Top Affordable Master’s in Social Work Programs 2021

A master's degree in social work (MSW) prepares individuals for advanced social worker positions. With an MSW, you can pursue licensure, become a clinical social worker, complete research, or hold leadership positions in various sectors.

With tuition rates continually increasing, three quarters of graduate students work 30 hours or more each week to cover the cost of advanced education. As such, many degree-seekers look for affordable master's degrees.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), public institutions' graduate degrees are the most affordable. For the 2018-19 school year, the average tuition at these schools was $12,171. That same year, the average tuition for nonprofit private schools was $27,776 — more than double public institutions' average tuition.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a median annual salary of $51,760 for social workers as of 2020. Because their salaries may not sufficiently cover an advanced degree, many MSW students may seek affordable schools offering the best return on investment.


Take a Look: Costs | ROI | Jobs | Cheapest MSW Degrees


Why Get an Affordable Master's Degree in Social Work?

A master's in social work provides ample opportunities for people hoping to make a change. Individuals with compassion, empathy, and a fighting spirit often pursue an MSW so they can advocate for populations in need.

Social work students usually choose between two concentrations: clinical studies or policies and administration. Clinical studies is ideal for social workers wanting to work closely with individuals. Students who intend to lead organizations should pursue administrative concentrations. Specialized degrees deepen students' expertise, which can lead to prestigious positions with higher salaries.

When considering affordability, tuition is not the only factor. With financial aid options, MSW programs can cost much less than the school's sticker price. For example, The College Board reported that grants accounted for 33% of graduate student funding in the 2019-20 school year.

Social work students usually choose between two concentrations: clinical studies or policies and administration.

Furthermore, prospective students should consider debt-to-income ratios when determining which schools they can afford. For enrollees who take out loans, monthly payments should total less than 12% of their monthly income post-graduation. By weighing potential debt against expected post-graduation salary, aspiring MSW students can find programs that fit their budget.

Many MSW degree-seekers apply to programs after accruing professional experience. Since institutions often require MSW applicants to submit a resume and recommendation letters, prior employment in the field can improve students' chance of acceptance.

Other application requirements include a personal statement, an application fee, and undergraduate transcripts. Once accepted, students usually spend 2-4 years completing 42-62 credits, covering topics such as human behavior, public policy, and field experience.

Should You Attend a Social Work School Online?

Online courses have surged in popularity over the past two decades. According to NCES data, by 2015-16, 45.6% of graduate students were taking at least some classes online, up from 16.5% in 2003-04. Graduate students are almost 20% more likely to take online classes than undergraduate students.

Many online degrees are asynchronous, allowing learners to complete course requirements with more flexibility. This appeals particularly to graduate students who take classes while working full or part time. Online programs can also be more affordable: Many charge in-state tuition or reduced online rates for all enrollees.

How Can You Pay for an MSW Degree?

Tuition for a master's in social work can range from about $8,700 to more than $68,000 per academic year. Cost depends on whether a school is in state, out of state, or private. NCES data shows the average graduate school tuition for public schools in the 2018-19 school year was less than half the average private school tuition.

No matter the final cost, students can pay for their master's in social work using various financial aid methods:

  • Loans: Many students take out loans from the federal government or private lenders. The loan type and provider determine interest rates and repayment timelines.
  • Fellowships: Fellowships pay graduate students' tuition — often with an additional stipend — in exchange for research or teaching work.
  • Grants: Governing bodies, private organizations, and colleges offer grants to students based on financial need. Students do not repay grants.
  • Scholarships: Institutions, organizations, and businesses typically award scholarships based on merit. The donating entity decides the scholarship's parameters, such as minimum GPA or community service requirements.

Making Cheap Master's Programs in Social Work Even Cheaper

Students can go beyond loans, grants, and scholarships to reduce the cost of graduate school. For instance, degree-seekers can study at a local institution to cut housing and transportation costs, or students can prioritize public universities over private ones.

Make your quality MSW even cheaper using the following:

  • Work-Study Opportunities: On-campus learners with financial need can apply for federal work-study programs. Participants work part time to help pay their educational costs.
  • Accelerated Programs: Accelerated MSWs take less time to complete, often cutting program length by several months. Students in accelerated programs can cut down on tuition, housing costs, and transportation expenses.
  • Advanced-Standing Programs: Some institutions offer advanced-standing programs, which usually require half the credits of a standard MSW. This may reduce overall cost. Advanced-standing programs typically require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
  • Bridge Programs: Students intending to pursue both a master's and a doctorate can attend an MSW-to-Ph.D. bridge program. Combining these degrees requires fewer credits overall than completing the degrees separately. Several courses count toward both the master's and the doctoral degree, reducing credit requirements even further.

