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Social work specializes in individual well-being in a social context and the health of society as a whole. Social workers play an important role in individual and family services, local and state governments, and healthcare services.

Earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) will prepare students for various roles within the social work field, including clinical positions. Many colleges throughout the U.S. offer MSW programs. To help students narrow their search, reviewed hundreds of programs based on factors like graduation rates, cost and ROI, student resources, and academic quality and created this list of the best MSW programs of 2024. Read our full ranking methodology here.

Leslie Reyna, an admissions counselor for the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work, also provides guidance for researching and selecting social work programs and answers to frequently asked questions about career opportunities, curriculum, program accreditation, and more.

What is Social Work?

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social work’s mission is to “enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”

There are three levels of social work practice, according to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE):

  • Micro-level, which involves direct work with individuals to help them cope with their situations.
  • Mezzo-level, in which the social workers work with groups instead of individual clients
  • Macro-level, where social workers lead and establish social change on a large scale through organizing, policy change, and administration

There are numerous settings that employ social workers, including social services agencies, hospitals and healthcare facilities, substance abuse treatment and recovery centers, prisons, schools, private practices, and more.

Social work jobs are divided into non-clinical and clinical positions. Clinical social workers work directly with clients, either in individual or group settings, providing support for a variety of issues. Non-clinical social workers focus more on administration and policy. They don’t have the same direct contact with clients as clinical social workers.

In the U.S., individuals must have an MSW or similar degree in order to obtain the professional license required for clinical social workers. Each state sets its own requirements and procedures for clinical social worker licensure, including educational requirements. Your choice of degree program can impact your ability to get licensed in the state in which you plan to practice. Therefore, before selecting an MSW program, it’s essential to review your state’s educational requirements for licensure and ensure that you’re choosing a program that meets those requirements.

What Can I Do with a Master of Social Work?

“A master’s degree in social work provides a foundation in project management, community outreach, service navigation, program evaluation, and nonprofit management,” Reyna says. “This degree allows students to further explore the human service sector in a way that other related degrees do not.”

An MSW can prepare students for the following roles:

  • Clinical Social Worker
  • Medical Social Worker
  • School Social Worker
  • Substance Abuse Counselor
  • Behavioral Healthcare Manager
  • Clinical Case Manager
  • Policy Analyst

Many social work jobs are defined by their context or environment, such as schools, medical hospitals, and facilities, psychiatric facilities, addiction treatment centers, or social services agencies. It’s common for MSW programs to offer specializations in these areas, so students should consider which type of setting they want to work in when selecting a program.

The Top 50 Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Degree Programs


IU School of Social Work

Daemen University

Campbellsville University

Springfield College

University of New England

Seton Hall University

North Carolina State University

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Ohio State University

University of California, Berkeley

Spalding University

Columbia University School of Social Work

University of Wyoming

University of Washington School of Social Work

University of Chicago

University of South Florida

University of Michigan

East Tennessee State University

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

FSU College of Social Work

University of South Dakota

Michigan State University

University of Texas at Arlington

Washington University in St. Louis Brown School

Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work

Ohio University

University of Southern California

San Jose State University

Case Western Reserve University

Georgia State University

Simmons University

Boston University

University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign

Boston College

Bridgewater State University

University of Wisconsin - Madison

University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work

University of Maryland - Baltimore

University of California, Los Angeles

Tennessee State University

Azusa Pacific University

Virginia Commonwealth University

Texas A&M University - Commerce

NYU Silver School of Social Work

Widener University

Stephen F. Austin State University

Salem State University

University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work

Boise State University

Fordham University

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How We Rank Schools

This list features some of the best master’s in social work programs at top colleges nationwide. Each school featured is a nonprofit, accredited institution — either public or private — with a high standard of academic quality for post-secondary institutions. The programs on our list are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), a national organization that assesses social work programs for educational excellence and a commitment to quality education.

We evaluated each school’s program on tuition costs, admission, retention and graduation rates, faculty, and reputation, as well as the student resources provided for on-campus students. Then, we calculated the Intelligent Score on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more about our ranking methodology.

Next, we compared this comprehensive list of master’s in social work programs to a list of aggregated college rankings from reputable publications like the U.S. News & World Report, among others, to simplify a student’s college search. We pored through these rankings so students don’t have to.

What to Expect in a Master of Social Work Program

How long does it take to get an MSW degree?

The number of required credits, the pace of the program, and the student’s educational background determine how long it takes a student to complete their MSW degree.

MSW programs require anywhere from 30-60 credits. Students who have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) are typically eligible for advanced standing programs that require fewer credits and thus take less time to complete. Some schools offer “4+1” programs in which students can earn their BSW and MSW in five years of full-time study.

Students who are entering an MSW program with a bachelor’s degree in a different area will have to complete more credits to earn their MSW, which may take 2-3 years, depending on the program.

