The Best Online Master’s in Social Work Programs

Looking to advance your career in social work and boost your earning potential with an online master of social work (MSW) degree? Candidates can distinguish themselves in the job market by earning a graduate degree in this dynamic field.

Online master’s in social work programs are designed to build on the knowledge and skills you’ve gained as an undergraduate. Some MSW students follow a degree track that prepares them to work directly with the public in a clinical or nonclinical setting, while others focus more on community mobilization and social advocacy. In addition to classroom studies, most MSW programs also carry onsite practicum or internship requirements.

The BLS projects that job opportunities for accredited social workers will grow by about 12% in the next decade.


An MSW degree opens the door to different career paths, depending on a student’s area of specialization. According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) — the only accrediting body for advanced social degrees in the U.S. — some of the top degree concentrations for MSW students include clinical practice for children and families, mental health, administration, and community development. Other specialization options may focus on areas like trauma, disabilities, and veteran services.


MSW online programs are a convenient, flexible alternative to brick-and-mortar learning. Students are able to access course materials, complete assignments, take exams, and communicate with their professors on their own time and from the comfort of their home computer. Current software also allows them to study on the go using a laptop, tablet, smartphone, or other portable device with Internet capabilities. Students with other important commitments– such as childcare or full-time employment — may also contact their professor in order to arrange internships or practicum courses around their schedule.


The vast majority of MSW programs online feature extensive hands-on learning as part of the degree curriculum. Some students fulfill this requirement by completing a set number of onsite hours as part of a practicum course, while others sign up for workplace-based internships. In either case, students should plan to devote at least 15-20 hours per week for two or more semesters of their master’s program. The best programs feature professors and faculty members who will work with students to explore practicum and internship options that closely match their career goals.


An MSW represents a crucial step towards a rewarding career in social work — but the work does not end there. In addition to the master’s degree, job candidates must complete at least two years of post-graduate employment in order to qualify for most social work positions. Additionally, all 50 states have specific licensure and/or certification requirements for most clinical and nonclinical social workers. The top-ranked online MSW programs help students prepare for these post-education demands through career counseling, one-on-one advisor meetings, and other support services and resources.

Choosing a master’s program is an important personal decision. Only you can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different target schools based on your individual educational needs. The following ranked list of schools that offer masters in social work degrees may serve as a helpful starting point in your search for the best online MSW programs.

Rank School Name Ranking Score Relative Cost % Enrolled Online Location Description
1 Columbia University in the City of New York 82.38 3/5 1% New York, NY

Columbia University in the City of New York is one of the oldest universities in the U.S. and was founded in 1754 by King George II of England. It is the oldest university in New York and is situated in Upper Manhattan. Columbia University uses its location of international importance to enhance its educational programs by incorporating New York City's rich history, numerous museums and galleries, and other key resources into curricula and teaching strategies. Not only do the online programs offered at Columbia University provide students with the skills necessary to compete in an international society, they also encourage lifelong learning and personal growth. The online programs is one of the university's top quality fully online programs. Students can choose between two concentrations and four program options. Classes are synchronous, requiring students to be at their computers during scheduled class times.

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2 University of Southern California 80.99 4/5 13% Los Angeles, CA

Located in Los Angeles, California, the University of Southern California was founded in 1880 and served 53 students. Today the university has grown into a leading private research institution with over 43,000 students, with more than half of its student body pursuing graduate degrees. Education at the University of Southern California emphasizes personal and professional growth and yields courageous humans impassioned with a love for learning and a desire to contribute to the community, both locally and globally. The online programs offered by the University of Southern California are constantly improving as technology advances. The online programs are rooted in educational excellence and are simultaneously flexible, accessible, and rigorous. The master's degree in social work online offers a curriculum designed to prepare graduates to work in a variety of areas, including children and families, mental health, military, substance abuse, and business settings.

