Best Online Master’s in Social Work (MSW) Programs of 2021

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By Marni Davimes

Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW
With advice from Sue English, MSW, LCSW, CADC

Published on September 13, 2021

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Taking two years of full-time study, an online master’s degree in social work prepares students to serve their communities during times of great challenge. While some social workers apply their skills to counseling individuals and couples, others use their expertise to advocate for change in the social welfare system. Social workers can also land postsecondary teaching positions or perform research aimed at creating equality for all.

After several years of professional experience, social workers can secure leadership roles, directing social services departments or managing child welfare agencies.

A positive career outlook can be another motivating factor for these students. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 8% job growth for social workers between 2019 and 2029. These professionals earn a median salary of $51,760.

Additionally, some related occupations, such as school and career counselor, marriage and family therapist, and rehabilitation counselor, offer even higher projected growth rates and incomes.

What Can I Expect From an Online MSW Program?

Typically requiring 48-60 credits, an online master’s degree in social work provides learners with advanced knowledge in human behavior, social policy, and clinical practice. Master's students build on their prior education and experience by taking classes in leadership and development, organizational theory, social advocacy, and clinical intervention strategies.

“Being able to apply what you are currently learning and having a group setting to share and process with was very rewarding.”

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) states that graduates of MSW programs must have a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction. This field experience enables students to apply their advanced theoretical knowledge to social work practice in supervised settings. Degree-seekers learn to integrate the skills and concepts they’ve studied in the classroom to work with real clients.

Sue English, MSW, LCSW, CADC, explains that "Practice and programming classes were beneficial to take alongside working at an internship. Being able to apply what you are currently learning and having a group setting to share and process with was very rewarding."

Additionally, students may choose to center their studies around the micro, mezzo, or macro levels of social work. The micro level focuses on helping individuals, the mezzo level involves working with groups and organizations, and the macro level aims to address large-scale issues in the social work field.

Once students understand which level of social work they’re most interested in, they can choose the concentration that makes most sense for their career goals. Though every program varies in specific offerings, common MSW concentrations include the following:

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What Courses Will I Take in an Online Master's in Social Work Program?

Social Welfare Policy

This course examines the history and purpose of social welfare, as well as the role and evolution of government in social welfare policy. Students explore current social welfare issues and the underlying values that support different perspectives while learning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of our current social welfare system on different levels.

Interventions in Clinical Social Work

In this course, students apply theoretical concepts and intervention strategies to practice experiences with diverse patient populations in supervised settings. Coursework delves into ethical standards in social work, emphasizes the use of evidence-based practice, and covers the importance of cultural competency and sensitivity in a clinical setting. In addition, students will review and practice concrete clinical skills in the classroom and during their field placements to master theoretical concepts.

Poverty and Inequality

With a focus on recent historical trends, this course explores how poverty is defined and measured in the United States. Learners study the political, economic, and philosophical foundations of the nation’s social welfare system, become familiar with current welfare policy controversies, and analyze different perspectives on poverty and inequality.

Human Behavior in the Social Environment

This course explores theories surrounding how people and communities develop, behave, and interact. Degree-seekers examine lifespan development from conception to old age and study how social influence impacts development and community outcomes.

Social Work Research

Social work research courses provide an overview of qualitative and quantitative research methods, causation, measurement, and sampling. Students review key research concepts like hypothesis formulation, research design, and data collection while examining social work research ethics related to informed consent, confidentiality, and cultural sensitivity.

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What Are the Admission Requirements for an Online Master's in Social Work Program?

While every school is different, most online MSW programs require applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related subject from an accredited institution. Graduate admissions departments tend to look for a GPA of 2.5 or higher and related professional or volunteer experience in addition to the requirements listed below.

Test Scores

MSW programs that require GRE scores usually look for a combined verbal and quantitative score of 1000. Some programs may grant probationary admission to students with an 800 or higher. Nevertheless, many online MSW programs do not require standardized test scores.

Letters of Recommendation

MSW programs often ask applicants to submit letters of recommendation from current and former professors and employers. These letters showcase qualities and characteristics that transcripts and test scores alone cannot demonstrate. Applicants should request these letters 2-3 months in advance.

Resume

Many MSW programs require two or more years of relevant work experience. Your resume should include all professional experience, as well as any volunteer or internship experience related to social work. Applicants typically include a brief description of duties, start and end dates, and contact information for references.

Essays

Applicants typically must submit either personal statements or statements of purpose. While statements of purpose showcase academic achievements and career goals, personal statements typically include individual motivations and specific achievements and challenges.

