Top Affordable Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Programs

By SocialWorkDegreeGuide.com Staff
Last Updated: October 2, 2020

A master of social work (MSW) prepares graduates for advanced and clinical practice jobs unavailable to those with only a bachelor's degree. An MSW degree can take between 1-2 years to complete and prepares learners to earn state licensure. Graduates can pursue careers in a variety of settings, including government, nonprofits, healthcare and mental health facilities, community agencies, and educational settings.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 13% growth in all social work specialties between 2019-29, much faster than average for all occupations in the United States. The need for social services and support continues to climb due to the nation's aging baby boomer population. As a result, healthcare social workers can expect a 14% increase in employment opportunities through the next decade. In the same period, as a growing percentage of the population struggles with mental illness and addiction issues, placements for mental health and substance abuse social workers are projected to expand by an unprecedented 17%.

Methodology

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Rank University Name
1 The University of Texas – Austin, TX
2 Indiana University – Bloomington, IN
3 California State University – Fresno, CA
4 California State University – Bakersfield, CA
5 University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, NC
6 California State University – Los Angeles, CA
7 University of Central Florida – Orlando, FL
8 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – Champaign, IL
9 California State University-San Bernardino – San Bernardino, CA
10 University of Washington-Seattle Campus – Seattle, WA

Top MSW Programs

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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6. California State University-Los Angeles

Candidates pursuing a master's degree in social work at Cal State LA's downtown campus can apply their classroom experience to the surrounding community. The 60-credit urban generalist degree offers a two-year, full-time track and a three-year, part-time track. Qualified students who hold a bachelor's degree in social work can graduate in 11 months.

Full-time learners take daytime classes, completing a 16-hour internship in the first year and a 20-hour field assignment in the second year. The part-time program offers classes in the evening and on Saturdays, with internships starting in the second year.

To supplement the MSW degree, students have access to four stipends through the CalSWEC, Los Angeles County Title IV-E SCFS, Los Angeles County Mental Health, and Geriatric Social Work programs.

Eligible applicants submit three letters of recommendation and a 2.75 GPA or higher. Students do not need a bachelor of social work to apply, but they must complete a research methods and statistics course and two upper division social science classes.

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7. University of Central Florida

The UCF's MSW degree allows students to graduate in five semesters and become licensed clinical social workers in Florida.

This 62-credit program prepares degree-seekers for specialized careers in social work through classes in military culture, violence against women, human sexuality, children and adolescent trauma, and forensic social work. Field experience is a key learning component. Those pursuing the generalist MSW degree must complete 400 field hours, whereas clinical MSW students complete 600 hours.

Students can study part or full time, with the option to take mostly online courses. As an incentive to study remotely, online learners pay reduced campus fees.

Incoming students must complete one course in humanities, physical and biological sciences, math, or social sciences. Candidates can apply for merit-based fellowships, assistantships, and other financial aid. Applicants must submit a video essay, a resume, three letters of recommendation, a writing sample, and transcripts.

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8. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

U of I in Champaign, Illinois, offers three MSW degrees: a traditional program, an iMSW program, and a dual MSW and master of business administration degree.

The iMSW degree is available as a fully online pathway in leadership and social change and in a hybrid format. Online learners never travel to campus, whereas students in the hybrid program meet four times on the weekends at the Urbana campus or the Illini Center in Chicago. All students must complete 500-930 field placement hours.

Students in all MSW programs can focus their studies on leadership and social change or an advanced clinical practice. Advanced clinical practice students may specialize in mental health, healthcare, children and youth and family services, or school social work.

While applicants do not need to submit GRE scores, they need a bachelor of social work from an accredited college, a minimum 3.0 GPA, and proof they have completed all prerequisites. Incoming students should also possess paid or volunteer human service agency experience.

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9. California State University-San Bernardino

CSUSB offers two MSW degrees for full-time students and working degree-seekers. Both require students to complete 60 credits and a final research project or thesis worth five credits.

Built on a foundation of general coursework, the program features elective courses on topics like child welfare, alcohol and drug abuse, intervention with the elderly, and global perspective. The degree takes 2-3 years to complete.

While students may remain employed as they earn their MSW, the CSUSB recommends learners reduce their work schedule to less than 40 hours a week while completing the mandatory 1,080 practicum hours.

The school considers applicants who hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited college with a minimum of a 3.0 GPA. Qualified candidates also need one year's worth of volunteer or work experience. Prior to starting the program, students must complete courses in social science research methods, human behavior theory, and human biology.

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10. University of Washington-Seattle Campus

UW's master's degree in social work prepares students to work directly with individuals, families, and groups.