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3 Case Western Reserve University 69.93 4/5 2% Cleveland, OH

Case Western Reserve University is located in Cleveland, Ohio, and was founded in 1826. Since its doors opened, the university has valued innovation, and its educational programs are guided by the university's vision to provide supportive learning environments that promote the development of leadership skills, mentoring relationships, and interdisciplinary experiences. Online learning at Case Western Reserve University allows students to pursue their career goals while balancing the demands of work and home life. The master's in social work online is a fully online program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Students choose between a concentration in community practice for social change or direct practice with children and families or mental health with adults. Both concentrations prepare students to work with individuals impacted by a variety of environmental factors, including poverty, globalization, oppression, and human rights issues.

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4 Boston University 69.46 5/5 8% Boston, MA

Boston University is located in the vibrant metropolis of Boston, Massachusetts, and serves over 33,000 students and is internationally recognized as a leader in research and innovation. The university's educational programs emphasize the development of conscientious professionals who serve as community leaders in a global society. Boston University's online learning programs incorporate the university's goal to provide learning environments that are enhanced by student and faculty diversity. For over a decade online programs at Boston University have been meeting the needs of busy individuals with career aspirations. Online students have access to course materials and technological support 24/7, and prospective students can take a virtual tour of a typical online course layout. The online social work master's program offered by Boston University consists of three track options: traditional MSW, advanced standing,or human service experience. The traditional MSW track is 65 credits and includes two internships.

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5 University of Central Florida 68.84 3/5 51% Orlando, FL

The University of Central Florida is located in Orlando, Florida, and is Florida's largest university, with more than 64,000 students from all 50 states and 148 countries. The university strives to provide opportunities for individuals across the globe to meet their career goals. Its cutting-edge programs are guided by research and faculty expertise. The university's online programs have been meeting the needs of students for over 20 years and are continually enhanced to reflect the latest innovations in technology and teaching strategies. The online master's degree in social work is designed so that students have the option of a three year part-time MSW program for those who do not have a BSW degree from a CSWE accredited institution, or an advanced standing option for students who do hold the BSW degree. Each class is taken consecutively and lasts for seven weeks. Students engage in online curricula designed to prepare them for roles in community service. Examples of courses include social welfare policies, practice with groups, and behavioral skills.

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6 Fordham University 64.60 5/5 4% Bronx, NY

Located in New York City, Fordham University is a higher education learning community founded in the 500 year-old Jesuit Catholic teaching traditions. Established in 1841, the university strives to provide quality education that emphasizes community engagement and leadership while also keeping to its Jesuit roots and by instilling spiritual and moral growth. Fordham University's online education programs are enhanced by the university's Digital Humanities research initiative, a program that provides students online access to a variety of academic topics. The online MSW program is one of the best social work graduate schools in the nation and offers concentrations in clinical work, leadership and macro practice, and alcohol and substance abuse counseling.

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7 University of Denver 64.02 4/5 15% Denver, CO

The University of Denver is one of Colorado's premier higher education institutions and serves over 11,500 students annually. The university has over 200 degree programs, and students engage in collaborative, interdisciplinary learning. Almost 4,000 graduate students attend the University of Denver and come from all 50 states and over 60 countries. The university offers several online degree programs that rely on cutting-edge technology to deliver a high quality education to students interested in pursuing career goals without setting foot on campus. Online students have access to, a state-of-the-art online library of training videos. The online social work master's program offered by the University of Denver prepares students to embark on meaningful careers in social work with emphases in social justice and community advocacy. The program takes 2 years and 3 months to complete.

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8 University at Buffalo 62.98 3/5 12% Buffalo, NY

The University at Buffalo is a public research institution in New York State. The University at Buffalo serves nearly 30,000 students and employs 2,500 faculty. It is ranked in the top 20 U.S. schools with the most international students. The University at Buffalo's academic excellence is driven by innovative research fueled by creativity. The online programs offered by the University at Buffalo reflect the impressive innovations that guide current research and professional practice in a variety of fields, and curricula are designed to prepare students for active roles in modern society. The online master's degree in social work is a part-time program that takes 3 years to complete. The program emphasizes historical and modern perspectives on oppression as well as intervention techniques. Students in the online MSW program are supported every step of the way and have access to a number of key online learning resources.

