2021 Best Online Masters in Social Work Online [MSW Guide]

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Earning a masters in social work online can help you position yourself for more advanced and challenging roles related to program administration, clinical and supervisory work, or teaching and research.

Masters in Social Work Online

Depending on where you live or want to work, a Master of Social Work (MSW) might be a necessary step for obtaining the professional licensing you want.

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Even if you’re not pursuing licensure, an MSW can still prove valuable.

Masters in Social Work Online Programs

Masters in Social Work Online Programs

If you have a bachelor’s degree and want to pursue careers in social work, getting an MSW might be a necessary next step.

A Master of Social Work (MSW) is an intensive graduate-level degree program that helps you develop crucial social work skills. Social work skills can be related to counseling, program development and supervision, community organization and outreach work, and social work research and policy.

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MSW programs can combine skill sets from a variety of related fields, such as psychology, sociology, mental health counseling, and administration and management. A social work graduate program also tends to cover research methods and public policy concepts.

You may also have the chance to choose a concentration when getting your degree, such as:

  • Program Development and Administration
  • Clinical Counseling and Therapy Services
  • Community Outreach and Education
  • Field Study and Research
  • Children, Youth, and Family Services

Some states require a graduate social work degree to qualify for licensing, and an MSW is required for many social work jobs. It’s strategic to inquire about licensing requirements for the state you plan to work in. For instance, state boards typically require a degree from a program with the proper accreditation status.

Common Social Work Master’s Specializations

Common Social Work Master’s Specializations

Specializations and curriculum options will vary by school, but here are five specializations that represent some of the breadth of the social work field:

  • Mental Health Services: Mental health social workers learn clinical counseling and therapy skills, and they may provide interventions related to depression, drug and alcohol use, or crime-related rehabilitation.
  • Program Development and Supervision: Those who deliver clinical health and counseling services or do community outreach are usually supported by larger programmatic and organizational structures. So, some social workers specialize in developing, supervising, and managing programs and organizations.
  • Field Studies and Research: Social work leaders seek to gather knowledge and data that will in turn inform better practices, outcomes, and policies. So, some social workers specialize in designing studies, conducting research, or teaching others about research and research-informed practices.
  • Health Education and Outreach: This branch of social work involves mobilizing community outreach workers with health-related skills. They aim to help community members access health services, such as vaccinations, dental hygiene services, or diet and nutrition counseling.
  • School Social Work: Some social workers specialize in providing direct services to schools and students. They may help with specialized counseling services, offer case management support, or provide support for students with disabilities.

When choosing the MSW program that’s right for you, it’s beneficial to search for programs that offer the specialization and course offerings that match your career goals.

MSW Careers & Salaries

MSW Careers & Salaries

Since social work overlaps with so many other fields, your degree may open doors to many opportunities, depending on your interests and specialization. Social work can overlap with sociology, psychology, education, healthcare, public policy, and public administration.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are many meaningful careers pathways that trained and qualified social workers may consider.

Careers Annual Median Salaries
Sociologists $86,110
Social and Community Service Managers $69,600
Social Workers, All Other $64,210
School and Career Counselors $58,120
Healthcare Social Workers $57,630
Health Education Specialists $56,500
Marriage and Family Therapists $51,340
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers $48,720
Child, Family, and School Social Workers $48,430
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $47,660

Many social workers focus on clinical counseling roles or community programs and services. Other social workers may get training in health science or seek specialized jobs in the education sector.

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Planning your next steps may involve choosing what kind of career-related skills and knowledge you most want to develop.

Master’s in Social Work Curriculum

Master’s in Social Work Curriculum

Available courses and areas of concentration will vary by school and program. In most MSW online programs, you’ll typically take courses in your specialization, learn critical background knowledge, and get some exposure to methods for connecting practice and research.

  • Social Work with Individuals, Families, Groups: You’ll learn about policies, practices, and dynamics for pursuing a range of intervention, outreach, and case management goals with individuals, children, teens, spouses, families, and small groups.
  • Evidence-Based Practices and Policies: You’ll learn how to research and monitor objective data from a range of academic and government resources. You’ll also learn to use data for informed policy decisions and for creating or reviewing guidelines for practice.
  • Community Outreach and Education: This course helps you develop community outreach work plans and examines methods and practices for change-oriented and advocacy-driven community outreach and education.
  • Social Justice and Culturally Competent Practice: You’ll explore and discuss the social dynamics and ethical dimensions of social work practices in culturally and socially diverse communities.
  • Social Policy Analysis and Advocacy: This course provides in-depth training in public policy analysis with applications for engaging in and organizing support for social policy development and reform.
  • Organizational Management and Development: You’ll learn methods and best practices for effective organizational management and skills that help professionals provide positive leadership.
  • Social Work and Business Models: You’ll learn about entrepreneurial and business-related methods you can apply to create more effective, vibrant, growth-oriented, and self-sustaining activities and organizations.
  • Grant Writing and Program Development: You’ll learn about skills and resources that can help you develop community nonprofits with more reliable and sustainable funding models. You can also learn how to secure grants and properly manage grant expenditures.
  • Research Design and Methods: This course covers essential concepts and methods related to evaluating and designing research studies in the social work sector.
  • Advanced Field Work: You may have an opportunity to participate in or help design and conduct supervised field work.