Enrolling in an MSW program on a part-time basis will also add time to the duration of the program. When exploring programs, students should inquire about how full-time versus part-time enrollment affects the program’s completion time.

How much does an MSW degree cost?

According to, the average cost of public service master’s degrees, which include social work, public administration, and public health, is $72,770. However, many programs may be more affordable based on the type of institution and where a student lives.

Public institutions tend to charge lower tuition rates, particularly for students who live in the state where the school is located. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average in-state tuition for master’s programs at public universities in the 2020-21 academic year was $12,394. Meanwhile, the average tuition for master’s programs at private universities for the same time period was $28,445.

Students can also lower their tuition sticker price through scholarships, grants, discounts for military service, and employer tuition reimbursement.

For the most accurate information on program costs, speak to a financial aid counselor at the school you plan on attending. They can provide details about tuition and fees, as well as options for paying for your MSW.

What are the clinical requirements for MSW degree programs?

Clinical education is an integral part of social work education, as it gives students experience working directly with clients in a supervised setting.

CSWE-accredited master’s programs require students to complete a minimum of 900 hours of field education as part of their degree program. This is usually done in the form of an internship or practicum. Common clinical education settings for MSW students include social services agencies, inpatient or outpatient substance abuse and recovery facilities, hospitals or healthcare settings, and schools. Depending on the program, students may be assigned an internship site or have to find their own internship.

Most states require MSW graduates to complete additional supervised clinical hours before they can apply for their LCSW. Each state sets its own requirements for licensure. Students should review their state’s requirements before enrolling in an online MSW program.

How important is accreditation when selecting an MSW program?

“The biggest consideration students should have in mind when choosing an online social work program is ensuring that the program is accredited by the Council of Social Work Education,” Reyna says. “If students pursue an MSW at a university that does not have social work accreditation, they risk the chance of not being able to pursue licensure.”

According to the organization, CSWE-accredited social work programs “ensure the program mission is aligned with social work competencies to prepare students for professional practice…and ensure that students are prepared to practice safely, competently, and ethically with all clients, constituents, and the public.”

CSWE maintains a directory of accredited programs where students can verify the status of the MSW programs they’re considering.

Students should also verify that the institution they’re attending is accredited as well. U.S. colleges and universities can be regionally or nationally accredited, with regional accreditation being the more rigorous and widely accepted of the two. Regionally accredited schools only accept credits from other regionally accredited schools, which is important to keep in mind if you plan on pursuing another degree after your master’s. Students can confirm their school’s institutional accreditation through the Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Should I get an MSW degree online or in person?

Because of the increasing availability of quality online MSW programs, students may be considering completing this degree remotely.

According to Reyna, there are three key factors students should consider if they’re choosing between an in-person and online program:

  • The student’s ability to be a self-starter.
  • The amount of time students have to dedicate to their schoolwork.
  • The instructor’s teaching style and methods.

While all education requires motivation, online students, especially those in asynchronous programs, don’t have the same type of accountability from faculty and classmates as in-person students. Attending an in-person program enables consistent communication between students and instructors, which can help students stay on top of assignments, ask for assistance when needed, and connect with faculty who can serve as mentors and professional references.

A student’s learning preferences may also influence whether they attend school online or in person. For students who learn best through group discussions, interactive assignments, and hands-on experiences, an in-person program might be the best fit. Meanwhile, online course delivery methods rely heavily on lectures, readings, and written assessments, making them a good fit for students who learn best through reading and writing.

Is an MSW degree worth it?

“The various career options and possibilities for growth and leadership make a master’s in social work worth it,” Reyna says.

Earning a master’s degree makes students eligible for social work licensure, opening up clinical and non-clinical job opportunities.

Within the next decade, employment in social work is expected to grow by 9% or roughly 75,000 jobs per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This includes clinical and non-clinical positions in various settings, such as child and family social work, hospitals, substance abuse treatment facilities, and more.

Admission Requirements for MSW Degree Programs

Each MSW program establishes its own admissions requirements and procedures. For the most accurate information about how to apply to an MSW degree program, speak to an admissions counselor from the school.

Admissions requirements often depend on the type of MSW program a student is applying to, Reyna says.

“Students who obtain a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from an accredited institution and maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA could possibly be admitted into their master’s program under an Advanced Standing status,” she says. “This means their MSW program is shorter because their BSW credits count toward the first year of the MSW program.”

Meanwhile, students entering an MSW from a different educational background may have to complete prerequisite courses, either before enrolling or in the first year of their program.

In general, a standard application for an MSW program requires the following:

  • Completed application and required fees
  • Official transcripts for all colleges previously attended
  • Letter(s) of recommendation
  • Personal essay
  • Resume

Many programs have waived GRE requirements, Reyna says, although she encourages students who have taken the GRE to check with their program to see if submitting GRE scores can supplement their application.

