Is a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work Worth It?
March 02, 2023
Social workers do not just spring, fully formed, from a stack of papers in a manila folder. They need years of education and training; for many, that involves earning a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from a CSWE-accredited institution.
Picture yourself, a college student, staring at a blank major declaration form. It seems as though every moment in your life has built up to this one decision, but you still don't know what to do. Before you sign your name, consider these three great reasons to earn a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and become a social worker:
- First: You will be able to make immediate professional contributions right out of college. In most states, a BSW allows you to apply for your initial licensure and start working.
- Second: Your contributions will genuinely mean something. No single person can save the world, but social workers have the opportunity to make a legitimate difference in the lives of the people they serve.
- Third: The job field is very secure. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that the social work profession will grow at a rate of 12 percent between 2020 and 2030. That's nearly twice the growth rate of the job market as a whole.
Unfortunately, this secure job market isn't accompanied by excellent pay. Social workers earn a median income of $51,760 per year, though social workers who continually advance their education can earn more. The average annual income for people holding BSWs is even more discouraging at $40,629 per year, according to Payscale. Even so, if you want to spend your life helping others, a BSW is a great way to start. And you'll be earning more than your buddies who got bachelor's degrees in teaching (average salary: just over $40,000). So you've got that going for you.
In this guide to a bachelor's degree in social work we will cover:
- Prerequisites for a bachelor's degree in social work
- Commitment required for a bachelor's degree in social work
- Exams and certifications to complete a bachelor's degree in social work
- Possible fields and career paths for a bachelor's degree in social work
- Top schools for a bachelor's degree in social work
Prerequisites for a bachelor's degree in social work
The only real prerequisite for earning a BSW (sometimes called a BASW) at a four-year institution is getting into the college conferring the degree. Applying for a Master's of Social Work (MSW) program is a different matter, but most universities, and many smaller colleges, offer the BSW to undergraduate social work majors.
Some schools do ask for more. The University of California - Berkeley, for example, requires social work students to submit a "four-year program plan" to graduate. Some schools—such as Florida State University—limit enrollment in their social work programs and impose additional admissions requirements.
Always check your prospective school's requirements before attending. Some set the bar a little higher, some a lot. Some don't even have a bar.
If you are a high school student who already knows you want to go into social work, you can build up your resume by performing volunteer work or community service. Come to think of it, everybody should do that. But especially you. You should do that.
The most important thing to research is your preferred institution's accreditation status. Only consider programs accredited by the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE), because most states require CSWE accreditation to earn your BSW-level license. Additionally, most worthwhile social work graduate programs will only recognize your BSW if it comes from a CSWE-accredited institution.
Which associate degrees provide a path to a BSW?
Some students decide to transfer into a BSW program after earning a two-year associate's degree in social work (ASW). Some four-year schools, such as University of Vermont, offer a "2+2 pathway" program. This allows students who earn an associate degree at a local community college to gain direct admission to the BSW program. Once admitted, they can complete the bachelor's degree in two years.
Not all schools require the ASW to enter the BSW program; some will accept associate degrees in other disciplines. Binghamton University, for example, requires only "an associate degree in a liberal arts or human service field." These include associate's degrees in:
- Social work: This is the easiest application to help you move forward to your bachelor's degree.
- Health services: This degree will have you well prepared for coursework in medical ethics and the administrative tasks involved with social work.
- Sociology: The study of sociology will help form your ideas on culture, inequality, and social stratification.
- Psychology: Psychology is a solid foundation for social work and will help with treatment plans and high-level clinical work.
- English: This degree will provide a good framework for interpersonal communication, public speaking, and critical reading and writing.
The best way to determine whether your associate's degree qualifies you for admission to a bachelor's program is to do one or both of the following:
Look on the school's website
This should be a place you visit often for answers to all your questions about admissions, coursework, prerequisites, online course options, deadlines and all your specifics.
Call the school's admissions office
Sometimes making a call and talking to an admissions counselor is the easiest way to get your questions answered. Write up a list of everything you are unsure about and ask away!
Do not just "ask a friend who usually knows about these things." That is definitely the least-best option.
Commitment required for a bachelor's degree in social work
Full-time BSW students typically complete the degree in four years. Part-time students take longer. Online programs are the same, although online students tend to be part-timers (online study is the option preferred by those who continue to work full-time while studying). Accordingly, most online students take more than four years to graduate.
What courses do you have to take for a Bachelor of Social Work?
There is no single mandatory curriculum for undergraduate social work programs. On the contrary, schools differentiate themselves through the variations in their programs. Want to learn to be a clinical social worker? Some schools specialize in that practice, and that will be reflected in their course offerings. Or perhaps you hope to become a social work administrator? Again, some schools will offer more courses in relevant subjects.
