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Online Social Work Degree Programs

Social work can best be described as a helping profession. Professionals in the field may work in a variety of environments and with diverse populations, but they share a common goal: helping people live to their fullest potential. They may work to accomplish that goal by counseling students in schools, meeting with clients one-on-one or advocating for positive change in communities.

What's more, now is a great time to be looking into social work degree programs. Many U.S. states are facing shortages of trained social workers — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that the demand for social workers has increased around 16 percent between 2016 and 2019 — and those gaps in the employment market can translate to an easier time landing a job after graduation.

If you're thinking about making the switch to a social work career but can't afford to take time off of work to enroll at a traditional college, never fear. Online social work programs are fairly common, particularly at the graduate level, and many such study plans allow you to attend virtual lectures on your own time and complete your coursework on a timeline that works for your schedule.

Read on for a rundown of the top colleges and universities for social work degree programs, as well as a breakdown of possible social work career fields at each education level and some info on financial aid and professional organizations that can help you on your professional journey.

Best Colleges for Social Work Degree Programs

To calculate where the best social work schools could be found, we analyzed U.S. Department of Education data in categories like affordability, program flexibility, student support and graduate success. Tap the methodology button to learn more about our rating process, and check out our list below for info on the top ten schools for social work.

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Methodology
1University of South Florida (Tampa, FL)+
ADMISSION RATE
45%
TEST REQUIREMENTS
Required
APPLICATION FEE
$30
NO. OF ONLINE PROGRAMS
22

The flagship Tampa campus of the University of South Florida turned in a respectable set of student success numbers, including a 90 percent first-year student retention rate and a graduation rate that sits comfortably in the 85th percentile nationwide. Night and weekend courses are available here, and more than 52 percent of students take at least some of their credits via distance education.

Social work programs at USF: Three social work degrees — a Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.), a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) plan — are available on campus at USF. Online students have two graduate-level options to choose from, a standard M.S.W. program and an advanced standing M.S.W. that takes just three semesters of full-time study to complete.

Additional Info
2Florida State University (Tallahassee, FL)+
ADMISSION RATE
49%
TEST REQUIREMENTS
Required
APPLICATION FEE
$30
NO. OF ONLINE PROGRAMS
15

As the Florida Panhandle's largest institution of higher education, Florida State University welcomes more than 41,000 students through its doors each semester. One of the lowest in-state tuition costs on our list can be found here — students at FSU paid an average of less than $5,700 for a full year of tuition and fees in 2018-19.

Social work programs at FSU: The B.S.W. at this Tallahassee institution provides real-world experience for future social workers and features an advanced-standing option that allows graduates to earn their master's degree in just one year. The Ph.D. program places an emphasis on teaching and research methods, and graduate and undergraduate students alike can earn social work certificates in child welfare and gerontology and aging studies.

Additional Info
3University of Central Florida (Orlando, FL)+
ADMISSION RATE
50%
TEST REQUIREMENTS
Required
APPLICATION FEE
$30
NO. OF ONLINE PROGRAMS
45

The University of Central Florida features one of the largest student bodies in the country, educating more than 58,000 undergraduates and nearly 10,000 graduate and professional students each term. Online learners make up a significant percentage of that number, with more than 57 percent of enrolled students taking one or more courses in the virtual classroom.

Social work programs at UCF: Undergraduates in the B.S.W. program at UCF study a generalist curriculum that prepares them to administer social services in traditional practice settings and beyond. The master's degree program here focuses on evidence-based clinical social work and can be completed either on campus or via digital distance education. Bachelor's students must complete an internship at a local community agency before graduating.

Additional Info
4Florida International University (Miami, FL)+
ADMISSION RATE
54%
TEST REQUIREMENTS
Required
APPLICATION FEE
$30
NO. OF ONLINE PROGRAMS
45

No other school on our list demonstrated a greater commitment to digital distance education than Florida International University, where three out of five students take advantage of available online coursework. FIU was also one of the top schools on our list in terms of academic support spending, earmarking more than 52 percent of its annual budget to be spent on counseling services, instructional development and other student-focused essentials.

