Social Work Degree Programs

To say social workers help people cope and solve problems in their everyday lives is true, but insufficient. That’s because, in a broader sense, social workers work to resolve major social issues that directly affect our communities, states and nation. The American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare identified what it calls the 12 Grand Challenges of social work — broad, sweeping problems that drive or undermine our societies. Among them:

  • Ending homelessness
  • Reducing economic inequality
  • Achieving equal opportunity and justice
  • Ending family violence

Overcoming these and the remaining challenges is no small feat; the proper training is essential. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) projection that demand for social workers will grow by 12 percent between 2014 and 2024 only underscores the importance of social work schools.

Fortunately, there are excellent social work degree programs — online and off — working to train social workers who can address the shortage while strengthening the social fabric of our nation, one family or individual at a time. A bachelor’s degree or higher is a requirement of the job, especially in the few states that require licensure. Finding the right program can be challenging, however, since they come in many different specialties at many different levels. Prospective students need to decide whether they want generalist or more specialized programs in areas like clinical or substance abuse social work and choose between online and campus-based schools. This guide can help future social workers make sense of their options.

Certificates and non-degree awards in social work

Unlike certificate programs that train entry-level workers, most social work certificates are designed to enhance knowledge and specialization among degree-holding professionals, not to mention their resumes. Students could earn certificates in social justice, for example, or family violence. Programs may specify whether students need be bachelor’s- or master’s-degree-holders — students likely to have full-time jobs. Online certificate programs can be particularly appealing to such learners, as can evening and weekend courses. Program lengths vary, but students can complete most social work certificates in a matter of weeks or months of part-time study.

Notable social work certificates

Social Work Certificates at Florida State University

Florida State University’s College of Social Work has three separate social work certificate programs providing advanced and specialized education to students with undergraduate or graduate degrees. Students pursuing the Child Welfare Practice certificate develops social interventionist skills necessary to interview and support children while the Gerontology and Aging Studies Certificate focuses on older clients. Florida State University’s Leadership in Executive and Administrative Development (LEAD) Certificate Program, on the other hand, focuses on leadership skills and practices for now-and-future social work managers. States that require licenses for social work may apply certificate coursework to continuing education requirements.

  • Department: College of Social Work
  • Location: Tallahassee, Florida
  • Online learning options: FSU’s LEAD certificate program can be completed online; remaining programs require campus attendance.

Associate degrees in social work

Associate degrees are not required of social workers, but they can serve as a launching pad for bachelor’s, master’s, and, eventually, doctorate programs. Associate degrees usually require two-years of full-time study. Courses establish a base of social work savvy that can be built upon through further study or prepare students for immediate employment as social work or case manager assistants, community outreach workers or probation officers. Associate degrees in social work aren’t hard to find: many community colleges and career schools offer them. A handful of four-year schools now to offer them, too. Learners can pursue associate degrees in social work online or on campus.

Notable social work associate degree programs

A.S. in Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University

Students unable to complete associate degrees in social work from area community colleges and career schools are not without options: Penn State University’s A.S. in Human Development and Family Studies is an online social-work-driven program available to students anywhere in the nation, save Minnesota and North Carolina. According to the University, students enrolled in the program build a foundational knowledge of life and family development and other practical and academic human services skills. Learners have the option of selecting from two different specialties — Adult Development and Aging Services or Children, Youth and Family Services. Few associate-level social work programs offer tracks.

Bachelor’s degrees in social work

Bachelor’s degrees are the minimum credential required of future social workers: All U.S. states require them for practice, though certain research or clinical positions may require a master’s degree or higher. According to The College Board, social work majors learn to practice in hospitals, the criminal justice system, social welfare agencies or policy-making organizations. They study social problems that affect their communities and how these issues might be overcome. They also learn how to shape and lead social movements. Typical coursework might include psychology, sociology, diversity and human behavior classes. Bachelor’s degrees in social work are available on campus or online, and typically require about four years of full-time study.

