Social Work

VCU’s Online MSW Puts the Student Experience First

VCU’s Online MSW Puts the Student Experience First
Unlike on-campus students—who can only start the program in the fall—online students can start in the fall, spring, or summer terms. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry September 8, 2020

If you want to become a clinical social worker, a bachelor's degree in social work won't be enough. You're going to need an MSW. Programs like Virginia Commonwealth University's online MSW make studying online more like studying on campus.

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Founded in 1917, Virginia Commonwealth University‘s School of Social Work is one of the largest in the US, with a reputation that matches its size. It’s one of only 39 schools in the country that offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in social work, and one of about 90 that offer a clinical Master of Social Work (MSW) entirely online.

There are many good reasons to check out this social work master’s program beyond the fact that US News & World Report ranks it among the best schools for social work in the United States (and the best school for social work in Virginia). Students in VCU’s online Master of Social Work program receive a world-class education while tapping into the school’s network of more than 500 human and social service organizations. The emphasis in VCU’s online MSW program is solidly on field education, which means distance learners spend less time in front of their laptops and more time accruing real-world work experience.

Ready to learn more? In this article about earning an online master’s in social work at VCU, we cover:

  • What distinguishes VCU’s online MSW program
  • How to get into VCU’s School of Social Work
  • VCU’s online MSW curriculum
  • The VCU online MSW field placement process
  • Who’s who on the online MSW faculty
  • Tuition and financial aid options
  • How the VCU online MSW stacks up
  • Pre- and post-graduation support for online MSW students

What distinguishes VCU’s online MSW program

As an online student in VCU’s social work master’s degree program, you can:

  • Choose among three start dates: Unlike on-campus students—who can only start the program in the fall—online students can start in the fall, spring, or summer terms.
  • Study at your own pace: The online graduate social work degree program at VCU includes part-time and full-time options. The full-time option offers a 16-month track for students who want to graduate as quickly as possible and a two-year track for those who prefer a more relaxed academic experience. The part-time option lasts anywhere from three to four years, depending on how many courses you take each semester.
  • Learn on your own time: Each course holds only three synchronous sessions (always in the evenings, to accommodate the needs of working professionals). The vast majority of content—lectures, assignments, exercises, videos—is available asynchronously, accessible anywhere anytime you have an internet connection.
  • Continue working and earning income: Most courses in VCU’s online social work master’s program require a commitment of just six hours per week.
  • Take advantage of field placements close to home: VCU’s School of Social Work provides online learners substantial support in securing fieldwork placements.
  • Get individual attention and participate in collaborative experiences: Class sizes in the online MSW program are small, with just about 25 students per course. Students get to know the faculty and their classmates well (just as they do in VCU’s on-campus program) and benefit from those connections. Group work is a big part of the VCU MSW experience.
  • Access everything in one place: VCU’s learning management system, Canvas, is like a virtual college campus. Syllabi and assignments are stored there, and all communication takes place on the platform. Students use it to submit assignments, take quizzes, participate in discussions, and attend live classes.

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How to get into VCU’s School of Social Work

Like many Master of Social Work programs, the VCU admissions process isn’t targeted exclusively to experienced social workers. While the school does take volunteer and professional experiences into consideration when reviewing applications, no experience is necessary.

In addition to completing the general online application through the VCU Grad portal, applicants must submit:

  • A current resume
  • A professional statement of intent
  • Official transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate schools attended
  • three letters of reference

The School of Social Work doesn’t require applicants to have majored in a specific discipline. Any four-year undergraduate liberal arts degree (or the equivalent if earned outside the US) suffices, provided an applicant has a cumulative undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or greater plus one three-credit class in the behavioral sciences and one three-credit class in the social sciences. Prospective graduate students who do not meet these prerequisite criteria are sometimes admitted provisionally. They must then take the required courses during the first semester of the program.

VCU’s online MSW curriculum

VCU’s online MSW program does not offer concentration tracks or specialization options. The program’s focus is purely clinical, and the curriculum is designed around evidence-based interventions, practical social work resources, and best practices in the discipline. Students take classes like:

  • Clinical Social Work Practice
  • Foundation Research Methods
  • Human Behavior in the Social Environment
  • Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders
  • Policy, Community, and Organizational Practices
  • Social Justice
  • Social Policy
  • Social Work Practice with Individuals, Families, and Groups

If this list of core courses seems short, that’s because about half the curriculum in VCU’s online MSW program is made up of fieldwork hours. The program’s overall goal is to give students the knowledge and skills they’ll need to become leaders in clinical social work, which is why hands-on learning is prioritized.

