By Steve Bailey
Last Updated: May 15, 2020
While some nonprofits allow workers without a college degree to provide limited support services to individuals and families, virtually all social workers must possess at least an undergraduate degree and a license to practice. Many social workers go on to secure a master's degree, which significantly increases their potential for career growth and higher pay.
Social Workers Didn't Always Have Degrees
Although professionals have delivered social work in some form for hundreds of years, Columbia University offered the nation's first course dedicated to the field in 1898. This sparked what many consider the birth of modern social work.
During the 20th century, states began requiring social workers to secure college degrees and demonstrate their competence through licensing processes. The National Association of Social Workers sets most of the field's standards, credentials, and continuing education requirements for licensure.
While you can still provide social work-like services without a college degree, you need at least a bachelor's degree to practice with a license.
What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Social Worker?
Some social work jobs require only a bachelor of social work (BSW) degree, but most call for a candidate to possess a master of social work (MSW) degree — especially for positions involving direct service to individuals and families. Earning an MSW degree also provides greater job mobility and salary growth opportunities while allowing professionals to deliver the best possible counsel to their clients.
Bachelor's Degree in Social Work
Earning a BSW typically requires four years of coursework, along with at least 400 hours of supervised field experience in most programs. The curriculum focuses on basic social work theories and practices, such as program planning, shaping policy, and delivering support services to individuals and families. Graduates may seek a licensed bachelor of social work (LBSW) certification by passing the Association of Social Work Board's bachelor's exam.
BSW degree-holders often serve as case management aides, probation officers, benefits eligibility workers, human services specialists, and community outreach coordinators. These entry-level jobs can pay $30,000-$50,000 per year, depending on the location.
Master's Degree in Social Work
Before entering an MSW program, each student must first secure a BSW degree from a regionally accredited postsecondary institution. The master's degree usually takes 1-2 years to complete, and most programs require students to engage in at least 1,000 hours of community-based field experience.
Graduates of MSW programs pursue licensed master of social work (LMSW) and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) credentials. Licensure allows professionals to work directly with children, adults, and families to provide need-based support services.
MSW degree-holders commonly serve as community service managers, school social workers, and social work administrators. They generally earn $50,000-$80,000 per year.
Learn More About Social Work Degree Programs