Most online MSW programs offer courses that address many of the unique challenges of delivering social services.

How to Choose an MSW Online Program

MSW Online Program

When you’re comparing online social work master degrees, you’ll likely find that features and options can vary considerably by school and program.

You may want to consider the following factors when you’re researching programs:

  • Course offerings and areas of concentration
  • Whether or not a master’s thesis is required
  • Interactive learning designs
  • Support for supervised field study or internships
  • The accreditation status of the school and degree program

As you explore different programs, it can help to think about what features matter most to you.

How to Become a Social Worker

Becoming a licensed social worker requires a few distinct steps, and each step is likely to provide some unique learning opportunities as well as present a set of unique challenges.

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Before you start your MSW, or soon after, it’s strategic to consider what area of concentration most interests you. Having a clear direction for your educational and professional goals will likely assist you with other decisions you’ll make on your journey to becoming a social worker.

The most critical steps in this journey typically include:

  • Earning your bachelors in social work or a related field
  • Getting a Master of Social Work degree
  • Completing any required internships or supervised field work requirements
  • Obtaining your license by satisfying your state’s licensing requirements

It is also beneficial to check in on your state’s specific licensing requirements early on in the process. This can help you make well-informed decisions along the way. In some states, you may even be able to apply for licensing after finishing your bachelor’s degree.

Admissions Requirements

Masters in Social Work admissions

Typically, admissions requirements for social work graduate programs include:

  • GRE or GMAT scores (only some schools require them)
  • Bachelor’s degree or equivalent
  • Satisfactory GPA (usually 3.0 or 3.5, if specified)
  • Relevant prior experience
  • Statement of purpose

Requirements will vary by school and program. Some schools are interested not only in your past academic record but in how you describe your motivations, personal values, and professional goals.

Social Work Masters Programs Accreditation

Social Work Masters Programs Accreditation

It’s strategic to ensure that your prospective school and program is fully accredited. Attending a school with regional accreditation is beneficial if you end up requesting transfer credits down the road. Regional accreditation can also be a precondition to qualify for some financial aid offers. 

Accreditation can also be a qualification for specific state licensing requirements. Regional accreditation tends to signify that a school offers high quality education with learning objectives that are well aligned to prospective employers’ expectations.

Organizations such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) can help you learn more about accreditation and how to find accredited schools.

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Accreditation

Council on Social Work Education

In addition to school accreditation, it can be helpful to select a degree program that has been awarded specialized accreditation from a relevant professional body, such as the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Programmatic accreditation can help ensure that your courses and training align with current professional practices. CSWE accreditation may also be required by certain employers and is commonly required for licensing.

Social Work Licensure and Certifications

Licensing requirements can vary from state to state. In most cases, you’ll need either a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a Master of Social Work (MSW) to be eligible for licensing.

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Your state licensing board or body may also require that your degree be earned from a CSWE accredited program. Other requirements can include licensing exams and specified requirements for supervised field study or internships.

Financial Aid and Scholarships

Masters in Social Work financial aid

Many people applying to graduate school may not have the resources to cover upfront tuition costs and other education-related expenses. Financial aid can help qualifying students overcome financial obstacles and keep moving forward.

Aid can take many forms, such as federal or state education grants, scholarships, employer-sponsored programs, and student loans. Terms for loans and other offers can vary, so it’s beneficial to review offers before proceeding.

If you’re anticipating applying for grants or need-based scholarships, you can start by filling out and submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

What Is an MSW Degree?

What Is an MSW Degree

A Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is a graduate degree in social work and a common requirement for becoming a licensed social worker in some states.

Students in this kind of degree program typically get intensive training in a range of topics related to social work. For example, this can include skills and practices related to social work with children and families or management of social work programs and organizations.

Some professionals pursue an MSW in order to become licensed counselors or marriage and family therapists. Others may want to lead or manage social work agencies or work in community outreach, such as health education outreach.

An MSW degree program also tends to train students in methods for linking practice and research as well as using research to support advocacy work.

What Can You Do with a Masters in Social Work?

online masters in social work degree

With an online masters in social work degree, relevant licensing, and professional experience, you might qualify for a range of roles in this field. Social services can make an impact on individuals, families, and local communities.

Depending on their interests and area of concentration, professionals in the field might pursue roles related to program management, providing direct outreach services or counseling interventions. Some social workers engage in policy and advocacy work or related research work.

