You may have found yourself at a point in your social work career when you are giving real thought to pursuing your Master of Social Work (MSW). While you may not need an MSW in your current position, there are real benefits to earning one—not the least of which is an increase in salary. You also may find it brings greater opportunity and the ability to move into new roles or another agency, or to specialize in an area you think might be a better fit for you and your career goals.
But earning your MSW means a significant investment in time and in money. If you are committed to devoting the time, you may still need a little assistance in the money department, especially on a social worker's salary. In this article, we will explore how much you can expect to spend on an MSW, how you can help fund your degree through a scholarship program, and what other sources of funding may be available.
While a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) will make you eligible mostly for entry-level positions (with salaries to match), pursuing an MSW can elevate you quickly to a higher pay grade after a two-year course of study, and open doors to more specialized positions with greater responsibility.
Once you've clocked some hours in the field and maybe figured out a specific area or population you’d like to work with, you'll be in a solid position to invest in your next steps and build on your bachelor's degree. The decision to pursue your MSW is a big one, but the rewards can be significant.
For many, affordability is a real consideration when it comes to whether or not pursuing an MSW is even an option. The first step in your research is to determine what your graduate degree will cost you from an accredited college, as there are a number of ways to approach your course of study. Let's look at how they compare.
Many graduate schools are offering both online and on-campus options to study. Tulane provides both and with equal weight. Enrolling in their traditional on-campus social work program will run you about $1,140 per credit with a traditional program costing about $68,400. The school also offers a special dual degree program as a master of science in Disaster Resilience Leadership, which will cost about $85,500 a year.
An accelerated MSW program is just that—a compressed version of the traditional degree. Typically these are designed as 16 month-long programs, which run over the summer to fast-track your course of study. The upside is the shortened time frame, but the downsides include limited time for field study, and that you won't have any breaks during your program. The cost of an accelerated program at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work is about $49,864/year ($25,674/spring and $24,190/summer), while Fordham University offers a three-year hybrid program for about $963 per credit.
If you've known your career path since the beginning of your undergraduate studies and have a BSW from a university with a CSWE (Council of Social Work Education) accredited program, you may be in position to obtain your MSW through an advanced standing program. This will allow you to earn your master's in about half the time of a traditional course of study, and will save you money too. Tulane lists the price of a traditional program at $68,400, and an advanced standing at $54,720. At Simmons College, the cost per credit is the same ($1,100), but the credits needed for a traditional vs. advanced standing (65 vs 37) will net out to a savings of about $30,800.
Oftentimes, part-time programs offer another type of flexibility for MSW candidates who might have work or family obligations to manage while pursuing an advanced degree. At Rutgers, the cost per credit is the same for full-time, part-time, blended, and weekend-intensive programs. In-state residents pay $739 per credit, while it costs $1256 per credit for non-residents, and $900 per credit for online students, all with fees attached to the total cost.
With so many social work scholarships available from states, schools, corporations, and agencies, it's important to narrow your search and sort out what is and isn't applicable in your situation. Conducting targeted research to identify the right scholarship funds will help you stay focused. You may even want to establish a dedicated email address to collect any and all correspondence relevant to your search, so that you can better focus and organize your efforts.
One good place to start looking for scholarships is to utilize an aggregator like scholarships.com. You can customize your search to work for your specific criteria to best match the types of scholarships you qualify for. Sallie Mae has information that helps you locate graduate scholarships, and registration on their site will allow you to search 950,000 scholarships worth up to $1 billion. Sites like this are particularly helpful as they separate out graduate scholarships from undergraduate scholarships, making your search a little easier.
Guidance on scholarships can be found from a variety of sources including schools, businesses, and foundations. Determining where you fit and your eligibility will help you organize your applications and your focus.
This type of scholarship is targeted specifically to those social work students who demonstrate financial need. Contacting your school’s financial aid office is a great place to start—financial aid officers will provide the critical first steps for your search and can offer a framework for both full-time students and those who need to be more creative about their timing and finances. Also, professional organizations like the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) provide scholarship assistance and guidance to its members with their own opportunities for funding.
