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Online schools for social work degrees

There are many occupations that focus their attention on making a positive difference in society, and social work is one of the biggest and fastest growing among them. Whether you want to work one-on-one with individuals in need, consult with policymakers to help develop improved social programs or take to the airwaves as an advocate for your profession and those it serves, a social work degree is the first step to joining the ranks of these compassionate professionals.

Different degrees are necessary to qualify for different types of social work. Clinical practitioners, who do the bulk of their work in direct interaction with clients, typically need more hands-on, experience-based training than those hoping to work on the policy or advocacy side. Here's a quick table of data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that shows how many schools in different regions of the country offer campus-based and online degrees in general and clinical social work:

Region No. of schools offering social work degrees No. of schools with at least one online social work degree No. of schools offering clinical social work degrees No. of schools with online clinical social work degrees
Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI) 66 6 1 0
Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO) 26 5 1 1
Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK) 81 13 6 2
Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD) 86 11 6 2
Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV) 192 28 5 0
Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI) 170 10 4 1
Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.) 120 5 3 0
New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME) 47 4 1 0
Total (all 50 states) 788 82 27 6

Entry-level social work degrees

Many jobs for professional social workers require at least some formal training, even at the entry level. Here's a brief picture of the sort of courseload you can expect from a variety of undergraduate degrees in social work:

  • Associate degrees - If you're looking to get your start as an assistant or aide in the social work field, earning an associate degree can help you make an impression on prospective employers. These typically two-year programs may include courses in psychology, nutrition, human behavior, interpersonal communication, social services and other subjects that compose the foundation on which the discipline of social work is built.
  • Bachelor's degrees - At the bachelor's level, the more complex and practical aspects of social work begin to take up a larger portion of the coursework. Students on the road to a four-year degree in social work can expect to dive deep into study of social welfare policy, social services administration, social work practice, research methods, statistical analysis and human behavior in the social environment while also taking a full complement of general education courses in the sciences, arts and humanities.
  • Non-degree study - Many institutions offer single-serving social work courses online as well as in traditional classroom settings, for people who want to better understand the field or add some social work fundamentals to their existing skillset. Social work departments at some colleges and universities may also offer certificate programs in individual aspects of social work, including crisis intervention, developmental disabilities and mental health concerns that affect specific populations.

Online social work degrees are fairly common at the undergraduate level, as well, particularly in programs that focus on training students for roles in advocacy and policy but also to a certain extent in degrees that can prepare you for clinical employment. If you're planning on making a career change to social work and want to continue at your current job while you earn your degree, taking at least some of your social work courses online can help ease the transition.

Advanced-degree social work programs

Most full-fledged professional social workers have at least a master's degree, and many have some additional study beyond a basic graduate program. Here's some detail about the different types of advanced degrees available for aspiring social workers:

  • Master's degree programs - Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees are often separated into clinical and policy tracks, with the latter including training in management skills and program administration and the former focusing on psychotherapeutic models and practical methods for approaching the individual difficulties your clients experience. Each of the MSW tracks may provide avenues for further specialization, such as concentrating your clinical skills for particular demographics or diving deep into particular methodologies of organizational management and strategy.
  • Doctorate programs - Doctorate programs in social work typically come in two forms: the research-oriented Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree and the practice-focused Doctorate in Social Work (DSW). The differences between the two degrees are fairly straightforward, in that aspiring professors or research leaders are typically encouraged to lean toward the Ph.D. while those hoping to combine cutting-edge research with deep knowledge of practical and administrative techniques are more likely to find a home for their passions in a DSW program.
  • Graduate certificates - Social workers are often asked to employ their training in a wide variety of political and sociocultural contexts, and graduate certificates in social work are often designed to give students and professionals a thorough picture of a particular context and the clinical or administrative techniques therein that have produced reliably positive results. Examples of certificate programs for graduates include adoption therapy, military social work, gerontology/elder care and advanced clinical social work for individuals and families.

