. Private schools typically charge higher tuition rates than public schools. In-state students at public institutions generally pay the lowest tuition rates. However, out-of-state learners pursuing online social work degrees may receive discounted tuition.
For working professionals, online social work degrees can offer more flexibility than on-campus programs. Students in online programs often complete coursework according to their schedule. Busy students can also enroll part time to make balancing academic and professional obligations easier.
Common Questions About Social Work Degrees
Can I Complete My Social Work Degree Online?
Many schools offer social work degrees online. However, some programs include in-person requirements. Students may need to travel to campus for in-person learning activities. Nearly all master's programs include a clinical component, which candidates complete in an approved social work environment.
What Are the Highest-Paying Social Work Jobs?
Many social workers enter the field to help others, rather than to earn a large paycheck. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the top 10% of social workers earn more than $85,820 per year. Social workers can increase their salary potential through advanced education.
Is a Master's Degree in Social Work a Requirement?
Not all social worker careers require a master's degree. However, clinical social workers need a master's-level social work degree and a set number of supervised clinical experience hours. Bachelor's degree-holders can pursue entry-level social work positions. However, professionals may need a graduate degree to advance in the field.
Do Social Workers Need a License?
All clinical social workers must hold state licensure. In many states, nonclinical social workers also need licensure. Requirements vary by state, but licensure candidates must typically hold an approved master's degree and clinical experience. Licensure candidates must also complete a written exam.
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