Even so, everyone earning a BSW needs to learn the core values and practices of social work. Also, every CSWE-accredited program needs to meet CSWE standards, and that means teaching particular subjects. Most undergraduate social work programs include courses with titles similar to the following:
- Introduction to Social Work: This course will begin with an overview of social work practice, issues of diversity, social justice and oppression, and introduce core values and the Code of Ethics.
- Social Work Practice With Individuals: This coursework will be the foundation for future fieldwork and practice methods, and will address issues of race, ethnicity, ability, gender, and sexual orientation and their relevance to practice and helping relationships.
- Social Work Practice With Groups: An expanded version of the course above deals with all the factors listed, and expands individual treatment to groups and issues of community, diversity, multiculturalism and social justice.
- Social Work Practice With Organizations and Communities: This coursework will expand the lens further to larger organized groups and communities, with similar issues of inclusion and treatment within clinical settings like shelters, community centers, adn child welfare agencies.
- Programs, Policies, and Issues: Classes here will use the Code of Ethics to measure fairness and effectiveness of social policy and the programs designed to help specific members of society.
- Social Welfare in the United States: This coursework will prepare students to work toward policy change with a foundation in the history of social welfare in the U.S. and the pioneers who helped form the profession.
- History and Values of Social Welfare: This class will outline the development of social work as an occupation and its influence on social welfare, beginning with origins in volunteerism in a changing economy in the late 19th century and on to achieving professional status by about 1930.
- Human Behavior: Classes here might begin with biology and brain development to give context to the concepts and framework of human thought and behavior.
- Statistics: Understanding statistics is vital to the study of populations, and for understanding research, evaluating practice and policy, and to effectively promote programming to people you really want to reach.
- Organizational Theory: Focus here will be on how a set of concepts or constructs are related, and how these relationships explain how groups of individuals relate to each other, and how that differs from individual behavior.
- Social Work Research: Research is key to social work practice, so understanding research ethics, measurement, causation, sampling, and the structure of quantitative and qualitative research methods provides a solid foundation.
- Racism and Equality: Understanding how to disrupt discrimination and provide opportunities for social work practice to work with anti-racist policies and programs helps provide meaningful context for the direction of socal work.
- Issues in Social Justice: There is a long list of social justice issues including hunger and food insecurity, healthcare, voting rights, climate justice, and racism- learning skills and insights helps social workers to work in concert with any community.
One graduation requirement for every accredited school is at least 400 hours of "supervised field experience," according to the CSWE. This is often referred to as a practicum. For most people, it represents their first professional hands-on experience with social work.
Fieldwork practicums usually come towards the end of your time in a program. They provide an excellent opportunity to:
- Apply your education (to this point): After getting all your theory polished, it's time to put some of it into practice.
- Gain an overview of the field: Practicums are a great time to dig in and see where you might want to focus your studies in a particular concentration.
- Make professional connections: This is a time when you will start meeting people—and developing relationships that keep you learning and starting to plot the course of your career.
- Start helping others: This is when you can start to feel like a social worker. You’ll be examining policy, guiding clients toward resources, and beginning to make a difference in peoples' lives.
How much does it cost to earn a BSW?
The cost of tuition for a BSW varies widely, especially between public and private colleges, even when you factor in financial aid. Tuition at CUNY Hunter College, a public university, is $6,930 per year for in-state students. Adelphi University, a nearby private institution, has an estimated tuition of $40,860, about five times the cost of Hunter. Columbia University’s annual tuition is $50,800. And that's before books. Or fees. Or food and a place to sleep. (Fortunately, most schools offer financial aid to those in need, and the more expensive the school, the more generous the aid package usually is. Don't despair.)
Exams and certifications to complete a bachelor's degree in social work
The only exams you need to complete to earn a BSW are the ones dictated by your major requirement. Now, putting your degree to use might be a different story.
Requirements vary, but holding a BSW allows you to take the most basic licensing exam in most states. This exam is usually required for entry-level careers in social work. You will no longer just be a person with a degree that reads "Bachelor of Social Work." You will be a person with a degree that reads "Bachelor of Social Work" and a license that says "Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (LBSW)."
According to the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), "Non-social work degrees are accepted in some instances for Bachelors licenses."
You will most likely apply for licensure through your state's board of social work. It will review your application, conduct a background check, and approve you to take the proper BSW examination.
Some states require applicants to earn a master's degree before applying for licensure. These states require a graduate degree for licensure:
- California: In addition to your MSW, California also requires a total of 3,000 supervised hours of social work (over a minimum of 104 weeks) in order to gain licensure.