Online courses in social work at the graduate level are no less common than they are for bachelor's or associate degree students, although MSW programs with a clinical focus tend to include an internship or other fieldwork component and are likely to require at least some on-site courses at a brick-and-mortar campus or satellite facility. Master's degrees that concentrate their coursework on policy or advocacy are more likely to offer fully online options.

Q&A with experts

Mary B. Mattis, clinical director at SoCo Counseling in Austin, Texas

Why would you encourage someone to consider a degree in social work?

MM: A degree in social work is a direct opening to a wide variety of job opportunities. There are always jobs available for entry level social workers, and there is room for advancement in a variety of directions within social work careers.

What are the most common educational paths for students seeking a career in social work?

MM: Many schools of social work offer a combined Bachelor and Master of Social Work degree program, which a student can complete in a standard 5 years. It may be beneficial to get a bachelor's in another subject and then master's in social work if a student knows that they want to specialize in a specific sub-field of social work (like criminal justice, for example).

What surprised you the most about social work once you got into the field?

MM: I got into social work because I wanted a career that offered something more rewarding than a paycheck. I wanted to be able to have an impact on others' lives. It was pleasantly surprising to realize how long the learning curve is. I still learn new things all the time.

What's some advice you might have for a student who's just beginning to think about pursuing social work as a career?

MM: If you are excited by the prospect of a lifetime of learning and a wide variety of employment situations (including being in independent practitioner and working for one's self), and making a ton of money is less important than being the master of your own fate when it comes to career opportunities, you are on the right track.

Jennifer Rollin, licensed social worker with Adventist Behavioral Health

Jennifer Rollin, licensed social worker with Adventist Behavioral HealthWhat would have been helpful to know about the social work profession when you were looking into your own education?

JR: I think having experience in the social services field-whether through interning or volunteering prior to getting the degree can be helpful. Some individuals might be drawn to the work, however it takes a certain temperament to be equipped to cope with the stressors and challenges. So I think it's good to have some prior introduction to the field before starting a degree.

What surprised you the most about social work once you got into the field?

JR: I was surprised by how in-demand this degree is. When I graduated with my MSW there were definitely a lot of jobs being advertised for social workers and I don't know of any peers who dealt with long-term unemployment.

What level of education is typically necessary to get started in the field?

JR: You can definitely start with a bachelor's degree but especially if you wish to do clinical work, a master's is important.

Types of social work careers

The skills learned in pursuit of a social work degree have a fairly broad range of applications across the human services career market. Here are some employment and salary numbers for occupations that are often open to graduates with social work degrees, according to data by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Occupation title National mean annual salary
(2015)
Projected job growth
(2014-2024)
Total U.S. employment
(2014)
Entry-level education
Health care social worker $54,020 12 percent 649,300 Bachelor's degree
School or career counselor $56,490 8 percent 273,400 Bachelor's degree
Rehabilitation counselor $38,040 9 percent 120,100 Bachelor's degree
Social service manager $69,430 10 percent 138,500 Bachelor's degree
Substance abuse counselor $42,920 22 percent 94,900 Bachelor's degree
Community health educator $56,690 13 percent 115,700 Bachelor's degree
Social work teacher, postsecondary $69,030 14 percent 13,700 Master's degree

Common misconceptions about social work degrees

Despite there being hundreds of thousands of academics and professionals in the discipline, there are a few misconceptions that remain in the public understanding of traditional and online social work degrees. Make sure you're not approaching your own social work career with any of these mistaken ideas in mind:

Misconception: A degree in social science can qualify you for a career as a social worker.

  • Fact: The names may sound the same, but graduates with social science degrees still need social work degrees to legally perform the duties of a social worker. Social science is primarily academic in nature, focusing on theory and research, while social work is a practical discipline that requires deep knowledge of protocols and techniques for resolving difficult human situations.

Misconception: One campus-based or online degree in social work is as good as another.

  • Fact: While it's true that a broad majority of social work degrees can offer you an education that meets professional and academic standards, but there are a few schools out there that are less than perfectly honest about their credentials. Make sure you choose a social work degree program that's been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) if you want to ensure the legitimacy of your degree.

Misconception: Earning a social work degree online is easy.

