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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
PROJECTED JOB GROWTH(%)
|Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers||$49,630||116,750||17.8%|
|Healthcare Social Workers||$58,470||168,190||17%|
|Social and Community Service Managers||$71,670||149,870||13%|
|Social and Human Service Assistants||$35,830||392,300||12.6%|
|Community Health Workers||$43,480||56,130||12.5%|
|Counselors, Social Workers, and Other Community and Social Service Specialists||$49,270||2,090,700||12.4%|
|Social Scientists and Related Workers||$85,900||247,290||11.4%|
|Child, Family, and School Social Workers||$49,760||320,170||7.3%|
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.
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To be included in these rankings, all schools must meet the following initial criteria for the specific subject being ranked.
- Offer an undergraduate degree (either associate or bachelor's) in that subject.
- 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:
- In-state undergraduate tuition & fees
- Median debt
- 3 year loan repayment rate
- Graduation rate
- Retention rate
- Institutional spending
- Instructional and academic support expenses per full-time enrolled student
- Instructional and academic support spending as a percentage of all expenses
- Percent of students enrolled in DE
- Evening and weekend programs
- Academic and career counseling
- Total number of degrees conferred for particular CIP codes