Notable social work bachelor’s degree programs

B.A. in Social Welfare at the University of Washington

The University of Washington’s School of Social Work offers a host of social work degree programs for undergraduate and graduate students alike. It also happens to be one of U.S. News & World Report’s highest-ranked social work schools the country in 2016. The University’s BA in Social Welfare prepares students to advance to graduate-level studies, or for entry-level generalist practice. Coursework combines classroom education, community service and 489 hours of supervised fieldwork. Graduates have the option of applying to the University’s Master of Social Work and, eventually, Doctor of Social Work Programs. Master of Social Work graduates might also want to consider UW’s Child Welfare Training and Advancement Program, which matches qualified participants with specialized field casework in areas like protective services, abuse-and-neglect prevention, and more.

  • Department: School of Social Work
  • Location: Seattle; Tacoma
  • Online learning options: UW does not presently offer an entirely online Web-based social work program, though students may be able to complete some individual courses online.

Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Utah

According to its official website, the University of Utah’s BSW program is designed to nurture professional social workers to be community leaders and “agents of change” working on behalf of their fellow human beings. It gives special attention to establishing supportive relationships with marginalized communities like refugees and immigrants, LGBTQ people, the mentally ill and rural clients, among others. The BSW is a 51-credit-hour program that can be completed in three to four years of full-time study. A required internship ensures students garner practical experience working with real-world clients. While all UU BSW students must complete general education requirements on campus, students can take core and elective social work classes online or on campus. Online social work courses meet the same standards and are taught by the same professors as their classroom-based counterparts.

  • Department: College of Social Work
  • Location: Salt Lake City; UOnline
  • Online learning options: UU’s hybrid BSW program offers a balance of online and campus-based coursework.

Master of Social Work degrees

Social work master’s degrees assume many different titles, but Master of Social Work (MSW) is perhaps the most common. These targeted graduate programs offer more concentrations than, say, an M.A. or M.S. in Human Service, and are required for clinical, professorial or highly-specialized roles. Master of Social Work programs offer general-but-advanced courses like Contemporary Social Problems and At-Risk Populations in conjunction with specialized classes. Students should be prepared to complete internships and/or capstone projects to graduate. While master’s degrees generally require two years of full-time study, accelerated and advanced-standing programs for bachelor’s-degree-holders shave off months of coursework. Students can attend on-campus or online MSW programs. Note that online MSW programs usually let students complete practicums within their local communities.

Notable social work MSW programs

Master of Social Work at Rutgers University

Rutgers University offers one of the country’s largest schools of social work and, according to its official website, nationally competitive tuition rates. The University’s Master of Social Work program prepares students for clinical roles in areas like mental and public health, child welfare, correctional social work and substance abuse. Students can complete coursework on-campus or apply to Rutgers’ online Master of Social Work. According to Rutgers, students enrolled in this program can attend coursework fully online and complete required internships anywhere in the United States. Note that Rutgers also offers a formal online certificate in Violence Against Women and Children. Unlike many graduate degree programs, Rutgers University does not require Master of Social Work applicants to take the GRE.

  • Department: Department of Social Work, the Rutgers School of Social Work
  • Location: Camden, Newark and New Brunswick, N.J.
  • Online learning options: Rutgers University offers fully-online Master of Social Work degrees and an online certificate in Violence Against Women and Children.

Master of Social Work at the University of Michigan

The University of Michigan U.S. News & World Reports’ no. 1 ranked social work school in the country in 2016, and not for the first time. A reputation for providing quality instruction in the latest evidence-based practices likely contributes. The University’s uniquely-structured MSW program is a truly customizable learning experience. Students establish a generalist understanding of the field before gaining more specialized knowledge through a combination of learner-selected practice method and practice area concentrations. Another unique feature of the University of Michigan’s personalized MSW program is its variety of attendance options that determine program lengths. These range from a 12-month Advanced Standing program for students with relevant bachelor’s degrees to 16-month, 20-month, extended and fifth-term programs.

  • Department: School of Social Work
  • Location: Ann Arbor, Mich.
  • Online learning options: The University of Michigan does not offer an online MSW.

