Social Work

The Ultimate Guide to Online Master’s in Social Work Programs

The Ultimate Guide to Online Master’s in Social Work Programs
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Noodle Staff April 17, 2018

Now more than ever, with shifting practices in social welfare, healthcare, education and corporate responsibility, social workers are playing a defining role and helping to solve pressing societal issues.

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Social Workers: Fired Up and Ready to Serve

They’re advocating for societal and economic justice, combating racism and poverty, providing vital mental and emotional healthcare, and shaping government and public policy.

They’re doing more than just engaging social work practice. They’re promoting positive change. Social Workers have become key influencers, with the skills to lead organizations through 21st-century challenges.

If having this kind of impact fires you up, and you want to pursue a purpose-driven life, an online Master of Social Work (MSW) program may be just right for you. Whether you are just starting out and browsing career options, or are already working in a related field with a bachelor’s, an online MSW can launch you on a rewarding career path, advancing your pay and responsibilities. And an online option may offer you the flexibility you really need to make this career path possible.

Wherever you are in the process of your school search, figuring out the best program for your needs and interests may be challenging. There are umpteen options and specializations, and you may not know what to look for. That’s where we come in. We’ve amassed an abundance of information and compiled a comprehensive list of online MSW programs for you to consider.

If you feel ready to just jump in and review our list, click here. But if you want some more insightful background information—like how in-demand the MSW is these days, and what kind of employment opportunities await—read on!

Why the Online MSW is Worthwhile and Offers Advantages

In many ways the online MSW offers unique advantages over its traditional on-campus counterparts. Why? Online MSW programs have nailed the technology piece and killed it on flexibility, making it more possible to fit a fieldwork-heavy program into your life. The game changers are sophisticated technology platforms that offer live sessions and coursework so that online MSW students can duplicate an in-person experience. The best part is that students can enroll in a program with a unique focus, area of specialization, or academic prestige and not have to uproot their lives to attend.

An online MSW translates into this: a world-class education that speaks to your particular passion and can be accessed through your laptop no matter where you are.

In fact, getting the MSW online has never been easier, or more practical. Like their on-campus MSW peers, online students must complete the fieldwork component of social work education. But a unique feature of the online degree is that many programs have developed creative and smart approaches to helping students fulfill their fieldwork assignments no matter the distance or locale. Program administrators partner with fieldwork institutions in a student’s hometown or local community to set up the appropriate supervisory experiences. We think this is a winning approach, and an unbeatable advantage of pursuing the online degree.

MSW Employment Stats for an In-Demand Degree

The employment outlook for future social workers is very promising. Employment opportunities vary from state to state, but, nationwide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates the addition of 109,700 jobs for social workers between 2016 and 2026. That’s industry growth of 16%; blowing away the 7% projected for jobs across all industries. Overall enrollment in MSW programs steadily rose in the period from 2011 to 2015, and it’s likely the trend will continue.

Salary expectations are equally promising. The BLS reports that “the median annual wage for social workers was $46,890 in May 2016,” but also that “the highest 10 percent earned more than $78,510.” (For a reference point, the median annual earnings in 2016 for Americans over the age of 25 with a master’s degree were $71,760.)

We do have to add that MSW pay is influenced by the various levels of work experience and of licensure obtained. Salaries are also affected by geography and area of specialization. To learn more about salary by state and specialty, click here for an online job search.

How Do I Pay For This: Investing in Your Social Work Degree

As we said before, online MSW programs are of equal quality to their on-campus counterparts (and sometimes better depending on your goals and the programs). Generally, online options are about the same cost as their on-campus peers. Pricing can vary widely among programs, so you’ll need to do your homework on what you can afford. And, importantly, what kind of debt you take on if you need to finance your education. A 2015 report released by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) states that 77.7% of MSW graduates have some loan debt, with the median debt amount at $40,815. In the 2016 report, those numbers were 80.2% and $41,334.84. For general financial information about student loans and debt, click here. To learn about more specialized financing for the MSW, click here.