Social work programs at FIU: Graduate students here have a few social work degrees to choose from. A standard M.S.W. program is available, as well as dual degrees that lead to an M.S.W. alongside either a Master of Public Health (M.P.H) or a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. Graduate certificates are available in four disciplines, including addictions and child welfare.

Additional Info
5Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ)+
ADMISSION RATE
58%
TEST REQUIREMENTS
Required
APPLICATION FEE
$70
NO. OF ONLINE PROGRAMS
35

New Jersey's Rutgers University took one of the top spots in the country for the number of successful social work graduates it produces each year. More than 800 students graduated from its blended and fully online social work programs in 2018, with the majority earning master's degrees or higher. Rutgers also spends more than $10,000 on academic support expenses for each one of its 50,000+ students.

Social work programs at Rutgers: The undergraduate social work degree at Rutgers takes the form of a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree with a social work major. Graduate students looking for a fully or partially online social work program can find it here — the clinical social work and management and policy M.S.W. concentrations here offer both options.

Additional Info
6University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, MI)+
ADMISSION RATE
27%
TEST REQUIREMENTS
Required
APPLICATION FEE
$75
NO. OF ONLINE PROGRAMS
11

The University of Michigan's flagship Ann Arbor campus is dedicated to providing a high-quality learning environment. The student-faculty ratio here was 11:1 in 2018, despite a student body that numbered over 46,000. Student success numbers at U-M were some of the best in the country — its 97 percent retention rate and 91 percent graduation rate each landed among the top eight schools nationwide on those metrics.

Social work programs at U-M: Master's students who earned a B.S.W. during their undergraduate work can complete the social work master's degree at U-M in just 12 months. The Ph.D. program here is interdisciplinary, leading to a joint degree in social work and social science that incorporates anthropology, political science, sociology or psychology.

Additional Info
7University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC)+
ADMISSION RATE
24%
TEST REQUIREMENTS
Required
APPLICATION FEE
$85
NO. OF ONLINE PROGRAMS
12

University of North Carolina's main Chapel Hill campus was another standout in terms of student engagement and success, posting retention and graduation rate numbers that each made the national top ten in their respective categories. Graduates seem to also find success when it comes to paying down their student debt, with more than 85 percent of UNC-Chapel Hill alumni repaying their college loans within three years of graduation.

Social work programs at UNC-Chapel Hill: Around 300 students enroll each year in the M.S.W. program here, which offers an advanced curriculum as well as a standard generalist curriculum. The Ph.D. plan concentrates on research methods and data analysis, and numerous specialized training programs provide opportunities for aspiring social workers to further develop their knowledge and skills.

Additional Info
8San Diego State University (San Diego, CA)+
ADMISSION RATE
35%
TEST REQUIREMENTS
Required
APPLICATION FEE
$55
NO. OF ONLINE PROGRAMS
8

Students at San Diego State University paid less than $7,500 for a full year of tuition and fees in 2018-19, and the numbers suggest that those affordable tuition costs are translating to a lower overall student debt burden once they finish their degrees. SDSU graduates reported a median student loan balance of around $15,000 in 2018 — about 60 percent lower than the national average.

Social work programs at SDSU: This California institution is one of the only schools on our list to offer a full B.A. in gerontology among its undergraduate social work degrees. Available certificate plans include social work administration and human services management, and M.S.W. students can become non-voting board members at local non-profit organizations through the Board Fellows Program.

Additional Info
9University of Utah (Salt Lake City, UT)+
ADMISSION RATE
66%
TEST REQUIREMENTS
Required
APPLICATION FEE
$45
NO. OF ONLINE PROGRAMS
390

The University of Utah is another institution that works to prevent students from being swamped with loan repayment bills, according to the data. The average debt burden of roughly $15,000 reported by former students here was one of the best among social work schools that made our top ten, and better than 81 percent of graduates managed to pay down their loans within three years of leaving school.

Social work programs at Utah: Traditional B.S.W., M.S.W. and Ph.D. programs are available here, as well as several certificate options. Undergraduate certificates include substance use disorder treatment training, social justice advocacy and a non-credit program that provides essential training for Utah social work licensure. Graduate students can pursue certificates in women's health and leadership, justice and community practice.