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9 Ohio State University-Main Campus 62.94 3/5 17% Columbus, OH

Located in Columbus, Ohio, The Ohio State University was founded in 1870 and has been serving its community and student body through innovation and educational excellence ever since. The university highly values its ability to reach students across the globe through its distance learning initiatives. OSU's eLearning program utilizes the most up-to-date technology to provide students with seamless online education experiences complete with interactive seminars and discussion forums. Online students will find a number of resources available to them, including the latest updates and tips from Ohio State Online. The social work master's program online from Ohio State is an advanced standing program for students who have earned a bachelor's in social work within the last 5 years and have a 3.0 average or better. Students in the online MSW program enjoy almost the same costs as on-campus students, and are required to complete foundation courses, specialization courses, and advanced practice methods courses.

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10 California State University-Long Beach 62.93 3/5 11% Long Beach, CA

California State University- Long Beach is located in southern California and is one of the largest universities in the state with over 36,000 students. Founded in 1949 in response to post WWII population expansion, the university continues to strive for educational excellence through innovative research, community engagement, and creative teaching strategies. Distance education at California State University embodies the core values of the university, including diversity, integrity, and service. The online programs are designed to encourage personal growth as well as to prepare students for critical roles in modern society with leadership skills. The MSW online is a three-year program, and students engage in learning via telecommunications. Classes are held on Saturdays, and students teleconference with professors in real-time.

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11 Rutgers University-New Brunswick 61.22 3/5 22% New Brunswick, NJ

Rutgers University is located in New Brunswick, New Jersey, 27 miles from Manhattan. Rutgers University celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2016. More than 58,000 students attend Rutgers University from around the world. Face-to-face and virtual classroom curricula adhere to the same rigorous standards designed to provide students with the skills necessary to excel in the competitive 21st century global workforce. The online programs offered by Rutgers University are designed to provide students with individualized educational experiences that meet their unique learning needs. Online classes are small, led by expert faculty, and are easily accessible. The online MSW program prepares students to pursue careers in a variety of settings, including public health, substance abuse treatment, child welfare, and correctional social work. The curriculum emphasizes knowledge in policies and services, as well as advanced intervention skills.

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12 The University of Alabama 60.31 4/5 26% Tuscaloosa, AL

Located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the University of Alabama is the state's flagship university and was founded in 1831 as the state's first public college. The university encourages community involvement, collaboration, and cultural inclusion. Distance education at the University of Alabama meets the needs of students from all walks of life, and programs are designed with flexibility and ease of access in mind. A number of distance learning resources are available to online students, including prospective student information on online learning readiness and how to take classes. Students enrolled in the online MSW program will gain the knowledge to effectively address a variety of social problems and become experts in social justice. The program is 60 credit hours, and students can choose a concentration in children, adolescents, and their families or adults and their families.

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13 Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College 59.55 3/5 15% Baton Rouge, LA

Louisiana State University is located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and has been ranked a Tier One school five years in a row by the U.S. News & World Report. Louisiana State University's research programs have been listed as high achieving by the Carnegie Foundation. Research projects found at the land, space, and sea grant college range from communication and expression to coastal sustainability. Online programs offered by Louisiana State University are taught by experienced faculty members, and each program adheres to the rigorous standards set forth by the university's mission to provide quality education that emphasizes inclusion through affordability and accessibility. The online MSW program is 60 credit hours, and students gain valuable knowledge and skills that prepare them for community service in a variety of settings. Courses focus on human behavior in social environments. Students gain clinical experience through internships.

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14 The University of Tennessee-Knoxville 58.16 3/5 24% Knoxville, TN

Located in the breathtaking Appalachian foothills of eastern Tennessee, the University of Tennessee Knoxville was founded over 200 years ago and currently serves roughly 28,000 students. The university has a number of initiatives, including environmental conservation, community inclusion, and experiential learning where students gain real world experience that promotes critical thinking and problem solving. Distance education at the University of Tennessee Knoxville is powered by Vols Online, an online programs unit designed to promote meaningful and effective online learning experiences that emphasize individualized support and collaboration with faculty and peers. The online MSW provides students with the knowledge and skills needed to pursue successful careers in the social work field. Graduates are able to utilize intervention strategies with individuals, families, and communities. Online coursework is flexible, and students can choose an organizational leadership specialization that prepares them to work in management roles in community agencies.