Common careers in this field include social worker, social and community service manager, marriage and family therapist, and health educator.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Masters Degree in Social Work Online?

Masters Degree in Social Work Online

Earning an online masters in social work degree typically takes about 2 years. The time required can vary by program, though, especially if a master’s thesis or similar capstone activity is required.

If you plan to study part-time, completing a masters degree will often take longer. You may also find some full-time programs with no thesis requirement that are designed to help you finish in as little as 1 year.

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Many online social work degree program options make it easier to finish sooner or offer flexible part-time study formats.

What’s the Difference Between a Case Manager vs. Social Worker?

Social workers and case managers typically have similar professional backgrounds, and many case managers are trained and licensed social workers.

Social Worker Case Manager
  • Can provide specialized intervention services to individuals, couples, or small groups
  • Can also work in organizational development, community outreach and education, or public policy
  • May move into case management work as they gain experience and qualifications
  • Can coordinate, evaluate, and monitor multiple service needs for individuals, families, or small groups
  • Typically assigned to specific clients for an extended period of time, helping them access services as needed
  • May assign social workers or other relevant professionals to provide services to clients as needed

Case management is only one specific job role or duty that a social worker might pursue or perform.

What’s the Difference Between Human Services vs. Social Work Masters Degree?

While service to others can be a key theme in both of these fields, there are quite a few differences between social work and human services.

Social Work Masters Degree Human Services Masters Degree
  • Focuses on delivering direct clinical services
  • Emphasizes social work research and advocacy
  • Involves management training for social work programs and organizations
  • Emphasizes community outreach and education
  • Teaches about established human service agencies
  • Focuses on analyzing and implementing relevant public agency policies and programs
  • Helps students acquire skills for being effective agency and policy administrators

Both human services masters programs and social work masters programs can help prepare students to provide social services and manage social service programs.

Is a Masters in Social Work Worth It?

Is a Masters in Social Work Worth It

Yes, a masters in social work is worth it for many professionals. Social work tends to focus on helping others, improving communities, and advocating for policies and programs that often help those with the greatest social needs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 12% job growth for community and social service occupations over the next ten years. Social workers in particular are expected to experience 13% job growth, which is much faster than the average growth for all occupations.

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Other careers related to social work include health educator, school and career counselor, social and community service manager, correctional treatment specialist, and family therapist.

Universities Offering Online Masters in Social Work Degree Programs

Methodology: The following school list is in alphabetical order. To be included, a college or university must be regionally accredited and offer degree programs online or in a hybrid format.

Baylor University

Baylor University

Baylor University offers an online program for a Master of Social Work. Students can choose a specialization in Clinical Practice or Community Practice.

The program is designed to prepare students for work in hospitals, school systems, nonprofit organizations, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and religiously-affiliated organizations. Online students can receive personalized guidance and mentorship.

Baylor University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Boston University

Boston University

Boston University offers a part-time, online program for a Master of Social Work. Students are expected to attend weekly live classes online and can complete internships in their geographic area.

The program offers majors in Clinical Practice and Macro Social Work Practice. Depending on your undergraduate education and professional experience, you may have different tracks available as well.

Boston University is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

Case Western Reserve University

Case Western Reserve University

Case Western Reserve University offers an online Master’s in Social Work program that includes weekly live classes and in-person field experiences. Online classes are taught by the same faculty as on-campus classes. Class sizes are usually about 15 students. The program is 60 credit hours long and CSWE accredited.

Case Western Reserve University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Catholic University of America

Catholic University of America

Catholic University of America offers a Master of Social Work program that is 100% online. There are also flexible class schedules available on campus.

This program is designed for working professionals and usually takes two to five years to complete. The program requires the completion 60 credits, including 48 credit hours of coursework and 12 credit hours of field internships.

The Catholic University of America is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Fordham University

Fordham University

Fordham University’s online Master of Social Work program is CSWE accredited and features both traditional and advanced standing plans of study.

Students can tailor the curriculum to their interests by choosing from four different concentrations. Options are Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Policy Practice and Advocacy, and Evaluation. Students may complete their field education in their communities.

Fordham University is accredited by the Middle States Association of the Commission of Higher Education.

Howard University

Howard University

Howard University is a leading historically black university that offers an online Master of Social Work program.

The curriculum emphasizes sociocultural and historical contexts. It follows a cohort model and includes 16 didactic courses and 4 field education courses. Students can choose a concentration in Direct Practice or Community, Administration, and Policy Practice.

HU is accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Louisiana State University

Louisiana State University

Louisiana State University’s online Master of Social Work program can potentially be completed in as little as two years. Courses are 7 weeks long and can be completed online. Students may complete their internships in their geographic areas. The curriculum covers child welfare, substance abuse treatment, and other topics.