Official Transcripts

Nearly all MSW programs require students to submit official transcripts from their undergraduate school. These transcripts can also be useful in determining eligible transfer credits from prior courses.

What Can I Do With an Online Master's in Social Work Degree?

Career Outlook

While the BLS projects 13% job growth for social workers from 2019 to 2029, certain related industries offer an even brighter career outlook. For instance, employment for healthcare social workers is projected to grow 14%, while jobs for mental health and substance abuse social workers are projected to grow 17% between 2019 and 2020.

“There is something that will spark your interests within this vast field.”

As our society puts more importance on mental health, employment for clinical professionals is likely to grow. Some of the largest employers of social workers include individual and family services, local government, and ambulatory health services.

According to Sue English, MSW, LCSW, CADC, "Whether you want to work in a hospital, work with the gerontology population, support students in school systems, advocate through government agencies, or provide resources to vulnerable populations, there is something that will spark your interests within this vast field."

Discover the benefits of an online master's degree in social work. Learn more about social work careers here.

Career Paths

Social Worker

Social workers help individuals, groups, and families overcome stressful and challenging life events, as well as address underlying mental health concerns. They work in hospitals, clinics, schools, and correctional facilities connecting clients with social services and welfare programs. Clinical social workers may also diagnose behavioral and emotional issues, as well as provide talk therapy and counseling on an outpatient basis.

Median Annual Salary: $51,760

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Social Worke

These professionals work with clients or patients struggling with behavioral disorders, substance abuse issues, and general mental health concerns. Following an in-depth evaluation, these counselors develop comprehensive treatment plans, assess progress, and set goals.

Median Annual Salary: $47,660

School Social Worker, Career Counselor, or Advisor

School and career counselors and advisors help students with a wide variety of concerns, including selecting courses, maintaining grades, planning for college, and organizing life after graduation. They often administer aptitude and personality tests to guide students toward careers that align with their strengths.

Median Annual Salary: $58,120

Child, Family, or School Social Worker

These social workers focus on helping children and their families navigate issues like mental health, unemployment, substance abuse, poverty, and school adjustment. They counsel students with behavioral issues, consult with parents and teachers, develop comprehensive treatment plans, evaluate progress, and set patient goals.

Median Annual Salary: $48,430

Medical Social Worker

Healthcare social workers provide support to patients and families dealing with challenging health diagnoses like terminal or chronic illnesses. They often advise patients and families on their medical options, monitor the mental and emotional health of patients, and provide individual and group counselling services.

Median Annual Salary: $57,630

Social Work Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

Continuing Education

After earning a master’s degree in social work, graduates can further advance their knowledge by pursuing a doctoral degree. Master’s degree-holders who want to land advanced clinical positions can opt for a doctoral degree in social work, while those interested in teaching and research careers can enroll in a social work Ph.D. program.

Both tracks usually take 3-5 years and are considered terminal degrees in the social work field.

Licenses and Certifications

All 50 states and the District of Columbia require social workers to graduate from a CSWE-accredited program and pass a licensure exam. Additional requirements, however, vary widely by state. Students can find information on individual state licensure board requirements on the Association of Social Work Boards website.

While all states differ, students should expect to pass an exam and complete a designated number of clinical or practicum hours. Depending on the state, there are several professional licenses available to students upon graduation of a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work, including the following:

How Do I Choose an Online Master's in Social Work Program?

Cost

Many factors affect the cost of college, including location, degree level, and type of institution. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual cost of a graduate degree at a public institution was $12,171 during the 2018-2019 school year, while the average cost at a private institution was $19,314.

Program Format

Flexibility can be key when earning a master’s degree, especially for working professionals. For this reason, many online programs offer both synchronous and asynchronous course formats, as well as full-time and part-time program options.

Students looking for maximum flexibility can opt for part-time, asynchronous programs that allow them to log on when it’s convenient for them, without set meeting times or a full course load. Accelerated formats may also be available for students who can take on heavy course loads.

Location

While location is crucial for students interested in attending on-campus programs, online students shouldn’t dismiss the physical location of a potential institution. Prospective MSW students should research whether their chosen program requires campus visits or clinical requirements, as well as if they’re able to fulfill these requirements in a location closer to home if traveling is not an option.

Accreditation

Seeking an institution with proper accreditation is among the most important factors to consider when researching MSW programs. Not only does accreditation impact a student’s ability to transfer credits, it can determine whether a graduate is eligible for professional licensure. MSW students should ensure that their school is regionally accredited and that their program has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

Student Support

Prospective MSW students should seek schools that offer student resources like mentorship programs, student career centers, and alumni networking opportunities. Online students may find these services especially beneficial, as they can help connect students to their campus and peers.