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15 University of Northern Iowa 57.48 3/5 21% Cedar Falls, IA

Located in Cedar Falls, the University of Northern Iowa began as a teacher training school in 1876. Today it offers the state's top teacher education program and emphasizes hands-on community oriented learning just as it did over 100 years ago. The Princeton Review named the University of Northern Iowa one of the best Midwestern colleges, and the university was ranked number two in the best Regional University-Midwest by the U.S. News & World Report. The online programs offered by the University of Northern Iowa are designed to make career attainment possible for individuals in need of flexible, remotely accessible coursework. Students enrolled in online programs have access to technological support as well as online student guides for success. The MSW online offers a trauma informed practice specialization and prepares students to serve rural and underprivileged communities.

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16 California State University-Northridge 56.47 3/5 23% Northridge, CA

California State University Northridge is located in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley and was founded in 1958. The university is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. At California State University Northridge, students are an integral part of the university's mission to advance human intelligence through collaboration, creativity, and the development of ethical professionalism. Tseng College is California State University Northridge's state-of-the-art school designed to address the needs of adult learners and anyone who wishes to pursue a degree via distance learning. California State University's online programs are designed to provide graduates with a competitive advantage by utilizing best practice techniques and anticipating the future demands of a variety of career fields. The online master's in social work focuses on urban family practice, and the broad curriculum enables graduates to work in individual, family, and community settings.

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17 University of Hawaii at Manoa 55.58 3/5 13% Honolulu, HI

The University of Hawaii at Manoa is located in Honolulu, Hawaii at Manoa Valley. The university was founded in 1907 and has more than 70,000 alumni in all 50 states and 100 countries. The National Science Foundation ranked the university in the top 50 research funders, and the Manoa campus has projects in oceanography and astronomy. Distance learning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa is designed to reach students across the state and offers high quality programs that emphasize student success. Some of the online services available to students include access to electronic library databases, technology support, and online tutoring. The master's in social work online offered by the University of Hawaii at Manoa is available for neighbor island residents. Students can choose among 4 concentrations: children and families, behavioral mental health, health and gerontology.

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18 Simmons College 55.32 4/5 21% Boston, MA

Located in Boston, Massachusetts, Simmons College is a private 4-year women's college with graduate professional programs for both men and women. Simmons College strives to cultivate an enriching learning environment that produces leaders who value lifelong learning. The online programs offered by Simmons College are powered by the Strategic Initiatives group, a program designed to develop the best teaching strategies for online learning. The online programs at Simmons College are continually adapted to reflect the most advanced technology and online education delivery methods. The online master's degree in social work at Simmons College is designed for students who have a bachelor's degree in social work. Students enrolled in the social work program can develop an individualized program of study or choose a concentration in child and family, trauma and interpersonal violence, mental health and addictions, or health and aging.

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19 Virginia Commonwealth University 54.33 4/5 22% Richmond, VA

Virginia Commonwealth University was founded in 1838 in Richmond, Virginia, where it established the first social work school in the South. The program is currently ranked 11th in the nation by the U.S. News & World Report. Distance education at Virginia Commonwealth University allows students to flexibly pursue their career goals. The online social work master's degree emphasizes curricula that prepare students for leadership roles both clinically and academically. The social work program is designed to promote social justice and community advocacy. Diversity is celebrated, and empowerment of underprivileged populations is a key focus of the program. All MSW students gain foundational knowledge in the history of social work and its theoretical approaches to community health and service. Students can specialize in clinical social work practice or social work administration.

