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For individuals with an interest in mental and behavioral health, helping others, and working in diverse settings, social work might be an optimal career.

Considering the different educational paths and multiple program options for aspiring social workers, choosing the best online degree in social work can be challenging. That’s why evaluated hundreds of programs based on graduation rates, cost and ROI, academic quality, and student resources to find the best online degrees in social work for 2023. Read our full ranking methodology here.

We also interviewed Leslie Reyna, an admissions counselor for the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work, for her insights into selecting and applying to social work degree programs. This guide also includes answers to frequently asked questions about social work degree programs, including cost, duration, and job outlook.

What is Social Work?

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), “The primary mission of the social work profession 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.”

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) outlines three types of social work practice:

  • 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 are found in a wide range of settings, including hospitals, community health clinics, substance abuse recovery centers, schools, government agencies, private practices, and more.

In order to be eligible for most social work positions, individuals need to obtain a professional license that meets the regulations and criteria set by their state. Licensure requirements and processes vary by state, 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.

Social Work Degree Levels

Several types of social work degrees are available, providing training and preparation for various jobs and professional credentials.

  • Associate of Social Work (ASW): This two-year degree is a common starting point for individuals who want to enter the social work profession as quickly as possible. While an ASW doesn’t fulfill requirements for licensure, it can provide students with the foundational knowledge needed for further study as well as non-clinical, entry-level social work jobs.
  • Bachelor of Social Work (BSW): Another entry point for aspiring social workers, a BSW takes a minimum of four years to complete. This degree prepares students for entry-level non-clinical positions. A BSW qualifies students for initial licensure as a Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW) and other professional credentials.
  • Master of Social Work (MSW): This is the most widely recognized type of social work degree and the one that unlocks the most job opportunities. Students must have an MSW in order to receive their Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) license, which allows them to work in private practice and clinical jobs. Some MSW programs require students to have an undergraduate degree in social work, while others accept students from all academic backgrounds.
  • Doctorate of Social Work (DSW): The highest level of education available to social workers, a DSW is ideal for those who wish to teach social work at the post-secondary level or focus on research and scholarship.

What Can I Do with a Degree in Social Work?

According to Reyna, the type of degree a student obtains plays a role in determining the outcome.

“Although students with an associate degree in social work can’t receive social work licensure, there are other types of licenses they can earn by fulfilling all the education and internship requirements,” she says. “An example of this is a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor (LCDC), which will allow the student to work with individuals coping with substance abuse issues.”

Earning a BSW opens up more employment opportunities, as well as the option to obtain an LBSW. Individuals with this level of education typically qualify for entry-level positions as caseworkers, mental health and social services assistants, substance abuse counselors, school aides, outreach workers, and more.

Meanwhile, “social workers who want to open their own private practices will need to earn a master’s degree and get their LCSW license,” Reyna says. “This is also necessary for individuals who want to work in clinical settings, like hospitals, as the majority of these facilities only hire licensed social workers.”

The Top 49 Online Social Work Degree Programs

Best Social Work Degree Programs Badge

Wayne State University

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

University of Kentucky

University of Iowa

Morgan State University

The University of West Florida

Florida Atlantic University

University of South Dakota

Southern Adventist University

Florida State University

University of Utah

Yeshiva University

University of St. Francis

University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee

Georgia State University

Millersville University

Boston University

Loyola University Chicago

Ohio State University

University of Michigan

The University of Alabama

Indiana University

University of Missouri

Temple University

University of Louisville

University of Oklahoma

Northern Arizona University

Grand Valley State University

University at Buffalo

University of South Florida

New Mexico State University

University of North Dakota

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

Louisiana State University

University of Maine

Appalachian State University

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Ohio University

Touro University Worldwide

Union University

University of New Hampshire

Mary Baldwin University

Liberty University

University of Cincinnati

Metropolitan State University of Denver

University of Nebraska at Kearney

Aurora University

Boise State University

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What to Expect in an Online Social Work Degree Program

How long does it take to get an online social work degree?

Each type of social work degree program has a standard duration based on the number of credits required:

Type of Degree Minimum Credits Minimum Program Length (full-time enrollment)
Associate of Social Work 60 2 years
Bachelor of Social Work 120 4 years
Master of Social Work 30-60 1-2 years
Doctorate of Social Work 45-54 2-3 years


However, several factors can impact how long it takes a particular individual to earn an online social work degree. Enrolling part-time versus full-time will increase the completion time for a social work degree.

Conversely, because of the flexibility of online classes, some schools offer accelerated programs that allow students to condense their studies into a shorter time frame. Students are still required to complete the same number of credits, so these programs are intense and academically rigorous.

For students who want both a BSW and an MSW, several schools offer accelerated programs that allow students to earn both degrees in five years. Known as “4 + 1” programs, this option allows students to start earning credits towards their MSW while still in their bachelor’s program, cutting down the amount of time they’ll spend in their master’s program.

How much does an online degree in social work cost?

Several factors impact how much an online social work degree will cost.

The most common associated costs for online students include tuition, technical support fees, other online student resources, and personal technology, like computers, webcams, microphones, and the Internet. Online learning can save students money on room and board, student activities fees, and transportation costs.

Whether a school is public or private will impact its tuition, as will a student’s status as in-state or out-of-state at a public institution.

For example, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that for the 2020-21 academic year, average tuition and fees for four-year undergraduate degrees was $9,375 for in-state students at public universities, $27,091 for out-of-state students at public universities, and $32,825 at private schools.