Degree-seekers can choose from advanced standing, day, and evening programs, all of which are available on the Seattle campus. The full-time MSW program takes two years to complete with daytime classes. The three-year MSW extended degree program appeals to working professionals who can take evening classes on Fridays and Saturdays.

Degree-seekers can specialize in multigenerational practice with children, families, and elders, or integrative health-mental health. Fieldwork is an integral part of each MSW program, and part-time students begin their 680 field hours in the fourth quarter. While some students manage full-time jobs, the fieldwork often requires commitments Monday through Friday during a traditional work shift.

Eligible applicants need a bachelor's degree with a minimum 3.0 GPA. While the MSW program does not require GRE scores or prerequisite courses, students should take a statistics class.

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11. California State University-Fullerton

CSUF's master of social work program was developed with working professionals in mind. The 60-credit degree emphasizes multicultural social work practice and features specializations in child welfare or community mental health.

Working in a cohort, students take evening classes at the CSUF Irvine Center. Candidates explore perspectives on human behavior, welfare policy and services, or practice with diverse populations. Field work begins in the program's second year. Prior to graduation, degree-seekers must complete two nine-month field experiences.

Admission requirements include a completed bachelor's degree with a liberal arts and social sciences foundation and at least one year of volunteer or internship experience. Those who fall short of the 3.0 GPA requirement should submit GRE scores. Applications must include a personal statement and three letters of recommendation. The admissions committee may ask some candidates to do interviews.

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12. California State University-Long Beach

CSULB's School of Social Work offers an MSW degree with specialized tracks in integrated health, child and family well-being, and adulthood and aging.

The 60-credit program takes 2-3 years to complete, including two 500-hour field placements. By the second-year internship, students possess the skills needed to manage large caseloads at social service agencies.

Advanced standing students can graduate in 12 months. Distance learners pursuing an MSW degree take three years to graduate. Candidates may take online classes, or in-person courses at Santa Rosa Junior College and Ventura County Community College.

Students enrolled in the child welfare program and the adulthood and aging specialization enjoy financial help through stipends and grants. Learners interested in public child welfare or public mental health careers can also apply for financial aid.

New students begin each fall, with applications accepted on a rolling basis. While CSULB does not request GRE scores, students need a bachelor's degree with a minimum 2.5 GPA.

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13. California State University-Northridge

CSUN's online master's degree in social work prepares the next generation of social workers to help at-risk communities in San Fernando Valley.

Emphasizing multiculturalism, the curriculum teaches students to deliver social work services in an urban setting. Courses include advanced social work practice with urban families and urban social policy and advocacy.

While classes meet strictly online, students study in a cohort format that fosters lifelong friendships. Students can complete the online MSW program within 2-3 years, depending on their course load.

The program's weekly asynchronous classes let students keep a full-time job as they study. However, candidates must meet in person once a week to perform fieldwork. This MSW degree culminates with a group or individual research paper that reflects on the fieldwork experience.

The Department of Social Work admits applicants who have at least 2.5 GPA and prior relevant work experience.

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14. University of Connecticut

UConn's master in social work degree features concentrations in community organizing; policy practice; and individuals, families and groups. Through fieldwork, students apply theories and knowledge gained from their concentration.

Graduate students choose from MSW degree pathways that take two, three, or four years. Prior to entering the program, students can take graduate-level social work courses in the morning, afternoon, and evenings. This helps lessen incoming learners' course load when they begin the program, especially for those who work while they go to school.

Students may enroll in full-time, part-time, or advanced standing programs. Classes at UConn's School of Social Work enable students to pursue studies in political social work and international social work. The school also offers an urban service track that offers work experience in Connecticut's underserved communities.

The admissions committee considers applicants who hold a bachelor's degree with at least a 3.0 GPA and a liberal arts foundation.

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15. Florida Atlantic University

FAU offers a 60-credit MSW degree that allows candidates to become licensed clinical social workers in Florida in 2-4 years. Graduates find work in public policy, criminal justice, gerontology, and child welfare.

Located in Boca Raton, the Phyllis and Harvey School of Social Work hosts day and evening classes on campus. Students can also take weekend classes at FAU's satellite campuses, and some courses may be available online.

Full-time students complete 15 credits in the classroom and 16-20 hours in clinical internships. Part-time students must earn six credits every semester, plus 16 credits in fieldwork. Candidates complete 1,000 internship hours by the end of the program.

FAU features a rolling admissions policy, and students begin the program in the fall. Applications are reviewed within 2-3 weeks. Candidates need a bachelor's degree and 3.0 GPA to apply.

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16. University of Georgia

Founded in 1964, UGA's School of Social Work offers campus locations in Athens and Atlanta, with a variety of MSW program formats to suit different students.