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20 Colorado State University-Fort Collins 52.99 3/5 22% Fort Collins, CO

Colorado State University at Fort Collins is located in one of Colorado's premier communities, with a mix of diverse cultural experiences, outdoor activities, and boundless opportunities. Colorado State University-Fort Collins prepares students for career and academic success. Over 80 percent of its graduates find employment or pursue continuing education in less than 6 months upon graduation. The online programs at Colorado State University-Fort Collins are led by experienced faculty members, and online coursework utilizes collaboration and innovative technologies to deliver high quality education comparable to face-to-face learning. The online master's degree in social work provides students with an advanced generalist curriculum. Students gain knowledge in critical areas, including utilization of community resources, human behavior and interactions, advocacy, and intervention skills.

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21 Catholic University of America 52.48 5/5 9% Washington, DC

Located in Washington D.C., the Catholic University of America was founded by the Catholic Church in 1887 as a graduate school and research center. Its motto, “God is my light,” reflects the university's mission to illuminate the teachings of Jesus Christ in a higher education institution. Faith plays an important role in the university's academic programs, and the interplay between faith and reason are continually explored. The online programs at the Catholic University of America are designed for learner convenience. The distance learning curricula are practitioner-centered and provide students with practical skills and knowledge to succeed professionally. The online master's degree in social work is rooted in social justice and keeps within the Catholic tradition of service to others. The curriculum provides students with a strong foundation in policies and theories. Students enrolled in the online program will experience small class sizes and supportive faculty who serve as mentors.

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22 Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis 51.67 3/5 32% Indianapolis, IN

Indiana University-Purdue University- Indianapolis, also known as IUPUI, is a top public research school in Indiana and emphasizes the health and sciences. IUPUI strives to provide an educational experience that promotes creativity and community involvement. The university contributes to intellectual advancement locally and globally through its research initiatives. IUPUI offers several competitive programs fully online, and each program is designed with student needs in mind. The flexibility and accessibility of online programs allow students to pursue career goals without ever setting foot on campus, and IUPUI's online learning delivery system has a variety of online services available to students. The online master's degree in social work is 60 credit hours and includes two practicum experiences that allow students to apply skills and knowledge in a real-world setting before embarking on their careers.

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23 University of Missouri-Columbia 51.58 3/5 29% Columbia, MO

The University of Missouri at Columbia is located in the progressive Columbia Metropolitan Area in central Missouri. Founded in 1839, the University of Missouri was the first university west of the Mississippi River and is the state's largest higher education institution. Today it provides quality education to over 33,000 students. The online programs offered by the University of Missouri reflect the school's mission to provide quality education that emphasizes personal responsibility, respect for others, and learning through discovery. The university has a number of student success resources available to online students. The MSW online is available for both regular and advanced standing students. Individuals who qualify for advanced standing have earned a bachelor's degree in social work in the last seven years. Students can choose between two concentrations: advanced clinical practice or policy and planning in human services.

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24 University of Louisville 51.09 3/5 17% Louisville, KY

Located in Kentucky's largest metropolitan area, the University of Louisville offers a high quality education experience rooted in the university's mission to promote research and creativity, to cultivate community-engaged leaders, and to provide local and global outreach. Online learning at the University of Louisville allows busy individuals to balance the demands of work, family, and other prior obligations while pursuing career goals. The university highlights a number of advantages of online learning, including networking among peers, improving online communication skills, and one-on-one faculty support. The online master's degree in social work emphasizes knowledge of working with children and families, health and mental health, and global practice. Students have the option to choose among five specializations, and the program is 60 credit hours.

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25 Salisbury University 50.79 3/5 10% Salisbury, MD

Salisbury University is located in Salisbury, along the eastern shore of Maryland. The university strives to promote excellence in education through student-centered programs designed to facilitate lifelong learning, community collaboration, and meaningful connections. The online learning programs offered by Salisbury University are designed to engage students in coursework that fosters personal and professional growth. Students have access to online services ranging from technical requirements for online learning to online netiquette. The online social work master's program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and prepares students for rewarding careers helping others. The program is available only to students who reside in Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The program is 62 credit hours and typically takes three years to complete. Twenty students are admitted once a year in the fall and are part of a cohort.

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Online MSW programs offer many advantages for students interested in advancing their studies in the field of social work. Earning a master’s in social work online can provide a path toward professional licensure and open doors for career advancement.