2021 Best Accredited Online MSW Programs

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University of Central Florida true View School Profile Orlando, FL

The University of Central Florida's master of social work (MSW) qualifies graduates for advanced, community-based social work careers. The program offers students with any undergraduate major a choice between full-time and part-time tracks. UCF also allows graduates who have earned bachelor's degrees in social work within the last six years to enter the MSW program with advanced standing.

Prospective students can apply to the online MSW program in the fall, spring, or summer. The curriculum offers flexible online coursework and clinicals, preparing students to become licensed clinical social workers in Florida.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $370 per credit (in state); $1,194 per credit (out of state)
  • Program Length: 1.5-3 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 62 credits (traditional); 32 credits (advanced standing)
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Public
  • Program Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education
  • School Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
University of Southern California true View School Profile Los Angeles, CA

The University of Southern California offers a traditional master of social work (MSW) for students with a non-social work bachelor's degree and an accelerated, advanced standing degree option for students with a bachelor's degree in social work. All applicants must hold an accredited bachelor's degree and maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA. Students may choose full-time or part-time enrollment.

USC's MSW combines online coursework with virtual practica and community-based field placements. This program qualifies graduates to sit for exams offered by the Association of Social Work Boards but does not lead to initial licensure.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $2,035 per credit
  • Program Length: 12-24 months
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 60 credits (traditional); 37 credits (advanced standing)
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • Program Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education
  • School Accreditation: WASC Senior College and University Commission
University of South Florida-Main Campus true View School Profile Tampa, FL

The University of South Florida's online master's degree in social work program offers traditional and advanced standing tracks for students without a bachelor of social work (BSW) and those with a BSW. In addition to holding an accredited bachelor's degree, applicants must meet liberal arts prerequisites in biology and social and behavioral sciences.

The curriculum for USF's master of social work (MSW) includes foundations, core, and elective courses. It also requires a field experience and culminates in a comprehensive exam and capstone project. MSW students can also pursue one of more than 20 concurrent degrees in fields like anthropology, medicine, and public health.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $436 per credit (in state); $881 per credit (out of state)
  • Program Length: 1.5-4 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 60 credits (traditional); 35 credits (advanced standing)
  • Instruction Style: Synchronous
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Public
  • Program Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education
  • School Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Boston University true View School Profile Boston, MA

Boston University offers full-time and part-time enrollment options for students seeking a master of social work (MSW). This master's program contains three tracks: traditional, human services, and advanced standing. All three options emphasize practical experience through internships and field placements. Graduates can become licensed clinical social workers in most states.

Prospective students may apply to BU's online MSW program in the fall, spring, and summer. The university considers applicants with a regionally accredited bachelor's degree — preferably in a liberal arts major — for the traditional and human services tracks. Graduates with bachelor's degrees in social work with a minimum 3.0 GPA can qualify for the advanced standing MSW track.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $910 per credit
  • Program Length: 2-3 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 65 credits (traditional); 43 credits (advanced standing)
  • Instruction Style: Synchronous and asynchronous
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • Program Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education
  • School Accreditation: New England Commission of Higher Education
New Mexico State University-Main Campus true View School Profile Las Cruces, NM

New Mexico State University's online master of social work (MSW) features an advanced generalist concentration. The curriculum also emphasizes multiculturalism, immigration, and child welfare, as well as a field experience through two practicum requirements. Students may complete the full-time MSW online or in person. They can also pursue a part-time and/or advanced standing program through hybrid study.

This MSW program incorporates foundational coursework in four major fields: humanities and communication skills, social sciences, critical thinking and computer skills, and natural sciences. Learners may also pursue a dual master's degree in social work and public health in community health education.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $412 per credit
  • Program Length: 1-3 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 60 credits (traditional); 30 credits (advanced standing)
  • Format: Online and hybrid
  • School Status: Public
  • Program Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
Ohio State University-Main Campus View School Profile Columbus, OH

The Ohio State University offers the oldest continuously accredited social work program at a public university in the United States. The university's online master's program in social work comprises three primary components: foundation curriculum, advanced practice, and extensive field practicum experiences.

Traditional master of social work applicants must hold an accredited bachelor's degree and a minimum 3.0 GPA. They also need to complete prerequisite coursework. Advanced standing candidates must have earned a bachelor's degree within the last five years from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. They also need a minimum 3.0 GPA and undergraduate practicum experience. GRE scores are not required for traditional or advanced standing applicants.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $578 per credit (in state); $597 (out of state)
  • Program Length: 1-4 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 63 credits (traditional); 43 credits (advanced standing)
  • Instruction Style: Asynchronous
  • Format: Online and hybrid
  • School Status: Public
  • Program Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
University of Arkansas View School Profile Fayetteville, AR

The University of Arkansas offers an online master of social work (MSW) program that requires applicants to hold a bachelor of social work (BSW) accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Students must have a minimum GPA of 3.0 over their last 60 credits. However, U of A does not require GRE scores for admission.

