10 Most Affordable Online Master’s in Social Work

| Staff

10 Most Affordable Online Master’s in Social Work
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Online Master’s in Social Work programs are some of the most in demand by professionals in the field, and for good reason; with so many professionals choosing to go back to school, an online pathway to do just that is the best way for them to earn a graduate degree and move forward in their careers. The field is also becoming a critical part of many social services and because it includes everything from foster care to drug rehabilitation, it’s time for professionals with an undergraduate degree to really focus on earning an advanced degree.

An online MSW can make this a reality. With many schools offering asynchronous courses, an accelerated format, and even practicum experiences in a student’s area of residence, it’s becoming clear that an online education in social work is the way forward. With this ranking, professionals from all over the United States will be able to make the right choice for them.

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What are the Most Affordable Online Master’s in Social Work? Here our top 10:

Frequently Asked Questions

Social Worker’s Median Salary$50,470 per year 
Number of Jobs in the U.S. (2019)713,200
Job Growth Projection (2019-2029)13% (above average)

What are the Career Options for an Online Master’s in Social Work Degree?

There are various career options available to a professional who earns an online graduate degree in social work. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Social Worker
  • Grant Writer
  • School Counselor
  • Substance Abuse Counselor
  • Therapist
  • Author
  • Teacher
  • Case Manager
  • Clinical Social Worker
  • Health Care Social Worker

Most professionals will find their career path will form while still in the graduate program, especially if concentrations are available. These concentrations range from substance abuse to clinical social work and often dictates what sort of jobs and licensures are available to a professional. It is best for a professional to do research on career options with a concentration in mind; many other avenues may be closed off to them once they complete their degree.

How Much Can You Earn with a Masters in Social Work?

Social work consists of a variety of career options, so for the purposes of this question, the focus will be social workers. These professionals can make anywhere from $54,000 to $90,000 annually. This is a large jump from the $41,300 to $60,000 that a professional with just a bachelor’s in social work can make.

There is a significant difference in salaries for general social workers and those who specialize in one field. General social workers tend to make around $50,000 a year, depending on their region, while school or mental health social workers make around $65,000 a year. Hospital social workers tend to make the most money, especially if they live in metropolitan areas; the average salary is $90,000.

Top-paying Industries for Social Workers

IndustryMedian yearly salary
Ambulatory Health Care Services$83,050
Federal Executive Branch$75,940
Agencies, Brokerages, and Other Insurance Related Activities$74,240
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals $72,760
Insurance Carriers$69,870
*Information provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics

What are the Different Types of Social Work Degrees?

To become a social worker, you need a social work degree from an accredited institution. Even if you have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you can still pursue a master’s or doctorate degree in social work. The undergraduate degree for social work is a Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW) while the graduate degrees consist of a master’s in social work (MSW) and doctoral degree in social work (DSW).

How the COVID-19 Pandemic has Disrupted the Social Work Industry

The global pandemic has had a major impact on the economy and workforce around the world. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonfarm employment declined 9.6 percent between February and June 2020. Many industries, including social work, have seen an exponential increase in telework. This could potentially mean that social workers will likely see long-term structural changes in their day-to-day work and how they operate within the workspace as a result of COVID-19.  

Covid-19 and Online Learning for Social Work, Explained

In a recent study conducted by the Council on Social Work Education, 61.1%  of social work students expressed that they were dissatisfied with their online learning experience after the transition to an online platform due to the pandemic. In fact, 64.8% of the students who responded to the study said they learned at least 40% less. Satisfaction with online learning during the pandemic varied widely amongst social work students in different degrees. For example, 70.2% of doctoral students reported that they were generally satisfied.

What are the Various Disciplines of Social Work?

Social work is a large field that consists of human services, public administration, government, psychology, and sociology. For the most part, these are the disciplines that are the major players in the field.