  • Fact: Somehow this myth still persists, even though millions of students have earned online degrees in various subjects over the last decade or so. Success in an online degree program comes with the challenge of dedicating your free time to coursework and readings and having only yourself to answer to if you don't. It's definitely far from impossible, but it can take hard work to make it happen.

How can I enroll in an online social work degree program?

If making a positive difference for a living sounds like the right path for you, choosing a school or two and inquiring about admissions procedures is a good next step to take. Browse our listings below for a few ideas, then reach out to a few schools that seem right for you and get started on the road to a rewarding and in-demand career.

Sources:

  1. College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed March 18, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
  2. Social Workers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed March 22, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Community-and-Social-Service/Social-workers.htm
  3. 5 Great Jobs You Can Get with an Associate Degree in Human Services, Brescia University, April 14, 2014, accessed March 22, 2016, http://online.brescia.edu/human-services-news/5-great-jobs-can-get-associate-degree-human-services/
  4. School pages, accessed March 18, 2016: Associate of Science - Social Work, Georgia Perimeter College, http://www.gpc.edu/programs/AS-Social-Work; Social Work Associate - Generalist AAS, Dallas Community College District, https://www1.dcccd.edu/catalog/programs/degree.cfm?degree=soc_work_general_aas; Social Work Bachelor's Degree (BSW), University of the District of Columbia, http://www.udc.edu/programs/social_work_bachelors; Curriculum, School of Social Work, Wayne State University, http://socialwork.wayne.edu/bsw/curriculum.php; Undergraduate Certificate Programs, School of Social Work, Michigan State University, http://www.socialwork.msu.edu/Programs/BASW/Certificate-Programs; Certificate in Social Work, The University of the West Indies, http://www.open.uwi.edu/undergraduate/certificate-social-work; Master's in Social Work Online, University of New England, http://socialwork.une.edu/; Online Master of Social Work, Boston University, http://onlinemsw.bu.edu/msw-overview; MSW Concentrations, Rutgers University, http://socialwork.rutgers.edu/Academics/MSW/MSWConcentrations.aspx; Master of Social Work Course Descriptions, Our Lady of the Lake University, http://onlineprograms.ollusa.edu/msw/courses; PhD Program, School of Social Work, The University of Texas at Austin, https://socialwork.utexas.edu/phd/; Doctorate in Social Work Program, Rutgers University, http://dsw.socialwork.rutgers.edu/; Doctorate in Social Work Online, Capella University, http://www.capella.edu/online-degrees/dsw-social-work/;
  5. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed March 18, 2016: Social Workers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Community-and-Social-Service/Social-workers.htm; School and Career Counselors, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/school-and-career-counselors.htm; Rehabilitation Counselors, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/rehabilitation-counselors.htm; Social and Community Service Managers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/social-and-community-service-managers.htm; Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm; Health Educators and Community Health Workers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/health-educators.htm; Postsecondary Teachers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Education-Training-and-Library/Postsecondary-teachers.htm; Doctorate in Social Work, University of St. Thomas, https://www.stthomas.edu/socialwork/dsw/; MSW Post-Graduate Certificate Program, University of Southern California, https://sowkweb.usc.edu/global/msw-post-graduate-certificate-program; MSW Certificates, University of Missouri, http://ssw.missouri.edu/msw_certificates.html; Certificate Programs, School of Social Work, Rutgers University, http://socialwork.rutgers.edu/continuingeducation/ce/certificateprograms.aspx; Post-Graduate Certificate Programs in Social Work, Hunter College, http://catalog.hunter.cuny.edu/preview_program.php?catoid=3&poid=542&returnto=124;
  6. The Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Degree: Emergence of a New Practice Doctorate, National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work, accessed March 22, 2016, http://naddssw.org/pages/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/DSW-Degree-Task-Force-Report-April-16-2011.pdf
  7. May 2015 National Occupational and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed May 1, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
  8. Accreditation, Council on Social Work Education, accessed March 29, 2016, http://www.cswe.org/Accreditation.aspx
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