These factors apply to associate and master’s programs as well. Online students should also be aware that some public institutions are offering all remote students the same tuition, 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 a social work degree 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.

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

Both delivery formats have their advantages and disadvantages. Choosing between an in-person and an online program largely comes down to the individual student’s needs and preferences.

“Online programs typically require that students be self-starters who will be proactive with their education and keep up with assignments and deadlines,” Reyna says. She also notes that asynchronous online programs can be a double-edged sword. While they give students the flexibility to complete lessons and assignments on their own time, it requires discipline and the ability to learn independently.

Meanwhile, in-person programs might be a better fit for students who want more interaction in their learning. “In-person social work programs often have classroom discussions where students can receive feedback from professors and their peers,” Reyna says. ” In an online setting, students often don’t receive peer feedback unless it is required from the professor.” In-person programs also typically include more opportunities to connect with faculty, which can be beneficial for networking and academic support.

What are the clinical requirements for online social work degree programs?

Because social work is a field centered on working with people in individual and group settings, hands-on experience is an integral part of the education process. Students typically obtain this experience through practicums or internships as part of their degree program. For individuals seeking an LBSW or LCSW, there are often requirements for supervised clinical hours students must complete before they can get their license, although these requirements vary by state.

Before enrolling in an online social work degree program, students should review the curriculum and speak to a representative about how the program handles clinical experience. They should also ensure that their intended program meets their state’s clinical experience requirements for licensure. Students should keep in mind that even if classes for their program can be completed online, their clinical experience might require in-person, site-specific attendance.

How important is accreditation when selecting an online social work degree program?

There are two types of accreditation to consider when selecting a social work degree program: institution and program accreditation.

In the U.S., social work bachelor’s and master’s degree programs are accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE). 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.”

Completing a CSWE-accredited degree program is a standard prerequisite for getting a social work license. Reyna says, “Without this accreditation, students risk the possibility of not having any of their credits count towards licensure or transfer into a graduate program.” CSWE accredits both online and in-person social work degree programs. Students can confirm their program’s accreditation through CSWE’s accreditation directory.

At the institutional level, there are two types of accreditation — regional and national. Regional accreditation is the more rigorous and widely recognized of the two. Earning a degree from a regionally accredited institution is particularly important for undergraduate students who intend to pursue an MSW, as this is typically a prerequisite for enrollment in a CSWE-accredited master’s program.

Is a social work degree worth it?

“A social work degree provides students with a plethora of career opportunities,” Reyna says. “A social work degree gives employers the understanding that you know how to navigate services and people, which is useful because in just about any career field, you’re working with people.”

From a job outlook perspective, employment opportunities for social workers are expected to increase by 9%, a faster-than-average pace compared to other fields. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts nearly 75,000 new jobs annually within the social work field through 2031. This includes clinical and non-clinical positions in healthcare, substance abuse treatment, community, and social services agencies, and more.

How to Choose the Right Social Work Degree Program for You

Selecting an online social work degree program is a big decision, but there are some key factors that can help students make the best decision for them.

First, Reyna says, “Students should make sure the program they’re considering aligns with their career goals and that there’s someone in the program who has pursued a similar career path or has done research in the areas in which they’re interested.” This will help ensure that students feel engaged in their program and receive the necessary knowledge for the jobs they want.

It’s also important to consider practical needs, like balancing school with work and other life responsibilities, and your individual learning style. Students who want maximum flexibility may be drawn to asynchronous programs that don’t require scheduled class meetings. Meanwhile, students who want the support and interaction of a more traditional classroom setting may find a synchronous remote program meets their needs best.

Another practical consideration is cost. “Students should be aware of the salary of an entry-level social worker in their state and how it measures against the cost of their program,” Reyna says. While online programs can save students money in terms of room and board and transportation expenses, students still need to pay for tuition, fees, and reliable technology. Reyna also reminds students that, post-graduation, there are costs associated with being a social worker, including fees for licensing exams.

Enrollment Plan

Are you considering an online degree in social work? Here are the steps you can take to make it happen:

Step 1: Determine which social work degree is right for you

This largely depends on where you are in your educational and professional journey. Students who are just starting out can consider an ASW or BSW, depending on their career goals.

Individuals with a bachelor’s degree, either in social work or another field of study, can opt for an MSW. Students should note that some MSW programs only accept students who have a BSW, while others are open to students from all educational backgrounds.

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

Step 2: Research schools and programs

Once you’ve selected social work as your major, you can begin searching for a specific program that aligns with your career goals, interests, and needs.

Given the number of online social work degree programs available, setting parameters early will help make your search manageable. Parameters can 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

There’s no magic number of social work degree programs to apply to. Some students may apply to multiple programs to increase their chances of acceptance, while others may focus on one or two programs based on their specific needs or interests.

Keep track of the schools you’re applying to and their application deadlines and requirements, as missing deadlines or failing to submit required materials can impact your acceptance.

Step 4: Prepare and submit your application

The specific application processes will vary by school and degree type, but the process generally includes the following:

  • Completing and submitting the application for admission
  • Submitting official transcripts from your high school (for first-time first-year students) and any other colleges you’ve attended (for transfer students and graduate students)
  • Requesting recommendation letters from teachers, employers, or community members
  • Writing an essay, if required
  • Preparing for and taking standardized tests like the SAT or ACT, 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 have considered cost 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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