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Degrees in social work are available at all post-secondary levels, from associate to Ph.D. In the U.S., a Master in Social Work (MSW) is the standard degree that prepares students for the widest range of social worker jobs, including clinical positions.Social work master’s degrees are available online from colleges throughout the country, many offering different types of specializations. To help students find the online master’s in social work degree that best suits their needs, reviewed hundreds of programs based on factors like graduation rates, cost and ROI, student resources, and academic quality. The end result is a list of the top online social work master’s programs in the U.S. for 2023. Read our full ranking methodology here.

To provide additional insight into the field of social work and how to select and apply to a master’s program, we interviewed Leslie Reyna, an admissions counselor for the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work. This guide also features answers to frequently asked questions about cost, program duration, accreditation, and job outlook for social workers.

What is Social Work?

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) defines the mission of social work as “enhanc[ing] human well-being and help[ing] 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 types 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

Social workers work across diverse settings, including hospitals and healthcare settings, social services agencies, substance abuse treatment facilities, schools, prisons, private practices, and more.

A key distinction in social work jobs is 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, and don’t have the same direct contact with clients as clinical social workers.

To be a clinical social worker, an individual must earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) or similar degree and obtain a professional license in accordance with their state’s regulations and requirements. Each state sets its own requirements and procedures for licensure, and your choice of degree program may impact your ability to get licensed in the state where you plan to work. Therefore, it’s important to review your state’s educational requirements for licensure and ensure that your intended program fulfills them.

What Can I Do with a Master’s in Social Work?

While a master’s degree in social work is required for students who want to focus on counseling, it can also prepare students for a variety of other jobs, according to Reyna.

“A master’s degree in social work provides a foundation in project management, community outreach, service navigation, program evaluation, and nonprofit management,” she 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 48 Online Master’s in Social Work Programs

Best Master's in Social Work Programs Badge

Rutgers School of Social Work

University of Arkansas at Little Rock

University at Buffalo School of Social Work

Columbia University School of Social Work

Indiana University School of Social Work

FSU College of Social Work

University of South Florida

USC Suzanne Dworak at Peck School of Social Work

University of Houston

Arizona State University

University of Central Florida

Case Western Reserve University

Louisiana State University

The University of Texas at Arlington

University of New Hampshire

University of Nevada, Reno

University of North Dakota

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Texas State University

Boston University

Temple University

Baylor University

University of New England

Fordham University

Campbellsville University

New Mexico State University

Texas A&M University at Commerce

University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign

California State University

University of Denver

California State University - Tseng College

Simmons University

Brescia University

The University of Alabama

Aurora University

Ohio State University

Wayne State University

George Mason University

Adelphi University

University of Memphis

Appalachian State University

Our Lady of the Lake University

Carlow University

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What to Expect in an Online Master’s in Social Work Program

How long does it take to get an online master’s in social work degree?

The specific length of time an online MSW program will take depends on a few factors and will vary by program.

MSW programs can range from 30-61 credits, depending on a student’s educational background. Students with a BSW are typically eligible for advanced standing programs that require fewer credits. Some schools offer “4+1” programs that give students the opportunity to earn their BSW and MSW in five years of full-time study.

Meanwhile, students who don’t have a BSW will have to complete more credits to earn their degree. These programs may take 2-3 years to complete, depending on whether a student is enrolled full-time or part-time.

How much does an online master’s in social work degree cost?

As with program length, the answer to this question is, “It depends.”

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.

Some public universities now offer in-state tuition to all online students, regardless of where they live. Students can also lower their tuition sticker price through scholarships, grants, discounts for military service, and employer tuition reimbursement.

Ultimately, the cost of an online master’s in social work will vary by student. If you have questions about the cost of a program or paying for a social work degree, contact the school’s financial aid office to speak to a counselor.

What are the clinical requirements for online master’s in social work degree programs?

Hands-on experience is an integral part of a social work education, as it gives students the opportunity to work 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, which may require student attendance at an in-person site. Some programs assign students to internship sites, while others require students to find their own internships.