Higher education, especially in social work, requires a big investment of time and money. We hope the data here will clarify your individual financial goals when selecting the right program. We’ll be transparent about overall costs for each program; not just tuition, but the anticipated fees that can be scattered about brochures and websites. There are school, state, and federal scholarships on offer and we’ll note them throughout.

Finally, there are loan forgiveness programs at the federal and state levels, but they have stringent requirements and sometimes confusing mechanics. Be sure to learn everything required for you to take advantage of those options.

So now that we’ve looked at some statistics (a skill you’ll develop further in your MSW programs), let’s talk about who can benefit from this Ultra Guide, and how.

Who This Guide Is For

For as many reasons as we have readers, attending an MSW program online can be more viable than traditional on-campus programs. Many MSW students are over 35 years old (about 20% for full-time programs and about 35% for part-time) so balancing child-care, work, or the other thousand demands of adult life may make a traditional campus impractical. Online learning (also called distance education) can provide flexible hours for coursework, and save time on travel. You may want to bring social work skills to your own community, which is otherwise remote from MSW programs and agencies. Or you may be someone who does their best work when they are alone and control the learning environment.

How to Use This Guide

There are so many online MSW options that you can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed. Below, we’ve made the list of programs manageable. Helpful categories separate out schools by your priorities, including low-cost programs, flexible class schedules, and educational specialties. Each category has a laser-focus on only two or three schools that are the most representative for each category. So a prospective MSW student can utilize this guide in a number of ways:

If you want an overview of all the options, you can browse through the entire guide to develop a broad sense of the kinds of programs available to you as well as our top picks for each of the categories included in this guide.
If you’re already clear on your priorities when it comes to choosing a program, scroll to the category(s) that matter most to you to see our top picks based on our in-depth.
If you plan to continue researching schools outside our recommendations, browse through the category subheads to develop a sense of the kinds of questions we asked of each program. This will give you insight into the types of questions you should be asking as you research potential schools.

As you read through the guide, keep in mind that there is no “best” or “perfect” online MSW program — but there is possibly a “best fit” for you.

How We Made This List: Research Methodology

In making our recommendations manageable, we used an intense research process to arrive at the 29 online MSW programs covered by our guide. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) currently accredits 68 online and distance MSW programs throughout the country. We used their list as a starting point. We also utilized resources with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the MSW program rankings provided by US News & World Reports.Our team spoke with admissions counselors and reviewed each school’s available program literature and webinars. And with the help of Nedda Gilbert, MSW, CSW, and a Noodle expert in education and clinical social work, we used a few criteria to further evaluate our programs.

First, we relied on CSWE accreditation standards. CSWE is the nation’s governing recognition association. It’s the only meaningful accreditation for an MSW program in the United States; without accreditation, the program will severely limit your job prospects and prevent licensure. Our list only includes programs currently CSWE-accredited, with the youngest program accredited in 2013, allowing for multiple classes to have graduated before evaluation.

Second, we consulted resources with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the MSW program rankings provided by US News & World Reports. There is also regional accreditation, like that afforded by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). These accreditations hold schools to yet another set of quality standards. While regional accreditation can also ensure eligibility for federal loans and funding, it is not essential for career-progression or licensure and did not factor heavily in our selection of programs.

We also checked to make sure that students from every state could enroll in each online program. Not all online programs accept students who live in certain states, due to the differences in licensing standards between states. You should make a point to check this with any online program you investigate. The vast majority of the programs in this guide are open to anyone throughout the United States, and where there are omitted states we’ll point them out.

Finally, we considered if the online programs are conducted in a 100% online format. MSW programs necessarily have field placements, which are long-term internships at sites that employ social workers. By design, field placements must be completed in person. As we have said, smart programs will accommodate you in your own geographic area. But even in the regular coursework for some online programs, there may be requirements to visit the campus in-person. We have a few of these partly-online, partly-on-campus programs (called “hybrid” programs). However, the majority of the programs we selected feature a completely online experience. When they don’t, we’ll let you know.

