Social Work

When, Why, and How to Earn a Social Work Associate’s Degree

When, Why, and How to Earn a Social Work Associate’s Degree
A 16 percent growth rate in social work jobs—twice the rate of the overall employment market—should mean plenty of employment opportunities for social workers at all degree levels. Image from Unsplash
Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert July 30, 2019

An associate's degree can land you an entry-level job in social work; it can also be the springboard to a more advanced social work degree.

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According to the National Association of Social Workers, there are more than 680,000 social workers in the U.S. today, serving a broad range of constituencies. Wherever you look—in schools, hospitals, social service agencies, community organizations, even private companies—social workers make a difference in the lives of children, families, the elderly, veterans, the LGBTQ community.

While most social work jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, and some require a master’s degree—typically a Master of Social Work (MSW)—there are some social work jobs available to those with only __an associate’s degree in social work__.

As an intermediary undergraduate degree, an associate’s degree in social work is typically conferred by two-year and community colleges, qualifying graduates for entry-level positions.

An associate’s degree in social work is a great entry point, regardless of whether you ultimately decide to pursue an advanced degree. An associate’s degree is also flexible; if you decide social work isn’t the right field for you, you’ll be able to pivot easily to another profession (since most of your coursework will be in general subjects). If social work does turn out to be your calling, you’ll benefit from both the coursework and the hands-on experience of fieldwork placements. Because you can earn your associate’s degree at a community college, you’ll do so at a lower cost than you would at a traditional, four-year college.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Job opportunities for those with an associate’s degree in social work
  • Exams and certifications required to earn an associate’s degree in social work
  • Who should pursue an associate’s degree in social work
  • Prerequisites to earning an associate’s degree in social work
  • Commitment required to earn an associate’s degree in social work
  • Schools that offer an associate’s degree in social work
  • Schools that provide a defined pathway from an associate’s degree in social work to a bachelor’s degree in social work
  • Licensure and certification requirements for those holding an associate’s degree in social work

Job opportunities with an associate’s degree in social work

While a bachelor’s degree is usually a minimum requirement for most social work jobs, there are some positions open to those whose most advanced degree is an associate’s degree. These include:

  • Discharge planning assistant/specialist
  • General caseworker
  • Gerontology aide
  • Healthcare social worker
  • Human services assistant
  • Intake counselor or administrator
  • Probation officer
  • Social work aide/social services assistant
  • State caseworker
  • Substance abuse counselor
  • Victims advocate

Typical job responsibilities in these positions may include:

  • Arranging patient discharge and transportation
  • Advocacy work
  • Case management for child protective services, the Department of Welfare, and social services
  • Counseling
  • Direct client care
  • Home visits
  • Qualifying patients and clients for admission
  • Record keeping

Bilingual job seekers should enjoy an advantage in their job search, as a number of these roles require the ability to communicate with non-English-speaking clients.

An associate’s degree—in any field—should improve your employment prospects. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2018 unemployment rate for those with a high school diploma was 4.1 percent, compared to only 2.8 percent for those holding an associate’s degree. Employment for all social workers is projected to grow by 16 percent between 2016 and 2026, a much faster rate than the average job market, which should translate to growth for associate-level social work jobs.

Further, an associate’s degree can serve as a springboard to a Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW), should you decide to continue your studies. In completing an associate’s degree, you’ll fulfill many of the general education requirements needed for a bachelor’s degree, meaning you can earn your BSW at a greatly reduced cost (due to having already earned a number of credit hours).


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Exams or certifications to complete an associate’s degree in social work

None of the jobs available to associate-level social workers requires licenses or certifications. These are largely entry-level jobs in the social work world. Licensure and certification become issues only after you have completed a bachelor’s degree and/or a master’s degree, at which point you may qualify for licensed social work roles.

Who should pursue an associate’s degree in social work?

An associate’s degree is a great way to start your social work career. If you aren’t ready to commit four years to a bachelor’s program—or if you need to improve your academic record in order to get into the bachelor’s program of your choice—an associate’s degree will help. It may also provide opportunities for fieldwork placement, allowing you to test the waters to see whether social work is right for you.

Typical candidates for an associate’s degree in social work include:

Students who cannot afford to spend too much on their degree

An associate’s degree is a budget-friendly path to advance your education. Tuition costs are lower at community colleges than they are at four-year colleges and universities, and many community college students typically live at home, saving on the expense of dorm housing.

By way of comparison: in Pennsylvania, students at Bucks County Community College pay about $5,000 per year for tuition. Students at the main campus of four-year Pennsylvania State University, in contrast, pay $18,454 for tuition. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, getting an associate’s degree may help you avoid accumulating student debt. Even if you’re planning to pursue a bachelor’s degree, completing your first two years (and an associate’s degree) at a community college can save you tens of thousands of dollars.

Students who attend community college—including those going part-time—may be eligible for Federal Pell Grants, which, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. To qualify for a Pell Grant, applicants must demonstrate significant financial need and complete a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Federal student loans are also available to community college students, although not all schools participate in the program. Contact the financial aid office of your local community college to learn more about these opportunities.

Students juggling children, families, and full-time jobs

According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Society, “More than one in five college students are parents,” nearly half of whom (42 percent) are enrolled in community college. The Community College Research Center reports that approximately 80 percent of community college students work, and 39 percent work full-time.

