Students exploring educational paths to become social workers have likely seen schools offering a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and a Master of Social Work (MSW). A BSW is an undergraduate degree that prepares students for entry-level social work positions, while an MSW is a graduate degree that leads to clinical licensure and more advanced roles within social work.

Both degrees prepare students for careers in social work, which is one of the fastest-growing fields. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overall employment in community and social services positions is expected to grow at a faster-than-average pace over the next decade. The agency predicts that there will be an average of 281,600 new job openings each year through 2032 in the social services industry.

However, the types of jobs students qualify for depends on their degree. This article reviews the differences between BSW and MSW degrees, the career outlook for this field, and how employers feel about online social work degrees.

What is Social Work?

Social workers help individuals, families, and communities deal with a wide variety of challenges related to mental and behavioral health, physical and emotional trauma, substance misuse, and more. They work in various settings, including government agencies, hospitals, other medical facilities, schools, private practices, etc.

According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), there are three types of social work practice: 

  • Micro-level 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

While some social workers work with a range of clientele, it’s common for social workers to focus on serving a specific population. For example, child and family social workers provide services to children and families needing housing, food, or medical services. They help protect children from neglect or abuse and may play a role in arranging adoptions or foster care. Other social work specializations include healthcare, education, mental and behavioral health, and substance misuse and recovery.

An individual’s level of education is a key factor in determining what type of professional roles a social worker can hold, which is one of the main differences between a BSW and an MSW. At the professional level, a social worker can either be a general practitioner or a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). License requirements vary by state and include specific educational guidelines. Students who want to get their social work license should confirm their state’s license requirements to ensure they select a qualifying degree program.

CSWE sets standards for social work education at the undergraduate and graduate levels with a competency-based framework to ensure students have the necessary training to be effective social workers. Whether students are searching for a BSW or MSW, they should confirm that the program is accredited through CSWE to ensure they receive the proper training.

What is an Online BSW?

A BSW is a Bachelor of Social Work. Although some associate degree programs in social work exist, a BSW is typically the minimum level of education needed to qualify for entry-level social work positions.

This undergraduate degree requires a minimum of 120 credits, although some programs require up to 130 credits. A BSW can typically be completed in four years of full-time study, with part-time students taking five to six years to complete the program.

A BSW introduces students to social work concepts and practices while developing caregiving skills. Core coursework covers social work with individuals, families, and groups; social welfare policies; human behavior in social environments; diversity and social justice issues; research methods; and crisis interventions. Students will also likely have elective courses that allow them to focus on social work with a particular population, like children, or in a specific setting, like healthcare.

A key component of social work education is practical experience, like an internship, allowing students to apply their knowledge in the real world. Students should be aware that even if they’re completing their coursework remotely, they’ll likely be required to complete their internship in person. When researching programs, students should find out if the program assigns internships or if they’re responsible for finding their own internship site.

This degree is best for undergraduate students interested in a social work career.

A BSW prepares students for entry-level positions in social work, such as caseworkers, family service workers, mental health assistants, child welfare specialists, and more. It also lays the groundwork for students to pursue their MSW to become a clinical social worker. While there are MSW programs designed for individuals who have a bachelor’s degree in a different field, individuals who have a BSW can complete an MSW in a much shorter timeframe with fewer required courses.

What is an Online MSW?

Students with a bachelor’s degree can pursue a graduate degree in social work, known as a Master of Social Work or MSW. There are two types of MSW programs — those designed for students who already have a BSW and those that cater to students who earned an undergraduate degree in a different field (BSW-to-MSW programs).

Most MSW programs require 60 credits, although some may require fewer or more credits based on students’ education and experience levels. Depending on the number of credits required, students can complete an MSW in one to two years of full-time study or two to three years of part-time study.

To become a clinical social worker (CSW) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), students must have an MSW. These types of social workers have a broader scope of practice than non-licensed social workers, including the ability to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders and provide therapy to individuals, families, and couples. They can work in clinical settings and private practices and often work on teams with doctors and other medical professionals to get clients the needed help.

The curriculum for MSW programs is typically organized around the core competencies social workers need for clinical licensure, including coursework related to assessment and treatment planning; providing and evaluating therapeutic interventions for individuals, families, groups, and couples; research methods; social policy and advocacy; ethics and professional behavior, and understanding the importance of diversity in social work practice.

MSW programs also include a clinical internship or practicum requirement to give students hands-on experience with clients in a clinical setting. The number of clinical hours students must complete varies by program. Students should confirm that their clinical internship will fulfill licensure requirements set by the state where they want to get licensed. Even if students can complete their MSW coursework remotely, they will likely have to complete their internship or practicum in person.

This degree is best for individuals who want to become licensed clinical social workers.

While students can obtain various entry-level social work jobs with a BSW, they need an MSW to qualify for clinical and leadership positions. Students with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than social work should seek a BSW-to-MSW program that will allow them to complete required undergraduate courses before moving on to their master’s.

Social Work Career Outlook & Salary Information

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that overall employment of social workers will increase by 7% through 2032. There will be, on average, 63,800 new job openings for social workers and related positions over the next decade.

The BLS notes that demand will be exceptionally high for social workers in healthcare as the U.S. population continues to age and in substance misuse and mental health counseling to address the ongoing opioid epidemic. Social workers can pursue other specializations, including working in schools and education settings, child welfare, government and public policy, justice and corrections, and community organizing and advocacy.

The type of social work degree a student has will impact what jobs they’re eligible for. A BSW qualifies students for non-clinical positions like case worker, family advocate, addiction and recovery counselor, behavioral health technician, and more.

Students with an MSW qualify for clinical positions in which they assess, diagnose, and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral health issues. Clinical social workers can open their own private practices to work with individuals, families, couples, or other groups. They may also work in hospitals, other medical settings, community mental health agencies, schools, and correctional facilities.

The median annual salary for all social workers is $55,350, while the average national salary for LCSWs is $86,072. A social worker’s compensation also depends on the setting in which they work. Social workers in healthcare settings like hospitals earn a median annual wage of $66,300, according to the BLS, while those working in state government positions earn $52,640 annually.

How Do Employers View Online BSW and MSW Degrees?

As long as students earn their BSW or MSW from an accredited school through an accredited program, employers typically accept the degree regardless of whether it’s earned online or in person, which is particularly true post-pandemic when most students had to switch to online learning.

Employers typically prioritize having the right skills and credentials more than the environment in which students earn their degrees. That’s why students need to verify that CSWE approves their BSW or MSW program and that they are eligible for social work licensure if they want to pursue clinical positions.

Although most social work jobs still have in-person requirements, there are skills students can develop in online programs that will be useful to them in professional settings. Telehealth appointments have become more common, and remote students may be more familiar and comfortable with video conferencing platforms. Online learning also helps students develop their time management, organization, self-motivation, and autonomous work skills, which can benefit social workers, especially those who work in online/in-person hybrid positions.

Learn More About Online Colleges and Social Work Degrees