Louisiana State University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Morgan State University

Morgan State University

Morgan State University’s online Master of Social Work program is 60 credit hours long. There is also an advanced standing program that is 30 credit hours. The program helps students learn how to address poverty and socioeconomic disadvantages, interpersonal and community violence, substance abuse, and mental health problems.

Morgan State University is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Ohio State University

Ohio State University

Ohio State University’s College of Social Work offers a fully online Master of Social Work program. There are no campus requirements, and field experiences may be completed at agencies in your local area. The curriculum covers topics such as child and youth services, mental health, substance abuse, and evidence-based practice.

The Ohio State University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Rutgers University

Rutgers University

Rutgers University offers a Master of Social Work program that is 100% online. This is an asynchronous program designed for self-directed students seeking flexibility.

It usually takes 3 years to complete. There is also an advanced standing option for students who have already completed a Bachelor of Social Work or a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work. This program can typically be completed in 4 semesters.

Rutgers is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Simmons University

Simmons University

Simmons University’s online Master of Social Work program is clinically-focused and can potentially be completed in as few as 16 months.

It requires 1,000 hours of field education to graduate. Professors have online office hours so students can communicate with them one-on-one. Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks are available, so students can choose a pace that best suits their lifestyle.

Simmons University is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

Syracuse University

Syracuse University

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program follows a cohort model and is CSWE accredited.

It can typically be completed in three years and requires 1,000 hours of field work experience to graduate. GRE scores are not required to apply. Students who have a Bachelor of Social Work may be able to complete the Advanced Standing program in as little as two years.

Syracuse University is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Texas State University

Texas State University

Texas State University offers a Master of Social Work program that can be taken on campus or online.

Both programs use the same curriculum and are taught by the same faculty. Electives are available in specific topics, such as health care, diversity, adventure therapy, and spirituality. The program is CSWE accredited, and graduates are eligible for state licensure.

Texas State University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Tulane University

Tulane University

The online Master of Social Work program at Tulane University is 60 credit hours and typically takes about 16 months for full-time students to complete.

There is also an advanced standing program that usually takes about a year for full-time students to complete. Part-time scheduling options are also available to meet the needs of working students.

Tulane University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University at Buffalo

University at Buffalo

The University at Buffalo offers a part-time, 100% online Master of Social Work program. It requires 60 credit hours of coursework and can usually be completed in three years. It emphasizes evidence-based practice and trauma-informed and human rights perspectives. Students may complete field placements in their home regions.

The University at Buffalo is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

University of Central Florida

University of Central Florida

The University of Central Florida’s part-time, online Master of Social Work program includes 62 credit hours of coursework completed in a cohort model.

Students typically graduate from the program in 3 years. There is also an advanced standing track. The program is CSWE accredited and is designed to prepare students for obtaining licensure in the state of Florida.

The University of Central Florida is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of Denver

University of Denver

The University of Denver’s online Master of Social Work program can typically be completed in 21 months with full-time study. There is also an advanced standing track that can typically be completed in 18 months. Students can choose a concentration in Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity, and Wellness.

The University of Denver is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

University of Louisville

University of Louisville

The University of Louisville offers an online program for a Master of Science in Social Work that can typically be completed in 4 to 8 semesters by regular students.

Advanced standing students can typically complete the program in 2 to 5 semesters. The program requires 900 hours of supervised practice that students may complete locally. Coursework for the program can be completed 100% online.

The University of Louisville is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

University of New Hampshire

University of New Hampshire

The University of New Hampshire’s online Master of Social Work program is 62 credit hours long and usually takes 28 months to complete.

The curriculum focuses on strength and empowerment models. There are electives available in health and mental health, addictions and substance abuse, children and families, and disabilities.

The University of New Hampshire is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

University of South Carolina

University of South Carolina

The University of South Carolina’s online Master of Social Work program offers three different concentrations. Options are Adult Mental Health and Wellness, Children, Youth, and Families, and Social Change and Innovation. The program is mostly online but does require on-campus workshops. It can usually be completed in one to two years.

The University of South Carolina is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Getting Your Master’s Degree in Social Work Online

online social work master degree

Getting an online social work master degree could help you advance your expertise and qualifications in this growing, rewarding field.

It’s beneficial to be aware of any licensing steps that may be a part of your career journey, such as the necessary accreditation status of your school and program. There are various CSWE accredited MSW programs available with flexible, online learning options. Some universities also offer the option to earn a doctorate in social work online.

Why not start exploring programs today to find the ones that best align with your learning goals and interests?

Ready to start your journey?
Keith Nickolaus
WRITTEN BY
Keith Nickolaus
Keith has a Ph.D. and Master's in Comparative Literature from the University of California - Berkeley and a Bachelor's in Literature from the University of California - Santa Cruz. A retired educator, Keith lives in Berkeley and researches and writes about trends in innovation, policy, and education leadership.