Our final list has the following online MSW programs:

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Background on Online MSW Programs

Curriculum and Specializations

The bedrock of MSW programs is a two-year, full-time structure. Think of that as the default setting. “Year 1″ is a “Foundation” year, where you learn the basics of social work. “Year 2″ is an “Advanced” or “Concentration” year, where some programs allow you to specialize intensively. Some programs also offer electives in both Year 1 and Year 2.

Even when you stray from the full-time, two-year program, your coursework is still going to reference this structure. It helps to know it so you can make sense of the way programs describe themselves. If you’re a BSW-graduate entering in advanced standing, you skip directly to Year 2. If you’re a part-time student expecting to complete the MSW program in three years, you’re still going to have Year 1/Foundation classes and Year 2/Advanced classes, even if you take two years to complete “Year 1.” So “year” can be a loose term.

An MSW program can be “traditional” (year 1 and year 2) or “advanced standing” (just year 2). A program can also be part-time (one or two classes per semester) or full-time (three to four classes per semester). Note that part-time programs can be very flexible and some will allow you five years to complete the program. This rubric below is generalized but can give you an idea of how these variables interact:

Program TypeTraditionalAdvanced
Full-Time2 years (4-6 semesters), ~60 credits1 year (2-3 semesters), ~30 credits
Part-Time3-4 years (6-12 semesters), ~60 credits2-3 years (4-6 semesters), ~30 credits

You may also consider specializing your education. Some students focus on becoming a clinical
social worker (“method”) for children and families (“field of practice”) with a certificate in school social work (“certificate”). It may seem confusing, but there is some general structure to help you sort it out.

Concentration of Methods

This has to do with the scale of the work you intend to do as a social worker. Thinking of the zoom function on an online map gives a rough idea.

  • “Micro” signifies a concentration on individuals or small groups. This is like zooming to the level of one house on a map. These method concentrations are usually called “Clinical” or “Direct Practice” and usually you will learn theories and practices underlying various forms of clinical therapy. That could be training in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Psychodynamic theory, Family Systems, or Trauma-Informed care. This is the most commonly offered methods concentration.
  • “Macro” signifies concentration on Community Organizing, Social Justice, Management and Policy. This is like zooming to the level of a state. You’ll learn about systemic inequalities including racism, sexism, and economic disadvantage and the socio-political mechanisms that support or subvert them.
  • “Mezzo” as a term is rarely used, so these programs will usually be termed to have “Generalist” or “Advanced Generalist” focus. This is like zooming to the size of a neighborhood. In practice, it means you’ll learn a combination of Micro and Macro.

Concentration of Fields of Practice

Once you decide scale, the field of practice concentration has to do with the setting you want to work in. There are many. The list below is a snapshot of the most popular:

  • Children, Youth and Families
  • Gerontology/Aging
  • Mental Health
  • School Social Work
  • Addictions and Substance Abuse

MSW Concentration of Certificate

Certificates are further evidence of specialized training, and help with licensure and employment. You can get a certificate within the course of your MSW program, or you can get a certificate with training by an accredited organization after you graduate.

  • Within MSW Program – For some schools, the certificate concentration takes the place of a field of practice concentration. This may require taking credits beyond those needed to graduate, and so certificate concentrations may be optional.

  • After MSW Program – As an example, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville offers a post-master’s certificate program in trauma. The most important thing to remember is that any certificate program should be accredited through the Approved Continuing Education (ACE) program of the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

Dual-Degree Programs or Interdisciplinary Minors

Some programs offer the possibility of a dual degree or a minor while completing your MSW. For example, you might pursue a dual degree in an MSW/MPH (Master of Social Work and Master of Public Health). But to keep our heads straight, we limited ourselves to comparing standard MSW programs.