Online, part-time, and full-time courses appeal to busy students. The UGA Gwinnett Campus in Lawrenceville also offers an extended-time MSW degree. Traditional programs last about two years, whereas the online and extended MSW degrees take 3-4 years to complete.

Students choose from specializations in clinical, community development, and integrated practices. Degree-seekers can also earn certificates in marriage and family therapy, nonprofit management and leadership, and gerontology. Many students pursue dual MSW degrees by also studying public health, law, and divinity.

The 60-credit program includes 16 credits of field education. Students complete 312 hours at a human service organization to fulfill their generalist practice and 600 hours in their specialized area.

Any candidate who holds a bachelor's degree and a minimum 3.2 GPA may apply to the MSW program. GRE scores are not required, but may distinguish an application.

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17. The University of Texas at Arlington

The UT Arlington School of Social Work offers an MSW program that is ideal for prospective clinical practitioners, consultants, researchers, and program administrators.

The flexible MSW programs include online and traditional options held on the Arlington and Fort Worth campuses. Advanced standing candidates may complete the online MSW degree in 12-16 months.

The 61-credit MSW degree includes core courses in human behavior, generalist micro practice, and generalist macro practice. This versatile program lets students customize their education with direct practice specialities in aging, children and families, health, mental health and substance abuse, and community and administrative practice.

Certificate options let students further develop specialized skills in organizational leadership, community leadership, administrative leadership, and policy leadership.

UTA's School of Social Work accepts candidates with a bachelor's degree in majors other than social work. Applicants with less than a 3.0 GPA should provide GRE scores.

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18. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Starting in 2021, U-M in Ann Arbor will offer an interdisciplinary MSW degree specifically geared toward students balancing work and school obligations.

With part-time classes available online, this convenient 45-credit MSW degree focuses on integrated health, mental health, and substance abuse. Distance learners meet with faculty live during office hours and may take one class with their cohort at the Ann Arbor campus.

Field placements also offer in-person learning. Students find placements in their local hospitals, community mental health centers, family service agencies, outpatient clinics, and community support programs.

This pathway requires students to take courses in applied assessments skills, evaluations, and interpersonal practice with individuals, families, and groups. Degree-seekers also complete 14 credits of fieldwork, beginning in the first winter term. Full-time programs take 16-20 months to complete, with part-time students taking longer.

The online master's in social work admits students in the fall, winter, spring, and summer semesters. Applicants need previous human services experience and at least a 3.5 GPA for their undergraduate studies. The school does not require a GRE.

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19. West Virginia University

The WVU's MSW degree trains future social workers to take on direct practice social work roles and leadership positions in Appalachian regions.

While the university's 60-credit programs differ in format, all emphasize an advanced integrated practice. Students can select an online degree with asynchronous classes or take traditional courses in Morgantown. Online learners begin in the fall and take classes on a part-time basis.

Advanced standing students who hold a bachelor's degree in social work can graduate in two years. Regular standing students take three years to complete their classes and field work.

Field placements, electives, and coursework allow students to focus on a particular community or topic that appeals to their career goals and interests. Regular standing students complete 300 general hours and 600 advanced placement hours. In some circumstances, a student's employer can serve as a field placement experience.

Applicants must apply by April 15. Candidates need a 2.75 GPA or higher for admission.

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20. Texas Tech University

TTU's social work program was founded in 1967 and offers a variety of generalist MSW programs that focus on health and well-being.

The standard MSW degree requires 59 credits and 900 field placement hours. In the first two semesters, students build foundational knowledge through classes on social welfare policy, social work with diverse populations, and research. Advanced courses explore social work practice with individuals, families, groups, and communities.

Traditional and online learners can network and take part in community activities through TTU's Graduate Social Work Society.

Program completion times depend on a student's prior education. Degree-seekers with a bachelor of social work can begin in the summer and graduate in one year, while other students start in the fall and study for two years.

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21. University of Wisconsin-Madison

UW-Madison's Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work traces its history back to 1896 and continues its commitment to diversity, with MSW degree formats for a variety of learners.

Over 2-4 years, the MSW curriculum prepares students to become licensed clinical social workers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Degree-seekers enrolled in the part-time MSW degree can focus on:

  • Aging and health
  • Health and aging
  • Child, youth, and family welfare
  • Mental health

Students may use qualifying jobs for fieldwork experience. Fieldwork totals 256-320 hours per semester. Candidates find job placements at mental health facilities, senior centers, community agencies, and educational settings.

To help graduate students pay for college, the school offers assistantships, fellowships, and traineeships. Students in the part-time MSW program can also apply for the Child Welfare Federal Training grant and the Harriet & Sandra Rosenbaum scholarship.

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22. University of South Florida-Main Campus

USF's MSW program operates in a sequential cohort and prepares students for clinical practice.