Doctorates in social work

Doctoral social work programs prepare students for clinical and research positions or the professoriate. They are highly advanced and usually require graduate teacherships, research fellowships and/or dissertations. Some social work schools expect doctoral candidates to produce research or academic papers published in academic journals. Students can pursue either Ph.D. or Doctor of Social Work (DSW) doctorates. The University of Southern California — one of the top-ranked social work schools in the country according to U.S. News — reports that Ph.D. programs are ideal for clinical or research professionals while DSWs lean toward the academia. Both doctorates are research-intensive and prepare students to both design and test social intervention practices and theories. While programs vary significantly, most Ph.D.s and DSWs require three years of full-time coursework followed by at least a year of practical or research experience. Candidates may work with faculty mentors or researchers who specialize in their particular areas of interest.

Notable social work doctoral degree programs

Ph.D. in Social Work at the University of North Carolina

U.S. News & World Report ranked the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill no. 7 among all social work graduate schools in 2016, and its Ph.D. in Social Work is a prime example of its quality programming. This advanced research- program is designed to produce graduates who can build and test social intervention theory in research, academic and policy organizations. According to the University’s official website, the program does not cultivate clinical and practice skills. Students pursuing the Ph.D. in Social Work at UNC complete a combination of elective and required core coursework, including a graduate-level teachership and a dissertation. Classes touch upon several specialties: students can select as many electives as they want and work closely with faculty mentors who share their interests. UNC’s School of Social Work offers a clinical lecture series, a variety of certificates and North Carolina social work licensing support.

  • Department: School of Social Work
  • Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
  • Online learning opportunities: At the time of this writing in late 2016, UNC does not offer online social work degrees at any level.

Online degrees in social work

Online social work schools are popular learning among future social workers — increasingly so. Like campus-based degrees, online degrees in social work span all academic levels, from certificate and associate programs to Ph.D.s and DSWs. These convenient schools can be particularly appealing for rural students and those with family and career obligations that make traditionally-scheduled classes difficult. A small share of online social work programs may require students to report to campus to present a dissertation or complete a seminar, but most do not. Prospective students may wonder how such an interpersonal field translates to an online format. In most cases, online students must still complete internships or practicums, but within their local communities. Online social work programs may also incorporate innovative tools that enhance practical knowledge, like video conferences and virtual simulations. Be sure to check whether prospective online degrees have state-specific restrictions regarding admission.

Notable online social work degree programs

Online Master of Social Work at the University of Southern California

The University of Southern California’s highly-regarded online MSW program is unique in both approach and delivery. The rigorous curriculum is divided into three student-chosen specializations, each with its own department: Community, Organization and Business Innovation; Adults and Healthy Aging; and Children, Youth and Families. One of the features that truly sets USC’s online MSW apart from others, however, is its unprecedented delivery. Case in point: a Virtual Field Practicum in which students interact with live actors portraying real-life clinical scenarios monitored by a professor. This innovative program allows students to complete some of their 1,000 hours of required field education online. Students may complete remaining practical hours in community-based field placements near their homes. Graduates can apply to USC’s online Doctor of Social Work program.

  • Department: Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work
  • Location: Online, Los Angeles
  • Online learning options: The University of Southern California offers online Master of Social Work and Doctor of Social Work degree programs.
Online social work certificates and courses at New York University

The Association of Social Work Boards reports that almost all states that issue

social work licenses require continuing education coursework to renew them. New York University’s online post-master’s Advanced Assessment and Diagnoses Certificate can help students fulfill this obligation while enhancing their resumes with a formal credential. The University deems this 14-hour program a self-study program, meaning students can enroll and review videotaped lessons on their own schedules. One need not complete a certificate to earn Board-approved continuing education hours, however: NYU offers a series of continuing education courses designed specifically for this purpose. Courses include Social Justice, Building Family Resilience and Managing Emotional Dysregulation in Youth, among others.

  • Department: Silver School of Social Work, Office of Global and Lifelong Learning
  • Location: Online; New York
  • Online learning options: NYU’s Advanced Assessment and Diagnoses certificate and its series of continuing education courses can be completed 100 percent online.