- Colorado: Colorado requires an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program in order to obtain your license.
- Connecticut: Non-clinical work in Connecticut only requires a CSWE-accredited BSW, but to practice clinical social work in the state you must have your MSW in order to receive your license.
- Florida: Florida requires 4,500 hours (3 years) of non-clinical social work experience supervised by a CMSW or LCSW before gaining licensure.
- Georgia: Georgia requires a master's or a doctoral degree to sit for the state's licensing exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards.
- Montana: Montana requires candidates to submit a Social Worker License Candidate (SWLC) application and complete 3,000 supervised hours (1,500 in direct contact with clients) before sitting for the clinical exam for licensure.
- New Hampshire: After earning your master's from a Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), New Hampshire requires you pass a criminal background check and have 3,000 hours of supervised practice before becoming licensed.
- New York: New York lays out its requirements for licensure in addition to an MSW with specifics that include completing training from a NY state approved provider on identifying and reporting child abuse.
- Rhode Island: Rhode Island has two types of social work licenses, the LCSW and the Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW); the latter can be earned after a certain number of hours of supervised experience.
- Vermont: After gaining a CSWE-accredited MSW and passing the exam from the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB), Vermont requires that candidates pass a Jurisprudence Exam to test knowledge of Vermont's rules and statutes.
- Washington: Washington will issue temporary associate licenses to candidates who are in the process of earning their hours of supervised work, but will not issue a full clinical license until all requirements are met.
You will be able to practice social work in these states with only a BSW, but you will not be able to hold any position that requires a license. What that means, exactly, depends on the state. In California, for example, you can hold almost any nonclinical social work job.
A few states offer social work positions to applicants with just a two-year associate degree. They are:
- Massachusetts: Massachusetts has an associate's level of licensure called a Licensed Social Worker Assistant (LSWA) which requires passing the Associate Level Exam from the ASWB, and specifies that renewing that license requires completing 10 hours of continuing education.
- Michigan: An associate degree in Michigan will allow you to work as a social service technician alongside social workers.
- Ohio: Ohio offers certification with specialized training to become a social work assistant in the state, working with other social work professionals.
- South Dakota: South Dakota allows social work with an associate degree in support positions like case management and social work assistant.
Continuing education required to maintain a social work license
State regulations govern social work licensure renewal. Applicants should check the ASWB or their state social work board website.
Your state's local NASW chapter can be another helpful resource. It has information that simplifies the steps.
Possible fields and career paths for a bachelor's degree in social work
A bachelor's degree in social work prepares graduates for a wide range of employment opportunities, though they may not fall under the name "social worker."
Here's a sampling of typical job titles and career paths for BSWs:
- Social worker (general license): Entry level positions in mental health, residential treatment, and aging services are available with a BSW.
- Mental health assistant: Working in concert with social workers, this position assists health practitioners in their work with patients- taking vitals, recording symptoms, or with a client's daily tasks.
- Group home worker: Coordinating care and communication between family members, staff, and community organizations for residents of a facility are the responsibilities of a group home worker.
- Residential counselor: A residential counselor oversees the daily activities of a shelter or other facility, including any changing behavior of residents.
- Mental health assistance: Providing assistance to mental health advocates and social workers in their positions in private and group practice.
- Discharge planner: These positions help clients connect with resources and plan for continued care outside of the residence or hospital setting.
If you want to specialize in a specific type of social work, such as adult gerontological or clinical social work, you will most likely need a master's degree.
It is also possible to earn a BSW and then use the skills you've learned to switch careers. Some fields where BSW training can be helpful are:
- Human resources: Applying social work to human resources is an obvious fit, and can help design and coordinate services for employees within the company framework.
- Nonprofit work: Nonprofit work uses the efforts and training of social work in program design and in community outreach efforts.
- Teaching: Teaching uses social work principles and structure every day in the classroom, and is a good point of contact for students who might need help.
- Guidance counseling: Guidance counseling is another easy fit for social work bachelor's degree holders- working with students to find resources in schools or on their path to college.
- Law: Social work applies its Code of Ethics to law and social justice, and is a solid background for positions in legal services in all areas of law.
- Psychotherapy: The training you receive in pursuing your BSW can be applied to all of the helping professions, and work in psychotherapy is an easy pivot with further training.
A BSW will lay the groundwork for a career in social work. To advance in most practices, however, you will likely need a graduate degree as well.
Becoming a social worker with a criminal history
Many social workers are drawn to the field because of their own experience with adversity. They see social work as a way they can help others avoid the errors they made. People with a criminal history might have a more nuanced perspective on social work, but they still need to pass a background check to get licensed.