Additional Info
10Florida Atlantic University (Boca Raton, FL)+
ADMISSION RATE
60%
TEST REQUIREMENTS
Required
APPLICATION FEE
$30
NO. OF ONLINE PROGRAMS
18

The fifth Florida school to make our list is also the most affordable, reporting an average tuition and fees cost of just over $4,800 for the 2018-19 school year. FAU also set aside a larger portion of its budget for academic support spending than any other school to make our top ten, and the average amount of college debt reported by graduates was less than half of the national average.

Social work programs at FAU: The B.S.W. program here covers client systems, societal and community contexts, the dynamics of change and issues facing the diverse populations of its home region. Graduate students can complete the M.S.W. plan in two years full-time or four years part-time, or in half the time if they hold a B.S.W.

Additional Info

Social Work Programs and Common Career Paths

Many social work students enter the field to work toward a master's degree and become a licensed social worker, but a range of other career options can be found for candidates with a social work education. Take a look at this breakdown of each level of social work degree and learn about jobs that may be available to holders of each type of degree:

Associate degree

Associate degrees in social work typically consist of four semesters of coursework, providing an introduction to foundational concepts of social work like sociology, statistics and applied psychology. These study plans are found mainly at community colleges and may offer an online or hybrid option for working students looking to get a head start on a four-year degree.

Social service assistant
These entry-level professionals assist social workers in connecting clients with providers of essential support services for their home life and in the community.
Community health worker
When communities have health concerns, community health workers provide informal counseling and conduct outreach programs to educate people about their options.
Bachelor's degree

These four-year degrees may be offered as Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.) or Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) study plans. Upper-division courses for social work bachelor's degrees begin to sharpen their focus on knowledge areas specific to the field, covering subjects like social welfare and social work research. Some bachelor's programs may allow students to tailor their education to a particular sub-field of social work, such as addiction, healthcare or crisis and trauma management.

Substance abuse counselor
Substance abuse counselors evaluate clients' health and behavior and develop treatment plans to help them overcome addictions and use disorders.
Social service manager
These administrative pros coordinate with community members and social service providers to organize, coordinate and implement community initiatives and outreach programs.
Master's degree

In all states, a master's degree is required to apply for state licensure and practice legally as a clinical social worker. Some programs offer specialization tracks at this level, while others focus on the deep general knowledge required to pass a given state's licensing exam. Students don't need have earned a B.S.W. to enroll in a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program, but those who studied social work as undergraduates may be able to earn their master's in one year instead of two.

Clinical social worker
Clinical social workers provide therapy and counseling services, help people cope with difficult situations and refer clients to appropriate mental or physical health services and other resources.
Career counselor
Students who focused their social work study on counseling and communication can use their skills to help people better understand their career options and develop valuable workplace skills.
Doctoral degree

At the doctoral level, many social work students choose to specialize their study in a particular area of the discipline, such as social policy analysis or advanced practice social work. Most programs are heavily research-oriented, and some institutions may offer interdisciplinary plans that provide students with a well-rounded social work education by including a related discipline like social science.

Postsecondary social work teacher
Social work teachers at the university level are often expected to have a doctorate, particularly if they're applying for a position in a graduate studies department.
Social work researcher
Research is vital in fields like social work, and a doctorate provides the tools that scholars need to solve old problems and develop new approaches to advance the discipline.

Social Work Program Accreditation

There's one important word you should know when looking for a social work program: accreditation. When a program earns accreditation, you can trust that the education it delivers meets or exceeds the core standards expected by employers and licensing boards. The Commission on Accreditation (COA) of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the primary U.S. accreditor of social work programs.

Social Work Certification and Licensure

Every state in the U.S. requires that clinical social workers hold a license before they can begin working legally, and most states require some form of license or certification for non-clinical social workers as well. Although licensing requirements vary from state to state, most jurisdictions require at least a master's degree in social work and two years of clinical experience under the supervision of a senior social worker before the license exam can be taken.