Will Going to Social Work Grad School Pay Off?

A master's degree requires a serious economic investment, but an MSW can pay off, especially with regard to increased job opportunities. Social workers — especially those with master's degrees — can find work in many places, including schools, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes.

Graduates who pursue additional licensure may find even more opportunities as therapists. For example, the BLS projects a 25% increase in positions for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors. This occupation typically requires a master's degree and licensure.

Aspiring students should compare each prospective institution's return on investment (ROI). Determining factors include the debt-to-income ratio and the percentage of graduates employed within a year. Ideally, should students see ROI within a few years if they take out smaller loans and receive higher salaries due to their advanced credentials.

Jobs for Social Work Graduates

Social workers find employment in various fields, including healthcare and education. According to the BLS, social workers earned a median annual salary of $51,760 as of 2020. With licensure and experience, PayScale reported the average annual salary for licensed clinical social workers as $59,260 in September 2021. Explore a few common social worker positions below.

Substance Abuse Social Worker

These professionals help people struggling with addictions or behavioral issues. Social workers establish treatment plans with their clients. Substance abuse social workers with master's degrees can become clinical counselors and perform mental health evaluations.

  • Required Education: Bachelor's degree for entry-level positions; master's degree for clinical or counseling work
  • Job Outlook (2019-29): +25%
  • Median Annual Salary: $47,660

Corrections Social Worker

MSW graduates can work as correctional treatment specialists, parole officers, or probation officers. In each position, social workers supervise parolees or inmates, evaluate them, and help them prepare for societal reintegration. An MSW can also lead to administrative positions.

  • Required Education: Bachelor's degree
  • Job Outlook (2019-29): +4%
  • Median Annual Salary: $55,690

Social and Community Service Managers

These professionals work to better the community. They spearhead and manage outreach programs, research their effectiveness, and develop funding plans. For managerial positions, organizations may prefer these social workers to hold a master's degree.

  • Required Education: Bachelor's degree
  • Job Outlook (2019-29): +17%
  • Median Annual Salary: $69,600

Community Health Workers

As community advocates, these social workers oversee outreach programs, research projects, and informal counseling. They work in nonprofit organizations, public health departments, and healthcare facilities. To land administrative or specialist positions, social workers need a master's degree.

  • Required Education: Bachelor's degree for entry-level positions; master's or doctoral degree for specialist jobs
  • Job Outlook (2019-29): +13%
  • Median Annual Salary: $48,140

Child, Family, and School Social Workers

These social workers connect families to resources like food stamps, counseling, and intervention in abusive situations. With a master's degree and clinical licensure, social workers can provide therapy and create treatment plans.

  • Required Education: Bachelor's degree in social work for entry-level positions; master's degree for clinical positions
  • Job Outlook (2019-29): +13%
  • Median Annual Salary: $48,430

Choosing the Right Graduate Social Work Program

Cost is a critical component when selecting the right MSW program, but aspiring students should also consider other factors. Depending on your educational priorities and career goals, these other elements may be a higher priority than affordability.

For example, accreditation can impact students' academic and professional future. Accreditation indicates that a school meets high academic standards. Many financial aid, employment, and further education opportunities require students to attend an accredited institution.

Consider these additional factors when selecting a graduate social work program:

  • Available Courses: Social work covers numerous jobs, from geriatric counselors to correctional officers. Review the school's curriculum to ensure the courses align with your career path.
  • Internship Opportunities: Social work degrees often include field experience requirements. Explore each school's internship opportunities to find one that aligns with your professional goals. Building connections, networking, and working with experienced social workers can lead to work opportunities after graduation.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does an MSW degree cost?

The cost for a master's in social work degree varies greatly depending on required credits and institution type. Prices range from about $9,000-$68,000 annually.

Is going to social work grad school worth it?

Yes. A master's degree in social work opens the door to jobs across various industries. The field is growing quickly, with the BLS projecting social worker jobs to increase by 13% between 2019 and 2029.

Can you get a master's in clinical social work?