The VCU online MSW field placement process

Students pursuing a master’s in social work at VCU get diverse fieldwork experiences—all supported by university advisors, instructors, and liaisons. Students submit an application that includes their top five areas of practice interest; the program matches them to assignments based on interest and available opportunities. All fieldwork is supervised by experienced field instructors, and there are also field liaisons to ensure that students are successful in their placements.

Who’s who on the online MSW faculty

VCU’s School of Social Work faculty is made up of experienced social work professionals, including:

Frank R. Baskind, Dean Emeritus and Professor

Dr. Baskind launched his social work career when he founded the suicide prevention network Help-Line of Central Connecticut. Since then, he has served as both Dean of the School of Social Work and University Ombudsman, as well as President of the Board of Directors of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and Chairperson of the Commission on Accreditation for CSWE. Before his tenure at VCU, he was Founding Dean of the School of Social Work and Human Services at Southern Connecticut State University. He is currently a United Way of Greater Richmond Community Building Committee member and a past member of Connecticut and Tennessee State NASW Board of Directors.

Nicole L. Lee, Assistant Director and Associate Professor

Dr. Lee has more than a decade of experience teaching in VCU’s MSW and BSW programs. Her specialty is macro-level social work. She has worked with the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on the Family and Intimate Partner Homicide Surveillance Project and with non-profit organizations as diverse as the National Kidney Foundation, American Cancer Society, United Way Services, and YWCA on program development, implementation, and evaluation. According to the VCU MSW faculty website, Dr. Lee “views teaching as both an art and a science and strives to utilize innovative methods to articulate complex concepts to students.”

Stevara Haley Clark, Online MSW Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor in Teaching

Clark has years of experience in clinical and macro practice, curriculum development, program analysis and evaluation, and teaching. She works to meld the latest and best teaching approaches and technologies in VCU’s online curriculum. Her areas of interest include the potential of technology to build relationships and enhance the educational experience of non-traditional, at-risk, first-generation, and minority students.

Tuition and financial aid options

The per-credit tuition for VCU’s 60-credit online MSW program is $634 for in-state students and $750 for out-of-state students. Distance learners can access the same financial aid packages, grants, scholarships, and loans as students on campus.

VCU offers a range of scholarships and awards only available to its MSW students, including:

  • The Adelante Scholarship: Sirviendo la Comunidad Hispana, which supports Spanish-speaking students with a connection to Latino communities
  • The Frank and Pat Baskind Gift-Giving Fund for Students with Special Needs, which supports students who are coping with challenges like a health emergency or childcare expenses

Eligibility for all forms of financial aid is based on each student’s academic standing and financial needs. According to the VCU online MSW program website, most students in VCU’s online MSW program qualify for some form of financial assistance.

How the VCU online MSW stacks up

Online Master of Social Work programs are seldom 100 percent identical to on-campus programs, but VCU’s comes close. Like the full-time and part-time MSW program delivered on-campus, the online program requires students to complete 60 total credit hours of work; students complete the same number of credits per semester regardless of format. They also complete the same number of field placements, though distance learners may do slightly more fieldwork. The full-time online master’s in social work program can be completed more quickly than the on-campus program, which cannot be completed in under two years.

The most significant differences between the on-campus and online MSW programs at VCU are that:

  • Students in the online program can start in fall, spring, or summer (the on-campus program starts in fall)
  • The majority of content in the online program is delivered asynchronously
  • There are no concentrations in the online program, whereas students in the on-campus program can choose from among clinical, social work administration, and planning and policy practice tracks

Keep in mind that while VCU has designed an online MSW program that fosters student engagement and collaborative learning, distance learners must still be motivated, self-disciplined, and capable of working independently to succeed. The flexibility built into this program can be both a blessing and a curse. Some students thrive in an asynchronous learning environment. Others find it hard to keep up.

Pre- and post-graduation support for online MSW students

The VCU School of Social Work has an Office of Student Success devoted to supporting students from day one until well after graduation. Every online MSW student has access to a Student Success Advisor to help them set a workable course schedule, register for core classes and certificate programs, and keep track of their progress. Before graduation, these advisors also help students tackle academic challenges, maximize the value of field experiences, and even work through personal issues getting in the way of academic success. All MSW students also have access to individualized support and attention from administrators and mentors.

After graduation, VCU MSW students can access personalized resume counseling and career support services through the school’s Career Services Center and the VCU Alumni group. The school has also launched VCU Link, an online community that helps current students and alumni find career advice, connect with industry contacts, and build their professional networks.

Is the online master’s in social work at VCU the right graduate program for you? Only you can make that call. However, it’s clear that VCU’s online MSW offers a popular, well-regarded degree in clinical social work that you can complete from home.

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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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