Additionally, Reyna notes that once students obtain their MSW, they must complete additional supervised clinical hours before applying 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 online social work degree 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 accredits both online and in-person MSW programs. Students can verify the accreditation status of a specific program through CSWE’s directory of accredited programs.

Students should also be mindful of institutional accreditation. Colleges in the U.S. 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.

Should I get a master’s in social work degree online or in person?

The choice to get an MSW online or in person is a highly personal one, Reyna says.

Based on her own experiences with online learning, she says there are three key factors students must consider:

  • 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. Students choosing to enroll online should be confident they’ll maintain their discipline throughout the school year.

Students should also be realistic with how much time they’ll be able to dedicate to their studies, especially if they’re also holding a job, caring for children or family members, or fulfilling other obligations. Online learning can save students time by not requiring travel, but students must still set aside adequate time to review lessons and complete assignments.

The way a student learns may also influence their decision to enroll in an online or on-campus social work master’s program. Individuals who learn best through lectures, reading assignments, and written assessments may be well-suited for online classes that rely primarily on these types of instruction methods. Meanwhile, students who prefer discussions and hands-on learning might learn better in in-person or synchronous online classes.

Is a master’s in social work 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 a variety of settings, including child and family social work, hospitals, substance abuse treatment facilities, and more.

Admission Requirements for Online Master’s in Social Work Degree Programs

Each online MSW program sets its own admissions requirements and procedures, so it’s important to confirm the necessary steps with each program you’re applying to.

Generally speaking, students must submit the following materials to apply to a master’s program:

  • Application
  • Official transcripts for all colleges previously attended
  • Letter(s) of recommendation
  • Personal essay
  • Resume

Reyna notes that there are two types of MSW programs that can impact a student’s eligibility and application process.

“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.

One application material students may not have to submit is standardized test scores, like the GRE, as Reyna notes that most programs have waived GRE requirements. However, students who have taken the GRE can check with their program to see if they are test-optional and if submitting GRE scores can supplement their application.

How to Choose the Right Online Master’s in Social Work Degree Program for You

There are also personal considerations, including delivery format, program support, and program length. Students who need the flexibility to complete coursework on their own schedule may prioritize asynchronous programs with no designated class meetings. Other students may want the real-time interaction and support offered by synchronous programs that meet virtually at designated times.

Reyna notes that MSW degrees typically require 48 to 61 credits, which can impact how long it takes to complete the program. Some programs assign students internships, while others require students to find their own.

Lastly, Reyna says, students should consider the cost-to-income ratio. “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),” she 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.”

Enrollment Plan

If you’re considering enrolling in an online MSW program, here are the steps to take to make it happen.

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

Online learning can make earning an MSW more accessible, but it’s not for every student. Before enrolling in an online MSW program, consider your learning style in comparison to standard online instruction methods, including pre-recorded lectures, videos, reading assignments, and independent work. Reflect on your self-discipline, motivation, time management, and organizational skills, as these are crucial to success in an online program.

Take an honest assessment of where you are in your career and life to ensure an online MSW is the right step for you personally and professionally. If you are working, raising kids, caring for family, or fulfilling other responsibilities while earning your MSW, decide whether you can handle a full-time program or if you’ll need to complete courses part-time.

Clarity on your career goals is also important, as this will influence the specific program you choose. If you are interested in a particular specialization within social work, seek out programs that offer classes and hands-on experiences in that area.

For students who aren’t sure if social work is the right major, some related fields of study include human services, counseling, and public policy.

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
  • Synchronous or asynchronous classes
  • Fully remote or hybrid program
  • 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?
  • How do online students interact with classmates, faculty, and staff?
  • What type of technical, academic, career, and mental health support services are available to online 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

Ideally, you’ve taken cost into consideration when choosing which program you’ll attend. You should also find out what types of financial aid you’re eligible for, including scholarships, grants, military discounts, work-study opportunities, and tuition assistance benefits from your employer.

If you’ll use student loans to help pay for your social work degree, be sure to 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 and repayment options before committing to borrowing money to fund their social work degree.

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