Concentration Description Careers This Concentration Prepares For
Healthcare Social Work Studies cultural and social aspects of health and illness, health beliefs and behavior, and the impact of illness on patients and their families. Social work in clinics, hospitals, and other healthcare settings
Social Policy and Advocacy Addresses the history, development, and philosophy of the social welfare system in the United States, including study of poverty, hunger, oppression, disability, homelessness, and unemployment. Leadership positions as professional community organizers, policy analysts, lobbyists, and legislative advocacy staff
Gerontology and Aging Develops assessment, case management, and intervention skills needed to work with elderly populations and their families to maximize coping skills, dignity, independent functioning, and quality of life. Geriatric social work in hospice and palliative care settings, senior centers, and skilled nursing contexts
Clinical Social Work Develops the skills and knowledge necessary for work in first-line treatment with individuals and groups in clinical settings. Topics include assessment, evaluation, practice methodology, and intervention Private psychotherapy practice, counseling, and provision of mental health services in residential or day treatment programs


While there are differences in curriculum among schools, here are some sample courses commonly offered in MSW online programs.

  • Diversity and Social Justice: Multiculturalism, social justice, and human diversity are explored in this course, often in small-group-discussion formats. The course’s goal is to improve the ability to sensitively work with individuals and groups who are subjected to oppression. The skills gained in this course prepare students for careers as community outreach workers.
  • Psychopathology This course focuses on the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness. Students learn to conduct psychosocial assessments, formulate diagnostic impressions in accordance with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and recommend appropriate treatments. These advanced skills prepare students for private practice in clinical settings.
  • Social Policy Analysis and Practice Needs assessment, research, grant writing, and social policy program evaluation are studied in this course. Students focus on improving the field and advocating for change rather than carrying out direct work with individuals or groups. Courses prepare students for careers as social work administrators, researchers, and policy makers.


Most MSW online programs vary in length, between one and four years, and require students to complete approximately 60 credit hours. At some schools, students who already hold a BSW may be eligible for advanced standing, which enables completion of the MSW degree in less time by waiving foundation courses. With advanced standing, approximately 30 credit hours of study are required for the MSW online. Part-time students may take two to four years to earn the same number of credits.

Some programs are individually paced, others are taken in a cohort learning format. In a cohort, students begin the program at the same time, progress through coursework together, and graduate as a group. Advantages of the cohort model for the master’s in social work online include a fixed schedule, opportunities for teamwork, and guaranteed enrollment in classes.

Accreditation status may affect transfer credits, acceptance for graduate study, and employability. Regional and national accreditation is a seal of approval indicating that a program has met certain standards. Regionally accredited colleges have been evaluated by agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and have met standards for their home state. National accreditation is given by CHEA-approved agencies, focusing on technical, vocational, and distance education. Schools with national accreditation often have religious affiliations, or are for profit. Requirements for national accreditation are not as standardized as regional accreditation. Regional accreditation is more popular, and more important for students interested in the MSW. For social work programs, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which promotes academic excellence in social work education, is the only field-specific accrediting agency.

Matters of accreditation are handled by two organizations: the Department of Education and CHEA. The Department of Education is a government agency that promotes student achievement by facilitating equal access and educational excellence. CHEA is an association of degree-granting colleges and universities that recognizes institutional accrediting organizations, with a focus on quality assurance. Accreditation is an important standard of quality assurance and ongoing quality improvement for academic institutions. A list of all accredited schools is available on the DOE or CHEA website.

When investigating online MSW programs, it’s important to inquire as to whether the school has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. The council is recognized by CHEA as the sole accrediting agency for social work education in the United States. Applicants for social work licensure must have obtained their degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program. Even with an excellent academic record, graduates of non-CSWE accredited online MSW programs are not eligible for state licensure and may be unable to find employment.


LCSW: Licensed clinical social workers provide professional services for clients in a clinical setting. Requirements for this license differ from state to state; an MSW degree, a passing score on a standard exam, and two years of supervised professional experience are typically required.

