Our Ranking Methodology
To find the best online Masters’ in Social Work, we examined 80 programs from 45 universities. We started with two deal-breakers: we only considered at nonprofit universities and CSWE-accredited online programs. Then, we evaluated each degree based on three factors:
CWSE-accreditation goes a long way towards guaranteeing quality. It means that your foundation- and concentration-level coursework, as well as your fieldwork experience, meet professional standards for social workers. It also enables you to seek licensure and employment after graduation – no matter what state you live in or choose to move to.
In addition to requiring CSWE-accreditation, we looked at how well each program ranked with leading college evaluators like U.S. News. Where these organizations have the resources to develop assessments using in-depth research, we created an algorithm to collect and analyze the multiple rankings into one score. This score helps us easily compare universities based on how highly their social work programs are viewed by their peers.
Program Flexibility and Focus
Next, we looked at how easily each program accommodates students of various professional backgrounds. For Master’s in Social Work, we looked at four aspects of each program, and assigned a score based on how many options and specializations each school offered. We asked the following four questions:
- Is there an advanced standing route for students who already have a Bachelor’s in Social Work?
- Are there full- and part-time schedules?
- Can students choose a specialization for their upper-level coursework?
- Does the school offer any online certificates in social work beyond their MSW?
These questions helped us hone in on the programs best equipped to teach students of various backgrounds and areas of interest. We didn’t remove a school from our list if they had fewer offerings for students, but they did receive a lower score.
Finally, we evaluated how easy it would be to earn back the cost of each degree program. A social worker with a MSW typically sees a pay bump around $12,000 compared to their peers with Bachelor’s degrees. This helps you earn back the cost of your degree, but we still wanted to focus on programs that minimized student debt.
We looked beyond how much each university charges per credit hour, and analyzed how many years it would take to earn back the cost of each degree. The sooner you could get back to your personal and professional life without student debt, the higher the score.
This Gave Us Our Intelligent Score
With these three factors, we calculated our Intelligent Score, ranging from 0 to 100. In theory, a score of 100 would mean the university has a perfect program in reputation, flexibility and focus, and return-on-investment.
It was difficult for any online Master’s in Social Work program to achieve a perfect score. Schools that scored well for charging less tuition, making it easier to earn your degree, typically only offered only a couple of degree options. Similarly, programs with a wide array of specializations and course path offerings usually will cost more, especially if the university is also highly regarded.
We included schools like Edinboro University and New Mexico State University on our list because they are still good programs, even if they didn’t earn a particularly high score compared to our top picks. Like all of degrees on our list, we recommend finding out which program is the right fit for you by visiting their website and looking at their offerings directly.
This Degree Isn’t For Everyone
While we’re eager to see more social workers in the field, there are a couple details you should know before pursuing a Master’s in Social Work.
You might not be able to keep your day job. In order to earn CSWE-accreditation, every program requires fieldwork experience – at least 900 hours of it if you don’t have a background in social work. If you’re in a traditional 9-5 job, you’ll need to check with your employer and degree program to make sure you have time to fulfill your fieldwork requirement. While the 900+ hours are spread across the entire program, they are almost guaranteed to take place during standard business hours.
You’ll need two years of experience on top of your MSW for some positions. Your Master’s in Social Work will prepare you for licensure at the macro-level in most states, but if you want to work primarily with individuals – micro-level social work – a MSW is only the first step. The next step is at least two years of supervised work experience before you can be licensed as a clinical social worker. Clinical social workers can establish their own practices, and provide therapy to individuals — unlocking some of the higher income brackets for social workers and providing specialized care.
As you take a look at our top online Master’s in Social Work, you’ll want to ask a few questions:
- Does this program offer the specialization I’m interested in?
- Can this school place me in fieldwork positions in the areas I want to work in?
- Does my home state authorize this school for online education degrees?
The first two depend on your personal career choices, but if you’re not sure, reaching out to individual professors to ask about the nuances of each specialization can give you insight into whether it’s the right path for you.
The last question is something every online student needs to ask before applying for any program – Master’s in Social Work or otherwise. State authorizations vary both by state and by degree program, and not all states recognize the authority of others to administer online education. For example, Texas State University can’t accept students who reside in Pennsylvania because Pennsylvania doesn’t authorize TSU to grant online degrees.
Once you have a shortlist of schools you want to apply to, you’ll want to contact each program to ask if they have your home state’s authorization to award degrees. If not, you’ll either be unable to apply, or your home state won’t recognize your degree.