Non-mandatory social work certifications are available as well, through credentialing programs offered by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Here's a list of just a few of the certifications they offer:

  • Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM)
  • Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS)
  • Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G)
  • Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker (CHP-SW)
  • Certified Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW)
  • Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC)

Check out some additional information on social work and its related fields at the career profile pages below:

Career Outlook for Social Work Majors

As understanding and awareness of mental health issues increases, the need for social workers may expand in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes the job outlook for those specializing in mental illness and substance abuse may be particularly robust.

JOB TITLE
AVERAGE SALARY($)
EMPLOYMENT
PROJECTED JOB GROWTH(%)
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers$49,630116,75017.8%
Healthcare Social Workers$58,470168,19017%
Social and Community Service Managers$71,670149,87013%
Social and Human Service Assistants$35,830392,30012.6%
Community Health Workers$43,48056,13012.5%
Counselors, Social Workers, and Other Community and Social Service Specialists$49,2702,090,70012.4%
Social Scientists and Related Workers$85,900247,29011.4%
Child, Family, and School Social Workers$49,760320,1707.3%
Source: 2018 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.
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Financial Aid and Scholarships in Social Work

The NASW Foundation and the ACSWA both run scholarship programs for graduate students. Other awards may be available from state and regional organizations. What's more, many colleges and universities have their own scholarship and financial aid programs that are specifically for those studying in the field. For instance, Boston University has 15 different scholarships available to full-time and part-time MSW students.

Janet L. Hoffman Loan Assistance Repayment Program
Applicant must graduate from a college in Maryland or from a law school and be employed full-time in state or local government or in a nonprofit organization in Maryland. Applicant's employer must help low income, underserved residents or underserved areas in the state. Applicant must have loans from a university, government, or commercial source used to pay for college expenses. Applicant may not be in default on a loan. Gross salary cannot exceed $50,000 and, if married, combined salaries cannot exceed $110,000. More

AWARD AMOUNT

$30,000

APPLICATION DEADLINE

November 1

RENEWAL CRITERIA

Reapplication required for renewal.

Wexner Graduate Fellowship
Applicant must be attending an accredited, full-time program and sign a statement indicating that he or she plans to pursue a career in North America in his or her designated field. Applicant may not have begun their graduate studies prior to applying. Two essays and three references are required to be submitted. More

AWARD AMOUNT

$30,000

APPLICATION DEADLINE

January 20

RENEWAL CRITERIA

Renewable subject to review.

Robert W. Woodruff Graduate Program and Internship Fellowship
Applicant must be accepted into an accredited graduate degree program. Recipients must make a two-year commitment to be employed full time at a Boys & Girls Club. More

AWARD AMOUNT

$15,000

APPLICATION DEADLINE

June 15

 

 

Graduate Student Award Program
Applicant must be enrolled at least half time in an education, environmental, health-related, social work, or public service area at a four-year public or nonprofit college or university in Oregon. FAFSA required. More

AWARD AMOUNT

$10,000

APPLICATION DEADLINE

March 1

 

 

Professional Organizations

Known as NASW, this is the largest professional association for social workers and has more than 120,000 members.
Part of the Center for Clinical Social Work, the ACSWA is a membership organization for those providing clinical services.
As another specialized group, the SSWAA advocates for its members who work within school settings.
African-Americans working in the field may want to join the NABSW which has been advocating on their behalf for 50 years.
Article Sources
Methodology

To be included in these rankings, all schools must meet the following initial criteria for the specific subject being ranked.

  1. Offer an undergraduate degree (either associate or bachelor's) in that subject.
  2. Have awarded at least one degree or certificate in that subject in the most recent year of IPEDS data available.

Based on those criteria, we ranked all 2-year and 4-year schools in IPEDS that reported data for all of the following points. Ratings are calculated on a 10-point scale:

  1. In-state undergraduate tuition & fees
  2. Median debt
  3. 3 year loan repayment rate
  4. Graduation rate
  5. Retention rate
  6. Institutional spending
    1. Instructional and academic support expenses per full-time enrolled student
    2. Instructional and academic support spending as a percentage of all expenses
    3. Percent of students enrolled in DE
    4. Evening and weekend programs
    5. Academic and career counseling
    6. Total number of degrees conferred for particular CIP codes
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