LMSW: Licensed master social workers handle case management, consultation, work with public organizations, and administrative work rather than clinical work. State requirements vary, but generally an MSW degree, a passing score on a standard exam, and a minimum number of post-graduate work hours are required.

A recent survey by the Council on Social Work Education uncovered a staggering difference in the job placement rates of candidates with a BSW and those with an MSW. As shown in the table below, master’s graduates fared much better across different areas of the social work sector than their undergraduate counterparts.


Social Work Job Placement: Bachelor's v Master's Source: Council on Social Work Education

Licensure requirements are the primary reason for this disparity. Although the criteria for obtaining a social work license will vary by state, most clinical and nonclinical social workers must complete a two-year master’s program (as well as two or more years of post-graduate employment) in order to sit for the licensure exam. However, even non-licensed social workers can expand their job opportunities with an advanced degree. Hiring managers are tasked with finding the most qualified candidates for any position — and in most cases, applicants who have earned an MSW from a top-ranked degree program will lead the pack.


In addition to job prospects, earning power represents another key difference between the two degree levels. Social work is a rewarding profession, but this field is not known for high salaries — and today’s aspiring social workers are urged to maximize their potential earnings with an advanced degree. Below we have outlined the different salary expectations for BSW- and MSW-holders over the course of their respective careers.


Degree Level Median Salary for Entry-Level Employees (0-5 Years) Median Salary for Mid-Career Employees (5-10 years) Median Salary for Experienced Employees (10-20 Years) Median Salary for Late Career Employees (20+ years)
BSW $33,270 $37,258 $40,399 $39,564
MSW $40,877 $45,490 $50,358 $54,906

Source: PayScale

According to the data above, an entry-level social worker with an MSW can expect to earn around $7,000 more than a BSW-holder during the first five years of his or her career. After 10 years of professional experience, social workers with MSWs outearn their BSW counterparts by $10,000 to $15,000 per year.

Pursuing an MSW is essential for anyone who plans to dedicate their career to social work. However, financial reasons often prevent students from returning to school after earning a bachelor’s degree. These individuals are prime candidates for master’s in social work online programs. The virtual format allows them to advance in their education and complete one to two years of coursework while continuing to work a part- or full-time job.


BLS projects that the number of jobs for social workers will climb by 12% between 2014 and 2024 — a difference of nearly 75,000 new positions. Below we’ll explore some of the most common career pathways for social workers with an MSW degree.

Healthcare Social Workers — These professionals work with hospital patients and their families to ensure all parties understand diagnoses, treatment options, and associated medical costs. They also assist clients during their transition back to their normal lives once treatment has finished, and may help them track down follow-up physicians, support groups, and other community services.

Child and Family Social Workers — These social workers aid vulnerable families and help ensure that children live in safe, healthy environments conducive to positive growth and development. They often help individual households obtain food stamps and other financial support services, and may facilitate the removal of children from neglectful or harmful homes.

Clinical Social Workers — As licensed clinical professionals, these social workers often diagnose patients for mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and addiction; they may also work with their clients to explore treatment options. In addition to individual clients, they often provide therapy for couples, families, and groups. These professionals may maintain a private practice or collaborate with other social workers in a group practice setting.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers — These professionals assist people dealing with addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and other potentially destructive habits. They often put their clients in touch with support groups and treatment programs in order to expedite the recovery process. Licensed clinical social workers often fill roles in this field.

Social worker compensation will vary depending on an individual’s academic background, professional experience, and the location of their workplace. To give you a general idea of your earning potential as a social worker, the table below features nationwide data from the BLS.

Position Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate
Healthcare Social Worker $52,380 19%
Child & Family Social Worker $42,350 6%
Mental Health & Substance Abuse Social Worker $42,170 19%
Social Workers, all other $58,560 -4%

Professional Organizations

Making professional connections and learning about different approaches to social work are crucial to your success. Professional organizations offer a great entry point for students who want to learn more about their chosen career path. Below you’ll find three of the country’s most prominent organizations established for professional social workers. These organizations host networking events, provide online trainings, maintain active job boards, and offer other services for career-ready college graduates. Resources like these often prove invaluable as you complete your MSW degree requirements and prepare to enter the job market.

