Earning a master's in social work (MSW) can lead to advanced positions, clinical work, and higher earning potential. The MSW is an ideal degree for professionals looking to practice in a supervisory role, provide therapy and counseling, or teach college courses.
Online MSW programs provide flexibility for students with full-time careers. These degrees allow learners to complete coursework on their own time without the obligation of going to campus. Online programs are sometimes more affordable than on-campus programs because they may offer lower tuition for distance learners and eliminate costs like transportation and relocation.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that social work jobs will grow 13% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than other occupations. Now is an ideal team to earn your MSW and advance your career in the field.
How Is an Online Master's in Social Work Different From an On-Campus Degree?
There are a few key differences between earning your MSW online and earning a degree in person. Some of these distinctions include:
Because many online classes are asynchronous — where students do not attend live classes — learners can complete coursework on a more flexible schedule. This flexibility can be valuable for online MSW students working full or part time as they complete their degree.
Although MSW programs generally require two years of full-time study, some online programs offer accelerated options that allow students to earn their degree in 12-18 months.
Without the added expenses associated with on-campus learning, such as transportation or relocation, online programs often cost less in the long run than on-campus degrees. Schools sometimes offer discounted or flat-rate tuition for online learners. Some public schools charge out-of-state online learners in-state tuition rates.
Some online MSW programs, particularly shorter or accelerated ones, require students to complete more classes each term. This may prove challenging for enrollees working full time while earning their degree. Prospective students should carefully evaluate how much time they can dedicate to coursework before choosing an accelerated program.
Accelerated online MSW programs may require applicants to hold a bachelor's in social work to waive certain foundational courses. Traditional online programs often admit applicants with a bachelor's degree in any field.
Because clinical social work licensure requires supervised internship hours, all MSW programs require some form of in-person internship. Online programs typically connect students with internship locations in their area, but students should take proactive measures to ensure they can fulfill these requirements locally.
Delivery Formats for Online Social Work Degrees
Prospective students can choose from several online MSW programs formats, allowing them to find a program that best suits their needs. Some of the online learning options for MSW programs include:
- Hybrid: Hybrid online social work programs allow students to take some courses online and some in person. Hybrid programs sometimes require short on-campus requirements at the start or end of each term with the majority of coursework offered online.
- 100% Online: Fully online MSW programs require no campus visits or in-person coursework. This format provides students the most flexibility, an important factor for learners working full time. Though all classes are online, most master of social work programs involve some in-person requirements like internships or field work.
Online programs operate one of two ways: synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous online learning requires students to attend virtual classes using technology like Zoom and complete scheduled discussions and exams. Asynchronous learning allows students to log in at any time and complete work on their schedule while meeting deadlines.
Regardless of a program's formatl, MSW degrees usually require in-person supervised internships or field work to comply with state laws for clinical social work licensure. These field hours usually take place after completing the MSW coursework.
Why Get an Online MSW?
Earning your MSW opens the door to new career opportunities in the field. Bachelor's degree-holders looking to advance their career while continuing to work full time can take advantage of the flexibility and accessibility of online programs.
When deciding if an online MSW is best for you, consider your own work and life obligations, and whether online coursework will fit into your lifestyle. Some pros and cons of earning your MSW online include:
|Flexibility: Complete coursework anywhere, often with no set login times.||Lack of In-Person Instruction: Online programs can sometimes feel isolating because there are no in-class discussions or lectures.|
|Overall Cost: Online programs can cost less than on-campus options.||Self-Sufficiency: Online learning requires organization, focus, and discipline in the absence of an on-campus structure.|
|Accelerated Options: Many schools offer accelerated online MSW programs that students can complete more quickly than traditional programs.||Technology Requirements: Online classes require an updated laptop and devices, along with a good internet connection. Students must also have a minimum level of computer knowledge.|
How Can I Pay for an Online Master's in Social Work?
It's difficult to estimate the overall cost for an online MSW because of a variety of factors. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data indicates the average tuition for graduate students in the 2018-19 school year was $19,314.