The university emphasizes flexibility through its online, full-time MSW program, which is offered exclusively for advanced standing candidates. Students move through the MSW curriculum as part of an online cohort group. The program includes weekly virtual seminars to discuss ongoing internships in the field.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $438 per credit
  • Program Length: 1 year
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 39 credits
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Public
  • Program Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
Arizona State University-Skysong View School Profile Scottsdale, AZ

Arizona State University's online master of social work (MSW) program includes an advanced generalist concentration. The program prepares graduates for careers in child welfare social work, hospice and palliative care, mental health counseling, and community services.

ASU's online MSW features two year-long field practicums and culminates in a thesis, applied project, portfolio, and/or capstone course. Applicants must have earned a minimum 3.0 GPA during the last 60 credits of their bachelor's degree or have earned a "B" or higher on two graduate courses to qualify for admission.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $453 per credit
  • Program Length: 2 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 60 credits
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Public
  • Program Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
California State University-San Bernardino View School Profile San Bernardino, CA

California State University, San Bernardino offers its online master of social work (MSW) program through the School of Social Work and the College of Extended and Global Education. The university's MSW includes micro and macro focuses for graduates who wish to work with individuals and families, as well as organizations and communities.

Students can opt to pursue concurrent MSW and master of public administration degrees. Applicants should hold an accredited bachelor's degree — preferably in behavioral and social sciences — and a minimum 3.0 GPA.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $400 per credit
  • Program Length: 2-3 years
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 60 credits
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Public
  • Program Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education
  • School Accreditation: WASC Senior College and University Commission
Case Western Reserve University View School Profile Cleveland, OH

Case Western Reserve University's online master's degree program in social work features traditional and advanced standing tracks. Students can choose from three paths of study: children, youth, and families; community practice for social change; and mental health with adults.

The program combines online coursework and 900 hours of field experience for traditional students. Students with advanced standing complete 500 hours of field experience. Applicants must hold an accredited bachelor's degree with a minimum 2.7 GPA. CWRU does not require GRE scores or an application fee. Online students can access career services like counseling and networking opportunities.

Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $1,610 per credit
  • Program Length: 12-20 months
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 60 credits (traditional); 39 credits (advanced standing)
  • Instruction Style: Synchronous
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • Program Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission

Frequently Asked Questions About Master's in Social Work Programs

Is a master's in social work worth it? true

A master’s degree in social work can be very worthwhile for learners who want to advance their social work career and positively impact their communities. Earning this degree equips students with skills needed for meaningful roles helping others in education, healthcare, and social services.

What can I do with a master's in social work? true

A master’s degree in social work can open doors to rewarding roles in a variety of fields aimed at improving social welfare and quality of life. Graduates can find work in schools as counselors, in private offices as marriage and family therapists, and in medical settings as healthcare social workers.

Are social workers in demand? true

The BLS projects 13% job growth for social workers from 2019 to 2029, a rate much faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS projects the highest demand for child, family, and school social workers; healthcare social workers; and mental health and substance abuse social workers.

How much money can I make with an MSW?

The amount of money MSW graduates make depends on their chosen field, location, and professional experience. According to the BLS, the top 10% of earners in social work make more than $85,820 per year, while the lowest 10% earn less than $33,020. The most lucrative social work industries include local government, ambulatory healthcare services, and state government.

What are the highest-paying jobs with a master's in social work?

Graduates of MSW programs with considerable professional experience are most likely to occupy the highest paying roles in the field. According to PayScale, the top 10% of social services directors make an average annual salary of $85,000. The BLS reports that the top 10% of school and career counselors and advisors make a median annual salary of more than $97,910.

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Reviewed by:

Melissa Russiano is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice that has organically developed into a specialty helping working professionals. Russiano has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Russiano practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. In addition, Russiano is a professor at Simmons University online, imparting her experiences and knowledge in the field to graduate social work students.

Interview from:

Sue English, MSW, LCSW, CADC, is a licensed family therapist and owner of English Meadows Counseling Services in Naperville, IL. She specializes in trauma, self-esteem issues, and mood disorders. She has worked in detox centers, residential facilities, and inpatient/outpatient treatment centers. She is currently in private practice.

She is passionate about empowering individuals to see their full potential and create the life and relationships they know they want and deserve.

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