You can pursue a master's degree in social work. To become a clinical social worker, you must complete an MSW, fulfill state experience requirements, and pass a licensure exam.

Are there one-year MSW programs?

Yes. Certain MSW programs allow students to graduate in one year. Some of these degrees are accelerated or online programs. Students with a bachelor's in social work can apply to advanced-standing MSW programs, which usually entail one year of full-time study.

How much does a social worker make?

According to the BLS, social workers make a median annual salary of $51,760. Individual income depends on education, licensure, and experience. For example, the median salary for social and community service managers working in local government was $87,720 as of 2020.

2021's Most Affordable MSW Degree Programs

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1. The University of Texas at Austin

Future social workers at UT Austin can customize their 60-credit master of social work degree through concentrations in clinical social work or administration and policy practice.

Field experience at community organizations offers students further opportunities to explore their career interests. Degree-seekers complete 1,020 internship hours over two semesters. Faculty members match students for the first field placement, drawing on the school's 600 partnership sites. In the second internship, students interview to secure their own placements.

During field experiences, students can co-facilitate group sessions or work one-on-one with individuals. This generalist practice degree also lets students earn certificates to work in schools, healthcare, or with military personnel and families.

Daytime and evening classes give working students the flexibility to complete the program in two years of full-time study or three years of part-time attendance. Students who hold a bachelor's in social work can graduate in one year.

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2. Indiana University-Bloomington

Students enrolled in IU's on-campus master of social work program build their practice in 2-4 years by taking foundational courses, concentration classes in clinical and community practice, and selecting a focus area.

Candidates explore concepts in social work research, diversity, human rights, social justice, and social policy analysis. A focus area in mental health and addictions teaches learners to incorporate research into evidence-based interventions, prevention measures, and support services. Many graduates go on to become clinicians, advocates, and case managers.

Students later apply social work theories and principles from the classroom in a practice setting, where they complete 640 practicum hours. Prior to graduation, a faculty field liaison gives candidates' fieldwork a final evaluation.

Graduates of the IU School of Social Work find careers in education, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and mental health agencies.

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3. California State University-Fresno

Fresno State's 60-credit master's degree in social work features tracks in behavioral health and integrated practice, school social work, and child welfare that prepare graduates to work with at-risk communities. The university's Department of Social Work Education offers a traditional two-year MSW that includes 1,000 practicum hours or a part-time program that takes four years to complete.

Graduates who earn a certificate in cross-cultural competency and gerontological specialist certificate can also pursue roles in children and family services, schools, public child welfare, and adult services.

The MSW programs do not require a GRE or prior undergraduate field work. Applicants need only a bachelor's degree in social work from an accredited school, a minimum 2.75 GPA, and an undergraduate education in liberal arts.

The school welcomes new students in the fall semester. Eligible candidates must complete prerequisite courses in research methods and data analysis, human biological development, and cultural diversity.

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4. California State University-Bakersfield

CSUB's master of social work degree prepares learners for positions in child and family services, gerontology and health social work, and mental health.

The curriculum builds a core understanding of policy, research, and human behavior and social environment. Candidates complete 60 hours of classwork and 960 hours of fieldwork in Kern County or nearby areas. At the end of the program, students use concepts acquired through their fieldwork to complete a community project.

With options to attend full time, part time, or as an advanced standing student, the program boasts broad appeal. Part-time students take three years to graduate, whereas full-time students take two years.

Applicants should submit college and department applications, GRE scores, and transcripts. Candidates are admitted based on their letters of reference, community service experience, academic potential, and leadership ability. While applicants do not need a bachelor's degree in social work, they must have earned at least a 2.5 GPA in their liberal arts prerequisite coursework.

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5. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Social Work was founded in 1920 and still prepares some 300 students every year to address mental health, poverty, and substance abuse issues through social work.

The MSW degree lets students choose between direct practice and community, management, and policy practice concentrations. The direct practice concentration prepares candidates to work one-on-one with individuals, groups, or families. The community, management, and policy practice is ideal for students interested in advocacy or community organizing work.

Learners typically earn their MSW in 2-3 years. Advanced standing students may graduate in as few as 12-20 months. All degree-seekers must complete up to 1,100 field hours.

Admission requirements include a diverse academic background, a bachelor's degree from an accredited college, and prior social work experience. Applications must include transcripts, a statement of purpose, three letters of recommendation, and a resume.

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