If you need to continue working while going to school, the flexible scheduling of community college may be best for you. Many community colleges offer early-morning (before regular working hours), evening, and weekend classes to accommodate working students. Some community colleges even offer on-campus childcare.

If you have children, here’s what to expect from community colleges, in terms of childcare:

  • In California, 84 percent of community colleges provide on-campus childcare
  • In Delaware, Nevada and Rhode Island, every community college offers on-campus childcare
  • No community colleges in Vermont or Alaska offer on-campus childcare

To see how your home state compares, visit the American Association of University Women (AAUW) website

Students who are unsure whether college or grad school is right for them

Not everyone is meant to be a student, and not everyone enjoys school.
Because earning an associate’s degree is less expensive, more flexible, and less time-consuming than college, the benefits are high and the risks are low.

If you enjoy working but aren’t wild for academics, pursuing an associate’s degree in social work may offer the best of both worlds. The study of social work is vocational and experiential. Sure, you’ll have to satisfy general credit requirements in English and math (which, by the way, you’ll probably need as a social worker), but once you do, you may find yourself inspired by social work, a discipline in which classroom learning is combined with real-world fieldwork training.

Another benefit to earning an associate’s degree is that you can use your time in community college to take courses in other subjects, to better understand which career path suits your interests.

Students who know an associate’s degree will land them the job they want

Maybe you’ve already got your eye on a particular job and the lack of an associate’s degree is all that’s keeping you from it. You are the ideal candidate for an associate’s degree.

Can I become a social worker if I have a criminal background?

Many social workers are drawn to the field because of their own experiences with adversity. Those experiences may actually add value to their practice; those who have managed to escape and manage substance abuse disorders, for example, often make excellent substance abuse counselors because of their unique personal understanding of the challenges involved.

A criminal background does not automatically disqualify you from social work, although it could impact your eligibility for licensure. Criminal background checks are required for those seeking BSW or MSW licensure; candidates with potentially disqualifying issues, such as a felony conviction, are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

If you are concerned that your background may prevent a career in social work, reach out to your local state social work licensing board and ask how your specific circumstances will be evaluated. Be honest. A felony conviction is not an automatic ding, but lying about it almost certainly is.

Prerequisites for an associate’s degree in social work

Admission to an associate’s degree program is pretty straightforward. Most schools require applicants to hold a high school diploma or its equivalent, a general education diploma (GED), and most community colleges feature open admissions. There is no minimum GPA required.

Admission to a community college does not mean you will be able to immediately begin taking social work courses; many community colleges require students to take assessment and placement exams to determine their level of competency in a range of subjects. Those who do not achieve a baseline score on the exam will still be admitted to the college, but they will also have to complete remedial classes before enrolling in college-level courses. If you are required to take one of these courses, consider it an opportunity to review lost or forgotten skills, or to finally face your math fears.

Commitment required for an associate’s degree in social work

Most people earn their associate’s degree at a community college. The degree, which typically requires 60 academic course hours of credit, can be earned in as little as two years, although many students take longer. Think of an associate’s degree as the first half of a bachelor’s degree; by the time you’ve completed your associate’s degree, you’ve typically completed about half of the credits you’d need to earn a bachelor’s.

Community colleges may offer an associate’s degree in a specific major like social work, or in a general curriculum program. If you are pursuing an associate’s in social work or a related associate’s degree in human services or chemical dependency disorders, you will study specialized subjects like:

  • Criminal justice
  • Human behavior
  • Chemical dependency
  • Human services
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

This is, of course, in addition to core classes like English, history, and math.

Noteworthy community colleges for an associate’s degree in social work

Not every community college offers the associate’s degree in social work, and, unfortunately, there is no single comprehensive list of associate’s degrees in various fields. You’ll have to contact your local community colleges to find out what fields of study are available there.

Many schools offer an associate’s degree in healthcare management, human services, or in a related field such as substance use and abuse. Don’t rule out these degrees, as any one of these majors will qualify you for a junior social work position. An Associate of Applied Science in Human Services degree is particularly valuable for entry-level social work positions, but all of the aforementioned two-year degrees prepare you for a position in educational, health care, and mental health settings.

A partial list of schools offering an associate’s degree in social work:

These two schools offer an associate’s degree in becoming a social work assistant:

A number of two-year schools offer degrees that guarantee admission to a BSW program upon completion:

Is an associate’s degree in social work right for you?

If you’re attracted to social work but can’t envision yourself in a four-year program, an associate’s degree in social work is a smart option. An associate’s degree will qualify you for an entry-level social work job that will allow you to try out the career, making it easier to decide whether to pursue a BSW or MSW. While an associate’s degree in social work will not provide you the same opportunities for employment as does the BSW or MSW, it will launch your career and earn you valuable experience.

Best of all, an associate’s degree can open the door to a BSW degree. A community college pathway program will allow you to transfer seamlessly to a four-year college, bringing two years’ worth of lower-cost undergraduate credits along with you.

A serious social work career requires some post-secondary education, so if you’re serious about social work, you will ultimately need at least an associate’s degree. Whether that’s as far as you go or you use it as a stepping stone to a more advanced degree, an associate’s degree in social work is a great first step toward a career of helping others.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

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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