There are others, however; depending on what a student’s concentration is, they may find themselves focusing on education, substance abuse, nonprofit management, medicine, mental health, children and families, and more. This is because while social work is a general field, it is the subfields that make the most difference in a professional’s career; whatever they have chosen to focus on as their career will determine the disciplines they engage in.

Is Licensure Necessary Prior to Applying for a Masters in Social Work?

No, licensure is not necessary to apply for a Master’s in Social Work.

The first reason is that licensure is not always necessary to move forward in a career in social work. While many students do obtain licensure, especially at the bachelor’s level, it is possible to find work without licensure in many states. This is a result of not all states having the same requirements for social workers in place, enabling some professionals to work their entire career without ever sitting for the distinction.

The second reason is that MSW programs often require a student to show proof of graduating from a Council of Social Work Education, or CSWE, accredited school. This means that most students often already have licensure as well as some work experience. Attending a CSWE-accredited undergraduate school is the only pathway to earn licensure at that level.

However, many MSW programs are now allowing pre-service professionals, or students without an educational or work background in social work, to take part in their graduate programs. This can only be done by removing the restriction of having licensure.

What this means is that any student with a regionally accredited undergraduate degree can apply for MSW programs. This provides them the opportunity to change careers or move from a related field into social work. It can also be a help to the field of social work because outside perspectives are valued.

There is a caveat to not having licensure. Most MSW programs have two tracks: a general track and an advanced standing track. The advanced standing track is for licensed social workers while the general track is for pre-service professionals. It is here where the difference emerges. General MSW graduate candidates are required to complete 1,000 hours of fieldwork experience as well as, in most cases, an additional 30 credit hours of coursework. These requirements are put in place to help bring pre-service professionals up to speed in the field. The fieldwork is also necessary to obtain licensure at the graduate level.

Is it Necessary to Get a Master’s in Social Work?

A Master’s in Social Work, whether conferred online or in a traditional format, can open up a lot of opportunities for students. Professionals will find that the graduate degree provides chances to concentrate in one subfield or another of social work, enabling them to become abuse or medical social workers, work with children and families, and more.

The most important of these opportunities, however, is that a graduate degree in social work provides a pathway to becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, which is also known as LCSW. This is a popular career option for many professionals because not only does it enable them to work as an in-demand social worker, it also opens up their salary options. It’s also a respected licensure that can only be obtained after earning a graduate degree in social work.

Additionally, there are several other credentials and licenses that a social worker can earn after graduating with an MSW. These are often listed as possible pathways through different programs, so it’s critical that students research what credential they need for their career goal and inquire if the program offers a way to earn that credential.

The MSW is a great choice for social workers who want to do more in the field. While the bachelor’s in social work does a lot of good for professionals, it can be limiting in terms of career opportunities. Students who want to advance will want to continue their education, and the MSW is the best pathway forward.

Social work is a challenging but rewarding career, no matter what specialty or concentration a professional chooses. As the need for social workers rises, so too does the responsibility that comes with the job. Professionals will have an ample group of schools to choose from in this ranking as they make the choice to advance their career with a Master’s of Social Work.

What Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations are Needed to Practice?

Anyone who is interested in becoming a social worker will most likely be required to obtain a licence to practice. Not all states require a licensure to become a social worker, but every state does require clinical social workers to be licensed. To become a clinical social worker, individuals will need to complete a master’s degree in social work and at least 2 years of supervised clinical practicum upon graduation.

License requirements for social workers vary by state, but typically these are the different certifications a social workers can pursue:

  • licensed social workers (LSWs)
  • licensed independent social workers (LISWs)
  • licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs)
  • licensed independent clinical social workers (LICSWs)

Ranking for Low-cost Online MSW Programs

  1. Western New Mexico University

    Silver City, NM

    Western New Mexico University confers a CSWE-accredited MSW program that is available 100 percent online. It is also a program that is taught by licensed professional social workers, making it a great fit for students who want to learn from professionals who know the field from first-hand experience. The program also offers a variety of electives that touch on core areas of the field, enabling students to create their own concentrations for use in the careers. Students will find that field practicums are mandatory for all students, and as these requirements can be quite comprehensive, it may be necessary for students to reduce their working hours to part-time in order to accommodate the experience. The degree requires 39 credit hours of coursework and practicums, a research paper, and a comprehensive exam. Sample courses include Community Organization and Development, Social Work Clinical Assessment and Intervention, and Theories and Techniques of Clinical Social Work Practice.

