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

Rankings compiled by the the BestColleges Ranking Team

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University of North Dakota true View School Profile Grand Forks, ND

UND offers a bachelor's in social work that students can complete online or on campus. This program helps prepare students for state exams to get bachelor's-level licenses.

Admission requirements for first-year students include a minimum 2.75 GPA. The program's curriculum includes 120 credits of coursework. Notable courses include social work research, social policy, and human behavior and the social environment. All students complete field experience before graduating.

School/Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $376 per credit
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 120 credits
  • Format: Online or On Campus
  • School Status: Public
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
Spring Arbor University true View School Profile Spring Arbor, MI

SAU — based in Michigan — offers an online bachelor's in social work that can be completed online without ever visiting campus. The program provides additional flexibility by delivering all coursework asynchronously.

Admission requirements include transcripts, ACT or SAT scores, a writing sample, and a minimum 2.5 GPA. Students must complete 40 credits of general education and liberal arts courses before being admitted into the social work program.

School/Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $598 per credit
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 120 credits
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
University of Louisville true View School Profile Louisville, KY

UofL offers an online bachelor's in social work. Students must complete a practicum at an approved location in their community. The program accepts up to 60 transfer credits of community college coursework and up to 90 transfer credits from an accredited four-year college.

First-time students must complete an application and submit their high school transcripts. UofL requires a minimum GPA of 2.5. Transfer students also must submit their college transcripts. Students do not need to submit letters of recommendation if they meet minimum admission requirements.

School/Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $508 per credit ($250 per credit for active-duty members of the military)
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 120 credits
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Public
  • School Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Liberty University true View School Profile Lynchburg, VA

Liberty in Lynchburg, Virginia, offers a bachelor's in social work that takes place 100% online, with the exception of a single virtual intensive. Electronic textbooks are included in the cost of the program. Incoming students can transfer in up to 90 credits. The program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

Applicants must submit college transcripts (if applicable), proof of English proficiency, and a high school self-certification form. Liberty requires a 2.0 minimum GPA for admission in good standing.

School/Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $390 per credit
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 120 credits
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • School Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Aurora University true View School Profile Aurora, IL

AU — based in Aurora, Illinois — offers an online bachelor's in social work that helps establish a foundation for students who want to pursue a career in this field. Students can opt to complete a child welfare track. In doing so, they earn certification related to child and adolescent needs and strengths and child endangerment risk assessment protocols.

Admission requirements include official college transcripts, a resume showing at least two years of work/relevant experience or military service, and a personal statement. Students without an associate degree or 60 college credits must submit proof of a high school or GED diploma.

School/Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost per credit: $425 per credit
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 120 credits
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
Indiana Wesleyan University-National & Global View School Profile Marion, IN

IWU is based in Marion, Indiana. The university offers a bachelor's degree completion program in social work that can be completed online. While earning their online bachelor's in social work, students learn how to assist clients in difficult situations. In addition to online coursework, participants complete a weekly field placement in their local communities.

Admission requirements to the program include college transcripts and prior completion of at least 45 transferable credits from a regionally accredited university or from an institution accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education.

School/Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost-per-credit: $426 per credit
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 120 credits
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
Troy University View School Profile Troy, AL

Troy, located in Alabama, offers an online bachelor's degree that can provide students with the skills they need to become proactive social work professionals. The program includes a 400-hour supervised practicum.

Troy maintains different admission requirements for first-time students, transfer students, and military members. First-time students must submit proof of a high school or GED diploma. In most cases, they must also submit ACT or SAT scores. Transfer students must submit official college transcripts demonstrating a minimum 2.0 GPA. Military members must provide proof of their military status.

School/Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost-per-credit: $388 per credit
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 120 credits
  • Format: Online or On Campus
  • School Status: Public
  • School Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Millersville University of Pennsylvania View School Profile Millersville, PA

Millersville is based in Pennsylvania and oversees an online degree completion program in social work. This program is designed for adults who already hold an associate degree in social or human services.

Before enrolling in the program, Millersville expects students to have completed previous coursework in sociology of the family, state and local government, general psychology, human biology, and the social environment. The program's curriculum follows standards established by the Council on Social Work Education.

School/Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost-per-credit: $319 per credit (in state); $804 per credit (out of state)
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 120 credits
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Public
  • School Accreditation: Middle States Commission of Higher Education
Northern Arizona University View School Profile Flagstaff, AZ

NAU offers an online bachelor's in social work that helps prepare students to become licensed generalist social workers in several states. Graduates may work to help people who are dealing with substance misuse, homelessness, child abuse, and domestic violence.

Applicants must submit high school transcripts and official test scores. Transfer students must submit college transcripts. Once accepted, learners can complete most of the program's 120-credit curriculum asynchronously.

School/Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost-per-credit: $455 per credit
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 120 credits
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Public
  • School Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
Huntington University View School Profile Huntington, IN

Based in Indiana, HU offers an online bachelor's in social work that is designed to help working professionals finish their degrees. The program is broken into five-week courses that can accommodate students with busy schedules.

Prospective students must fill out an application form and submit transcripts. ACT and SAT scores are optional. Students who don't want to submit test scores must complete a supplemental application. Letters of recommendation are also optional.

School/Program Snapshot

  • Program URL: Visit Program
  • Cost-per-credit: $402 per credit
  • Total Credits Required to Graduate: 128 credits
  • Format: Online
  • School Status: Private
  • 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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BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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