Program Logistics

Social Work online programs are, logistically, broadly similar. This can be outlined by what we’ll call “The Pajama Scale” based on how much you can participate in the program while wearing pajamas:

Coursework (100% Online Programs) = Can Wear Pajamas

From your computer, you can access an online portal (or several) provided by the school to watch professors lecture, participate academically with other students, and complete your coursework.

Online MSW programs may use what is called a Learning Management System or LMS. Two popular options are Canvas and Blackboard Learn, but there are a several others. An LMS is often used in conjunction with a video conferencing online tool, such as Adobe Connect or Google Hangout.

Online programs make a distinction between “synchronous” and “asynchronous” content. If your online classes are scheduled to take place at 11am CT every Wednesday, and all the students are required to log into the class at the same time, that would be synchronous. If your classes are pre-recorded, and you can watch them at 9:30 at night or 2:00 in the afternoon, they are asynchronous. All programs have some kind of asynchronous content (e.g., homework that can be done at any time) but some also have synchronous coursework. If you want maximum flexibility, look for completely asynchronous programs. If you’re fine with or would enjoy interacting live with your professor and classmates, look for synchronous elements in the program.
If you’re concerned about the technological savvy required for online coursework, some MSW programs recommend using University System of Georgia’s Online Readiness Tool (SORT).

Coursework (Hybrid Programs) = Mostly Pajamas

As we mentioned, hybrid programs contain mostly online coursework, but may occasionally require that the student visit campus. Sometimes “hybrid” means that certain elective courses throughout the program are only available on campus. Sometimes “hybrid” means that, once or twice during the program, you will have to visit the campus for a weekend-long retreat or intensive for face-to-face learning with teachers and classmates. Throughout this guide, we’re going to focus on 100% online programs, but we’ll alert you to hybrid offerings or when campus visits are mandatory–the latter of which should be a major consideration in any program choices.

Field Placement = Ditch Your Pajamas

It can be called “Field Placement,” “Field Practicum,” “Field Internship,” or just “Fieldwork,” but these terms all refer to the same thing: practical experience for a graduate student working at a social-work-related agency, institution, or program under an experienced social worker. It is something of an apprenticeship; the standard defined by the CSWE is that “[f]ield instructors for master’s students hold a master’s degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program and have 2 years post-master’s social work practice experience.”

All field placements will require you to work outside of your home. During a typical 2-year MSW program, most students have two field placements, each lasting a few months, and each at a completely different site. (We’ve seen no programs that encourage you to have both field placements at the same location, and some explicitly reject it.) Mirroring the Year 1 and Year 2 structure we outlined earlier, first-year placement is sometimes called a “Foundation” placement, and during the second year it can be called “Advanced” or “Concentration” placement. Each program has a different requirement for the total field placement hours required for graduation. The range is from 900 to 1200 hours (900 is the CSWE minimum). The two field placements can be the same length, or sometimes the Advanced placement can be a little longer.

In a totally on-campus program, the school leverages connections within the community of their local city and state to find field-placements for students. The obvious difficulty with an online program is that students can be anywhere. You may be asking the University of Southern California to find you a field placement in Miami or Anchorage.

Most schools will help to place you at a social-work-related agency or organization within a 1-hour drive from where you live. These tend to be in urban areas, due to the concentration of programs that employ social workers. If you don’t live near an urban center, you may have a longer commute or have to get creative with your school’s advisor.

If you’re an applicant who has already been working in a social-work-related field, you may wonder if your field placement can be at your current job. It varies. Some schools frown on it and some schools permit it with conditions. One of those conditions is typically that you must be doing your placement hours in a job-capacity unrelated to your current job, and under the supervision of someone besides you regular supervisor.

In all cases, successful field placement is about having a conversation with your school and being assertive about your preferences.