Students should also be mindful of application deadlines, especially if the program only enrolls new students once or twice per year. Failure to submit all required application materials by the deadline can impact a student’s ability to enroll for their desired start term.

How to Choose the Right MSW Degree Program for You

Enrolling in an MSW degree program is a big commitment, so students should start the search process by considering their needs and priorities.

For students who want to attend an MSW program in person, the first thing they should do is check the availability of accredited programs in their area. If there are none, or if the available programs don’t meet the student’s other needs, they should consider whether they are willing to relocate or if enrolling in an online program is a viable option.

The cost-to-income ratio is also an important consideration. “Most students pursue an MSW with the idea that once they graduate, they’ll be making the high end of the salary range ($50,000),” Reyna says. “However, most students usually start in the $40,000 to $45,000 range, depending on the state. With this in mind, students should choose a social work program that will provide them with the education but is also mindful of the starting salary range. Students need to consider whether a program that is over $60,000 a year is reflective of an entry-level social worker salary in their state.”

Students should also decide whether they want to enroll in a program full-time or part-time. While attending school part-time can increase the overall completion time of a program, it might be a better option for students who have other commitments, such as a full-time job or caregiving responsibilities for children or elderly family members.

Lastly, decide if you want to specialize in a particular area of social work. Common social work specializations include community organizing, child welfare, aging, substance use, and administration and management. Not all programs offer these specializations, so knowing what area you want to focus on can help you identify programs that align with your specific interests and career goals.

Enrollment Plan

Step 1: Confirm that an MSW degree program is right for you

Before you begin seeking out an MSW degree program, reflect on your professional interests and career goals to confirm that this is the degree that will help you achieve those goals. Other master’s degree programs that can lead to similar careers include human services, counseling, and public policy.

Determine what type of program you need based on your previous educational experience. If you already have a BSW, seek out advanced standing programs that focus on the advanced education students need to prepare for clinical roles. If you’re entering social work from a different field, look for programs that include foundational coursework and are open to students of all backgrounds.

Take an honest assessment of your life and responsibilities to determine if you have the time and energy to commit to an in-person MSW program. Based on your availability and schedule, you may decide that a part-time program fits best into your life. You may also determine that you need the flexibility of an online or in-person/remote hybrid MSW program in order to successfully earn this degree.

Step 2: Research schools and programs

As you research various programs, it’s helpful to set parameters to help you narrow the wide range of available options.

Parameters may include:

  • Public or private institution
  • Full-time, part-time, or accelerated schedule
  • Tuition, scholarships, and financial aid availability

As you dig deeper into your options, some additional questions to ask include:

  • Who are the faculty, and what are their social work areas of expertise?
  • What type of social work specialization options are available in this program?
  • What’s the culture of the social work department and overall institution like?
  • What type of internship opportunities are available to students?
  • What type of technical, academic, career, and mental health support services are available to students?

You can get answers to these questions by visiting the school’s website, following the school and social work department on social media, and requesting digital or print admissions materials. Many schools offer virtual or in-person open houses, where students can speak to program representatives, faculty, and current students to get a well-rounded picture of the program.

Step 3: Select the school(s) to which you’ll apply

Some students choose to apply to multiple MSW programs to increase their odds of getting accepted, while others may select a specific program based on faculty, specialization options, or proximity. Your own personal needs will determine how many schools you apply to.

Keep in mind that most schools charge application fees, which can add up as you apply to more schools. If you’re concerned about application fees, contact the school’s admissions office to determine if they offer or accept fee waivers.

It’s helpful to create a spreadsheet or list with requirements and deadlines to keep track of application submissions and statuses. Missing deadlines or failing to submit required materials can have a negative impact on your application.

Step 4: Prepare and submit your application

The specific application processes will vary by program, but the process generally includes the following:

  • Completing and submitting the application for admission
  • Submitting official transcripts from any colleges you’ve attended
  • Requesting recommendation letters from teachers, employers, or community members
  • Writing an essay, if required
  • Preparing for and taking standardized tests like the GRE, if needed.

Additional application requirements for MSW programs may include a copy of an LBSW license or prerequisite coursework for students who don’t have an undergraduate degree in social work.

Contact your school’s admissions office if you have questions about application materials and requirements.

Step 5: Determine how you’ll pay for your degree

If you haven’t already contacted the school’s financial aid office to confirm the program’s tuition and fees, now is the time to do so. You can also talk to a financial aid counselor about available financial aid, including loans, scholarships, grants, military discounts, and work-study opportunities.

Students who are working while earning their MSW should talk to their employer about any available tuition assistance benefits.

To access federally funded loans and grants, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Not only does this determine your eligibility for federal student loans, but many schools also use the information from your FAFSA to grant need-based aid. We strongly encourage students to do extensive research into student loans, repayment options, and loan forgiveness programs before committing to borrowing money to fund their social work degree.

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