Tuition varies based on whether the school is public or private, if a student lives in or out of state, and how prestigious the program is. Online students can often save on some of the costs on-campus students incur, including transportation and relocation.
MSW students have funding options to help finance their degree, including:
- Loans: MSW students take out federal and private student loans to fund their education. These loans require repayment after finishing the degree or leaving the program, often with a short grace period.
- Fellowships: Typically based on academic or professional merit, fellowships offer funding for students to pursue their degree, often in exchange for teaching or research work. Fellowships do not require repayment and may also include stipends to cover personal expenses.
- Grants: Though less common at the graduate student level, schools and individual programs sometimes offer grants for students based on financial need and/or academic merit. These do not require repayment.
- Scholarships: Businesses, organizations, federal and local governments, and private donors offer scholarships for students. Individual schools and academic departments may also offer scholarship opportunities. These funds are awarded based on merit or need and do not require repayment.
Will Getting the Cheapest Online MSW Degree Be Worthwhile?
When pursuing an affordable online MSW program, consider the following factors to maximize your financial investment:
- For each prospective school, research average student debt, job placement rates, and salary data for recent graduates. Many of these data points are available on the College Scorecard website.
- Consider the tuition cost for each program and compare that to the above information to calculate an approximate return on investment (ROI).
As you calculate these numbers, consider that social workers may not see a significant ROI in the first few years of practice. Salaries for social workers vary by industry. However, MSW graduates can obtain social work licensure, allowing them to pursue higher-paying clinical roles and practice in various settings.
Jobs for Social Work Graduates
MSW program graduates can pursue careers in multiple industries, including the following jobs:
Social workers connect clients with social service resources. These professionals evaluate their clients' needs, recommend resources, and ensure clients' well-being and safety.
- Required Education: Bachelor's degree for entry-level positions; master's degree for clinical positions
- Job Outlook (2020-30): +12%
- Median Annual Salary: $51,760
Marriage and Family Therapist
MSW licensure allows social workers to practice clinically, providing therapy and counseling to patients. Marriage and family therapists help couples and families manage their issues. These professionals also provide skills and strategies for overcoming conflict.
Rehabilitation counselors provide therapy and counseling for people with physical, mental, and socioemotional issues. These counselors aim to help reintegrate clients into daily life and care for themselves by creating treatment plans and connecting them to necessary services and support.
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
Substance abuse and mental health counselors provide guidance for clients dealing with addiction and mental health challenges. These counselors work in a variety of settings, including in-patient rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, and universities.
- Required Education: Master's degree required for clinical positions
- Job Outlook (2020-30): +23%
- Median Annual Salary: $47,660
School Social Worker
School social workers and counselors identify students struggling with mental health or home life challenges. These social workers connect students with services they need and monitor their progress and well-being.
Choosing the Right MSW Accredited Program
Choosing the best online MSW program involves considering many factors, including school accreditation. Attending a school or enrolling in a program with accreditation is crucial for securing financial aid, pursuing licensure, or finding employment.
Other factors to consider include:
- School or Program Prestige: Earning your degree from a school or program with a positive reputation in the field may help you land a job after graduation.
- Specializations: If you hope to pursue clinical work in a specific area after graduation, consider programs that offer a specialization or concentration in that area.
- University Resources: Look for schools that offer valuable resources like career services or a large alumni network that can help you find a job after graduation.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you get a master's in social work degree online?
- Yes! In some cases, you can earn your online MSW from an affordable institution in as few as 12 months. Many schools offer online, hybrid, and on-campus options for earning your MSW.
How much does an online master's in social work cost?
- NCES data shows the average graduate tuition in the 2018-19 school year was $19,314. However, this number varies widely based on factors like state residency, program length, and funding options.
Are MSW accredited programs online cheaper than on campus?
- Some schools offer discounted or flat-rate tuition options specifically for online learners that can make online programs more affordable than on-campus programs.
Is there a fast track for a social work degree online?
- Yes! Some schools offer accelerated online MSW programs, ideal for students who already hold a bachelor's in social work. These programs take as few as 12 months to complete.