  • National Association of Social Workers (NASW): Considered the world’s largest professional organization for social workers, the NASW today boasts roughly 130,000 members. The NASW website includes links to several peer-reviewed academic journals, an online career center and an extensive blog with archived posts dating back to 2007.
  • Clinical Social Work Association: Formerly the Clinical Social Work Federation, the CSWA was launched in 2006 to address professional needs and provide support to clinical social workers on an individual level. The organization’s website features online resources related to legislation and clinical practice, as well as a job board for employment seekers.
  • School Social Work Association of America: The SSWAA is an organization dedicated to university professors, faculty members and students working in the field of social work. Student resources include an online career center, training opportunities and a tutorial for the social worker licensure exam.

Financing Your Online Master’s Degree

Despite the relative affordability of online programs, most students still need financial assistance. Students should complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to learn more about loans, grants, and other opportunities offered through the U.S. government. Additionally, private grants and scholarships are widely available through nonprofit organizations, companies, and other sources. Check out our collection of resources below to learn more about financial aid options.


Our list of scholarships and grants specifically aimed at education majors includes 43 individual rewards totaling more than $170,000 in financial aid. Browse our database to learn more about accessing free money to pay for your online teaching master’s degree.


Approximately two-thirds of today’s college students rely on loans to fund their education, but there are plenty of overlooked financing options you can use to reduce your overall student debt.


Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a crucial first step for any student with financial needs. Our FAFSA guide features a step-by-step rundown on the process and answers to several frequently asked questions.


Financial aid for online learning is equivalent to what you’ll find for campus-based learning, but that hasn’t always been the case. Learn about the changes that have taken place, as well as the different funding opportunities available to online students.


Online programs can provide an affordable and flexible option for women trying to balance the demands of work, family, and earning their degree. We’ve curated a list of valuable scholarships specifically for women.


Online college programs can be a flexible, affordable option for single parents who are interested in earning a degree and securing their family’s financial future. We’ve compiled a list of scholarships, grants, and other financial aid options geared toward single moms and dads.


Millions of dollars in free money is available to U.S. military personnel, but much of it goes unused. Learn more about grants, scholarships, and other financial aid opportunities available to veterans, active-duty service members, and reservists.

Best Online MSW Programs of 2016
Rank School Location
1 Case Western Reserve University Cleveland, OH
2 Fordham University Bronx, NY
3 California State University Long Beach, CA
4 Catholic University of America Washington, DC
5 The University of Tennessee - Knoxville Knoxville, TN
6 Lousiana State University Baton Rouge, LA
7 University of Hawaii at Manoa Honolulu, HI
8 Virginia Commonwealth University Richmond, VA
9 University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, AL
10 Colorado State University - Colorado Springs Fort Collins, CO
11 Indiana State University - Purdue University - Indianapolis, IN Indianapolis, IN
12 California State University - Northridge Northridge, CA
13 University of New Hampshire Durham, NH
14 University of North Dakota Grand Forks, ND
15 Texas State University San Marcos, TX
16 University of New England Biddeford, ME
17 Our Lady of the Lake University San Antonio, TX
18 Metropolitan State University of Denver Denver, CO
19 Saint Leo University Saint Leo, FL

Best Online MSW Programs of 2015
Rank School Location
1 University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, AL
2 Case Western Reserve University Cleveland, OH
3 Fordham University Bronx, NY
4 University of Tennessee Knoxville, TN
5 Lousiana State University - Agricultural & Mechanical College Baton Rouge, LA
6 Catholic University of America Washington, DC
7 University of North Dakota Grand Forks, ND
8 Virginia Commonwealth University Richmond, VA
9 Colorado State University Fort Collins CO
10 University of New Hampshire Durham NH
11 Texas State University San Marcos, TX
12 California State University - Northridge Northridge, CA
13 University of Hawaii at Manoa Honolulu, HI
14 Indiana University-Purdue University - Indianapolis Indianapolis IN
15 University of New England Biddeford, ME