These are scholarships reserved for many underrepresented and protected minority groups, including people who identify as Asian American, Black, Hispanic/Latino, LGBTQ+, and Native American. Examples of these scholarships include the Dr. Joyce Beckett Graduate Student Tuition Scholarship, which is awarded by The National Association of Black Social Workers to African American graduate students looking to focus on providing social services to Black communities, and The National Association of Puerto Rican Hispanic Social Workers (NAPRHSW), which supports graduate students from these backgrounds based on financial need and academic accomplishment.
Another place to search for scholarships is on the admissions or financial aid pages of your own school's website. The University of Pennsylvania has a page called Funding Your Education dedicated to financial aid, scholarship opportunities, and financial assistance for graduate students, with links to work study opportunities and fellowship programs. Every school will have financial aid advisors and website resources to help map out available opportunities.
Specialization scholarships may be available if the focus of your study is in specific areas like oncology social work, or aging and gerontology, or those working in social justice or public health. The Melanie Foundation Scholarship awards money to graduate or doctoral candidates studying the field of mental health, and there are many other opportunities for support for graduate students focusing on social work in healthcare at scholarships.com.
Service scholarships can be more targeted and specific in their requirements, so you'll need to read their applications carefully. For instance, The Bethesda Lutheran Communities Lutheran Student Scholastic & Service Scholarship offers two scholarships to active Lutheran students who will focus their careers in human services on serving people with developmental disabilities, while the George and Donna Nigh Public Service Scholarship provides "scholarship opportunities to outstanding students who are preparing for careers in public service," though "(e)ligible applicants must be residents of Oklahoma and attend a college or university in Oklahoma."
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has a foundation page that is a great resource to explore in your search for funding and offers two scholarships for master's degree candidates. The Consuelo W. Gosnell Memorial Scholarship "is awarded to master's degree candidates in social work who have demonstrated a commitment to working with, or who have a special affinity with, American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic/Latino populations. Candidates who have demonstrated a commitment to working with public or voluntary nonprofit agencies or with local grassroots groups in the United States are also eligible." They also feature the Verne LaMarr Lyons Memorial Scholarship for master's degree candidates who "demonstrate an interest in or has experience with health/mental health practice and have a commitment to working in African American communities."
Putting in the time for some quality research will yield the information you need from scholarship and other funding sources. Of course, you will be required to submit documentation regarding your income and resources (provided through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA application), as well as undergraduate transcripts, test scores, essays, personal statements, and letters of recommendation.
Make sure to read all materials and instructions carefully when you apply. You may be able to reuse essays and answers from application to application, but make sure you fill out each with fresh eyes and a clear understanding of what each institution requires (and tailor your responses accordingly!).
There are other sources of financing to help you cover the cost of graduate school, including grants, fellowships, loans, stipends—and, in some instances, even employer tuition reimbursement.
Grants are similar to scholarships in that, unlike loans, you don't need to pay them back. To fulfill the requirements of a grant, it’s likely you’ll need to report your grades and provide periodic updates on your progress. You may need to repay a grant if you withdraw from school or fall below a required GPA, so read grant applications carefully and be prepared to follow-through on all preconditions.
Fellowships are typically merit-based and available both from schools and external organizations, and are more likely to be applicable to internships or fieldwork, as they are short-term.
Loans are always an option, but you should be very careful about how and how much you borrow. There are state and federal loans available to college students, and private loans designed for graduate students, but they will need to be paid back, with interest. There are loan forgiveness programs available from groups like the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) that might prove very helpful, if loans are something you'd consider taking on to help finance your education.
You may want to explore each of these options for use separately, or in combination, in order to help pay your tuition bill. Approaching the financing of your degree is as equally important as your search for just the right graduate school—you can’t do one without the other—and doing your due diligence regarding your financial aid beforehand will help ensure your satisfaction with earning your degree (and lessen your anxiety) and avoid any unpleasant financial surprises along the way.
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