Extra Costs Associated with Field Placement

Travel: Whether you drive or take mass transit, you will have to pay the cost of your own travel. It is highly unlikely that any program or field placement will reimburse your travel expenses.
Pay or Stipend: Field placements can sometimes become your actually-paying job after you have graduated from the MSW program. But during the program, field placements usually offer no pay of any kind. You should not expect the field placement to help defer the cost of attending the MSW program, and certainly not to provide a living wage. If you need financial assistance for living expenses while enrolled, you’ll want to explore loans.

How Do I Get Accepted: Online MSW Admissions Requirements

Professional Recommendations

Most programs want you to have three letters of reference. Obviously, former professors or bosses related to social work fit the bill. But it can also just be someone with whom you had a professional supervisory relationship and can speak to your work and character. What it can’t be is your therapist, your mom, or your hamster–anybody who is likely to have a personal bias or no basis to judge you as a student or worker. If you’re applying to an advanced standing track, you will definitely need a letter of reference from someone overseeing your BSW field placement.

Essays

Most schools require just one essay (phew!) called a Personal or Professional Statement. Each school is different, but it will probably address several concerns for the admissions committee: what is your anticipated commitment to the mission and practice of social work, what are your experiences that will inform your time as a student and a professional, and how will you balance your life with the time and costs of attending school?

Transcripts

Every program on our list requires that you graduated from a 4-year baccalaureate program and wants to know how you did. Be prepared to arrange for transcripts of your coursework to be sent as part of the application process.

Prerequisite Social Work or Volunteer Experience

Successful MSW applicants come from many educational backgrounds. If you have a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree within the last five years, you’re advised to pursue an advanced standing program. But if you don’t, there’s no reason to be discouraged. Most schools don’t require any prerequisite work experience, volunteer hours, or related coursework. The only strict educational requirement is a 4-year baccalaureate degree from an accredited institution. So whether you’ve been working in the field for a long time or you have no experience in social work and are ready for a career shift, this guide will still have you covered.

GPA/Undergrad Performance

If you have an overall undergraduate GPA above 3.0, you’ll be fine with the minimum requirements of most programs. The highest minimum in our survey of schools was 3.2 but anything below these minimums just means that you will need to supply GRE results.

GRE/No GRE

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is a standardized test to demonstrate an applicant’s academic readiness for a graduate degree program. Though usually standard for applying to graduate programs, it is almost never needed for many MSW Programs. You’ll only be asked to submit GRE results if your GPA is below the school’s application minimum.

Tuition and Fees

Like any college program, cost is calculated by the following elements:

there is a price per tuition credit (e.g. $500/credit); and
there are a set number of credits required to complete the program (e.g. 60 credits); and there are assorted fees that go by more names than there are words for “snow” (let’s say total fees are $250/semester for 4 semesters).

So our base tuition ($30,000) plus our fees ($1,000) give us a total program amount of $31,000. Tuition per credit usually increases a little every year, and you won’t be grandfathered into the fee you started the program with. But calculating cost per credit means that you pay the same base tuition whether it’s a part-time or full-time program. The fees, however, are tied to semesters; the total can change depending on how long it takes you to complete the program. Throughout our guide we will be using the best available information to provide you with an estimated total cost for completing each MSW program.

English Proficiency and International Applicants

During the application process, some schools require international students to demonstrate that you can speak and write English with certain proficiency. If you are an international student, there are sometimes additional requirements and fees. This guide can’t effectively cover those requirements for you at each school, so, if they are relevant to you, be sure to check with your preferred programs’ admissions counselors.

Criminal Background Checks

Students from a wide variety of experiential backgrounds make the social work field better able to address a range of client populations. But it should be noted that a criminal record can limit your opportunities in the workforce.

“Students who do have a past felony must understand that they may encounter challenges in securing a field placement,” writes the University at Buffalo in a program FAQ. “If students are unable to successfully complete field education requirements it will result in dismissal from the program.” This stance is representative of other programs. But while something to consider, there are many opportunities in social work. Be honest with your school about your personal history and thoughtful in researching a good-fit field placement.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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