Some states are stricter than others. For instance, Ohio enters applicant’s information into an FBI database. The state does issue licenses to ex-offenders on a case-by-case basis and encourages those with a concern to contact their desired college and the state board before applying.
Top schools for a bachelor's degree in social work
If you expect the BSW to be your final or terminal academic degree, we encourage you to pursue it at a state institution where you plan to practice. The sort of high-responsibility social work jobs that favor a prestigious bachelor's degree also require a graduate degree. State schools deliver excellent undergraduate social work instruction at a reasonable cost. As an LBSW, you will likely not be earning a high salary. You should consider starting to economize now.
We've listed eight excellent affordable BSW programs below:
Boise State University
"The Baccalaureate degree program in social work (BSW) has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) since 1974. A major in social work prepares students for beginning generalist, strength-based social work practice, graduate level social work education, and social work licensure. "
CUNY’s Hunter College
"The BSW program offers students the opportunity to link theory and practice by participating in a robust curriculum and established field placements. Students will learn the core skills of assessment, engagement, intervention, advocacy, and documentation through a generalist practice lens."
Rutgers University - Camden
"Rutgers offers the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree with a social work major through the School of Social Work and the Camden College of Arts and Sciences and the New Brunswick School of Arts and Sciences. This outstanding professional degree program prepares graduates for foundation-level social work practice."
Rutgers University - New Brunswick
"Our mission is to develop and disseminate knowledge through social work research, education, and training that promotes social and economic justice and strengthens individual, family, and community well-being in this diverse and increasingly global environment of New Jersey and beyond."
San Diego State University
"The preparatory course work for this major includes a basis in the liberal arts requiring classes in human biology, economics, public health, psychology, sociology, statistics and Social Work."
University of Alabama at Birmingham
"The baccalaureate social work program is fully accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and prepares graduates for employment at the beginning level of professional social work practice as well as for graduate-level professional education. The mission is to educate undergraduate students from a social science perspective in both problem-solving skills and social work values to prepare them for generalist practice with diverse populations in an increasingly complex and interconnected world, emphasizing social and economic justice for populations at risk."
University of Central Florida
"UCF prepares you for life beyond the classroom. Here, you'll experience a wide range of opportunity, like learning diverse skills from world-renowned faculty ot networking with top employers across Central Florida to gaining first-hand experience in internships nearby."
Online BSW programs
If you don't want, or are unable, to pursue a traditional on-campus program, consider a CSWE-accredited online program. Do your research before signing up. Some schools may require a certain number of campus visits per semester. Others require students to secure their own fieldwork assignment. Some are only open to in-state students.
Eastern Kentucky University
"EKU’s 100% online social work degrees provide students with the strong foundation needed to become ethical, culturally inclusive leaders ready to build on human and social assets in a changing world."
Millersville University of Pennsylvania
"The online Bachelor of Arts in Social Work degree promotes: (r)esearch-informed practice, (i)mplementation of best practices in supporting individuals, groups, families and communities, (a)dvocacy for social justice and human rights."
University of Cincinnati - Main Campus
"UC Online’s Bachelor of Social Work degree enables students to gain the knowledge and experience needed to launch careers as community social workers. Our online BSW degree program is ideal for students who have a 2-year associate degree in pre-social work or a similar major."
University of Louisville
"The online Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is designed for adult students looking to gain a foundational understanding of social justice issues and enter the social work practice."
University of Nebraska at Kearney
"Social work is one of the fastest-growing professions of the twenty-first century, projected to continue employment demands over the next few decades. The online bachelor’s degree in social work prepares you to meet those workforce needs to help make a positive and meaningful difference in the lives of individuals, families, organizations and communities across society."
University of Utah
"(T)he BSW program seeks to establish mutually respectful and supportive relationships with marginalized communities (e.g., people of color, indigenous and aboriginal communities, refugee and immigrant communities, LGBTQ communities, people with mental illness, and rural communities) to assist in the development of community leaders and programs needed to achieve social justice and improve the human condition of all community members."
Western New Mexico University
"Our graduates gain the knowledge, values, and skills to practice social work in a variety of settings with people young and old. From counseling to case management and advocacy to intervention, our graduates find fulfillment in applying their skills to improve the lives of the people they serve."
It's worth repeating that you do not need a BSW to earn an MSW. Having a BSW can accelerate your MSW study, however, allowing you to skip graduate-level courses that repeat BSW content. If you know that you want to build a career in social work, a BSW is a great way to kick it off. You'll immerse yourself in a subject you love, and you'll give yourself a leg up toward any graduate degree you subsequently pursue. If you're that sure, go for it. Then get on out there and save the world.
(This article was updated on October 1, 2021.)
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