Are there online social work Ph.D. programs?
- Yes! Many schools offer online social work Ph.D. programs. The prevalence of this online degree option continues to grow.
2021's Most Affordable Master's Degrees Online in Social Work
1. University of Central Florida
UCF offers two affordable master of social work online programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Degree-seekers who hold non-social work bachelor's degrees can enroll in the 62-credit, part-time program, which is delivered in a three-year cohort format. Students with bachelor of social work degrees from CSWE-accredited programs can qualify for the 32-credit advanced standing track. This option, also delivered in a part-time cohort format, takes 18-24 months to complete.
Both tracks emphasize diverse client populations, family practice, and preventive and therapeutic interventions. Students enroll in one class per term that runs for seven weeks. In addition to online coursework, the curriculum requires a capstone project, a comprehensive exam, and 600 hours of practicum experience. Distance learners may arrange to complete their practicum experiences within an hour's drive of their home communities.
UCF provides online students with online coaches who guide them through the program and keep them on track for graduation.
2. California State University, San Bernardino
The school of social work at CSUSB offers its pathway distance education program for students seeking online master of social work (MSW) degrees. The university features this full-time three-year program entirely online for degree-seekers who cannot attend campus-based meetings.
The online MSW program, accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, prepares graduates for social work licensure in California. Its rigorous curriculum, based on an advanced generalist model, requires 48 credits, a capstone project, a comprehensive exam, and two years of precepted fieldwork.
In their final year, degree-seekers select specializations to work with specific client populations, such as the elderly or adolescents; a field of practice, such as mental health or child welfare; or a social issue, like domestic violence or racism.
3. Arizona State University
The school of social work at ASU, accredited by the Council of Social Work Education, offers an online master of social work (MSW), which leads to licensure in the state of Arizona. This program does not offer a clinical concentration, but focuses on effective and culturally competent practice across system levels and evidence-based strategies for change.
The 60-credit online MSW program offers coursework in administration; behavioral health; community practice; and policy and services for children, youth, and families. Distance learners typically complete 20 courses over two years, with each course running 7.5 weeks. The program also requires 960 hours of field education at two different internship sites. Its School of Social Work Field Education Office helps students find local placements.
Admission to this social work program requires a minimum 3.0 GPA in the last 60 hours of undergraduate work. An enrollee who does not meet this requirement can apply for the MSW after completing two graduate-level courses with a grade of "B" or better.
4. University of Texas at Arlington
UTA offers students fully online cohort master of social work (MSW) tracks for advanced standing and standard track enrollees. Depending on the pathway, students can complete their degree requirements in less than two years.
The competitive advanced standing online program accepts a limited number of highly motivated students who hold bachelor of social work degrees. Cohorts begin each fall semester. Classes meet in fast-paced eight-week formats, leading to a degree in 12 months.
The regular online full-time cohort program offers courses in 16-week sessions. Cohorts begin in the fall and spring semesters and typically complete the degree in 26 months. UTA also offers a part-time cohort pathway to the MSW.
The MSW features several concentrations that focus on direct practice. Students can choose specializations to focus on client populations such as the elderly, children, and families, along with focuses in mental health, substance abuse, health, and community and administrative practice areas.
This accredited online program only accepts individuals living in Texas but will admit Texas residents serving in the military or military spouses living outside the state.
5. New Mexico State University
NMSU, a NASA Space Grant school and Hispanic-serving institution, offers affordable and accessible educational programs. Its fully online master of social work (MSW) program delivers coursework either synchronously or asynchronously. The MSW offers four degree paths:
Advanced standing students, who come into the program with bachelor's degrees in social work, and the regular pathway enrollees, who enter from other undergraduate backgrounds, receive training in advanced generalist social work practice with individuals, groups, families, and communities and organizations.
Coursework emphasizes multicultural settings, research, social welfare policy, and working with vulnerable populations. The degree requires 950 practicum hours, comprising 450 hours of foundation fieldwork for two semesters and 500 hours of fieldwork in advanced generalist practice areas for two semesters.