Full- and part-time learners can study online or attend classes on campus in Tampa. It takes two years to complete the program when attending school two days a week, or eight semesters for part-time students who attend class three evenings a week at the Tampa campus. Online classes meet live at set times in the evenings.

All students complete 900 hours of field placement at one agency. The school maintains partnerships with some 300 agencies in seven counties. Students incorporate their field experience and classroom learning into a final capstone project.

USF prefers candidates with at least one year of experience working at a social service agency. Applicants do not need to submit GRE scores, but they must complete prerequisites in biology and social and behavioral sciences.

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23. University of California-Berkeley

UC Berkeley has prepared social workers for leadership roles since 1944. The university's 54-unit MSW degree emphasizes specialized practice with concentrated areas of study in advancing health and well-being across the adult lifespan, strengthening children, youth and families, and strengthening organizations and communities.

Students who take at least 12 units per semester can graduate in two years, including a two-year internship. Berkeley Social Welfare offers more than 350 field placements. Many students take a concurrent degree in law, public health, or public policy. A graduate certificate in aging and social work with Latinos offers students additional ways to customize their education.

The first year includes a generalist placement of 400 hours, while the second year requires a specialized 720-hour placement. Students take similar elective courses concurrently with field study.

Berkeley Social Welfare does not offer an online program. The school admits students based on their academic and work background, preferring applicants with a liberal arts background. Full-time MSW students can apply for fellowships, work-study programs, and field-based stipends.

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24. University of Missouri-St Louis

Mizzou offers an affordable two-year MSW degree that features specializations in family practice of leadership and social change. The program also offers areas of emphasis in health and behavioral health and school social work. Most courses take place at the university's St. Louis campus, with additional classes held at the Mineral Area College in Park Hills.

The program's core component is a field practicum. Learners complete 300 hours in their second semester and 600 hours in their last year, when they also take courses in their specialization areas.

Individuals applying to the MSW program need a bachelor's degree and a strong liberal arts background with at least a 3.0 GPA. Prerequisites courses include introductory statistics. Applicants need to provide supplemental materials, including three letters of recommendation and two essays.

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25. University of Illinois at Chicago

UIC's 62-credit master's in social work program offers two-year and three-year options.

During the program's generalist portion, students study social work practice, research, and social welfare policy. The second half of the program allows candidates to focus on a specialization in mental health, child and family services, organization and community practice, or school social work practice.

Field placements include 450 generalist hours and 630 hours in a specialization area of social work. The College of Social Work lets learners enhance their studies with certificates in evidence-based mental health practice with children, integrated behavioral healthcare training, and integrated substance use disorder training. Degree-seekers who want to help youth with disabilities can enroll in Project LEAD.

Students cover tuition costs with loans, work-study programs, scholarships through the school's SnAP management system. They can also receive limited teaching assistantships related to their specialization.

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Applying to an Affordable Master's in Social Work Program

A bachelor's degree in social work or a related field is the minimal educational prerequisite for MSW programs. Students who plan to enter a master's degree in social work should ensure their BSW is awarded by a school accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). However, many programs admit students with undergraduate degrees in non-social work fields, such as sociology or psychology.

Applicants must document a minimum GPA — usually 3.0 or above — and provide official transcripts that demonstrate a specific number of academic credits in liberal arts, math, and sciences. The more selective programs usually ask for GRE scores. Most schools request letters of reference and a personal essay. Students should also describe any employment, volunteer, or research experience in social work-related areas in their essays and resumes.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What social work specializations are available for master's degrees?

    All CSWE-accredited social work master's programs offer a similar core curriculum that covers theory, clinical practice, research methods, policy, and ethics. Students also have the opportunity to specialize in a specific area, such as clinical, child and family, geriatric, school, and mental health and substance abuse practice areas.

  • What is accreditation, and why is it important?

    Accreditation verifies that the MSW degree has met nationally-established professional and academic standards. The CSWE, as the only accrediting body for social work programs, ensures that graduates meet the educational requirements for state licensure. Attending a CSWE-accredited school tells prospective employers that MSW graduates possess the knowledge, competency, and ethical principles required for social work careers.

  • Is a master's in social work a good degree?

    Students generally enter social work because they want to help people of all ages and backgrounds improve their lives. As careers in the helping professions expand, earning an MSW degree offers a pathway to a variety of fulfilling positions. An MSW, as the required degree for licensed clinical social workers, provides a competitive advantage in the job market and career advancement.

  • What can I do with a MSW degree?

    Many students express surprise at the versatility of an MSW degree. MSW graduates find ample employment prospects in traditional fields, such as child welfare, marriage and family counseling, and school social work. Recent graduates may also find rewarding placements in criminal justice, human resources, and military and veteran fields among other non-traditional careers.

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