  2. University of Wyoming

    Laramie, W

    The University of Wyoming confers two online MSW programs that will be a perfect fit for both pre-service and working professionals. Pre-service professionals, or those without an accredited undergraduate degree in social work and who have no work experience in the field, will take the traditional route while working professionals who work in the field can take the advanced standing option. While most courses are available online, this is a hybrid degree; students who live in the area are best suited to take on this program. Fieldwork experience and a capstone project are required for this degree, as well as 31 credit hours for advanced standing students and 60 credit hours for traditional students. Sample courses include Foundation of Social Work Practice, Supervision in Social Work, and Social Work Research and Technology.

  3. Boise State University

    Boise, ID

    Students interested in an MSW program will find a 100 percent online degree at Boise State University. The degree can be taken as a traditional online degree or, if a student has an accredited BSW, as an advanced standing program. Students who apply for the advanced track are also required to have significant work experience in the field. This program is accredited by the CSWE, so it is a pathway to earn a social worker license in the state of Idaho; this may not be possible for students who live in other states. Like many other programs on this ranking, Boise State does require students to take on fieldwork experiences as part of their program of study. Students can also expect to complete 61 credit hours of coursework, a research project, and a comprehensive exam. Sample courses include Foundation of Social Work Practice, Social Dimensions of Human Behavior, and Program Leadership and Management.

  4. California State University-Northridge

    Northridge, CA

    California State University at Northridge offers a cheap online MSW program that is full-time and delivered in an asynchronous format; there is also a mandatory synchronous field education class that takes place once a week during the semester. Students will find that this practice-based degree does require field hours, which takes place for the duration of the program; with 16 hours required for each week, this program is best for students who do not have a full-time job. If a student does have a job in the field of social work, they cannot do their field placement hours in the same workplace. The degree requires 36 credit hours of coursework, a research project, and a comprehensive in addition to the field placement in order for students to graduate. Sample courses include Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Psychosocial Assessment and Diagnostic Formulation, and Advanced Social Work Practice with Urban Families.

  5. California State University-Chico

    Chico, CA

    The three-year online MSW program at California State University at Chico is a 100 percent virtual cohort program that is open to students once every three years. It was built for both working and pre-service professionals; however, the requirements for these students will vary based on their work and educational background. This is a demanding degree program that often advises students to reduce the number of hours they are working at their job in order to successfully complete the necessary requirements. As with most social work programs, placements are mandatory; these can be completed in a student's community. Other requirements include 60 credit hours of coursework, a research project, and a comprehensive exam. Sample courses include Social Work Practice in Multicultural Contexts, Advanced Child Welfare, and Policy and Practice with Older Americans and Families.

  6. California State University-San Bernardino

    San Bernardino, CA

    California State University at San Bernardino offers an excellent online MSW program for students interested in the various certificates and credentials in the field. This is a 100 percent online program that offers internship and work placements within a student's community. Additionally, the school provides other options for their online students, including acceptance into the Title IV-E training program, which is committed to public child welfare practices and policies; the Behavioral Health Program, which focuses on mental health practices; and field placements that enable students to complete the requirements necessary to receive the Pupil Personnel Services Credential. It is also possible to earn concurrent MSW/Master of Public Administration degrees within this program. This is a very demanding degree that requires students work only part-time; requirements include 48 credit hours of coursework and field placements, a capstone project, and a comprehensive exam. Sample courses include Child Abuse and Neglect, Social Work Intervention with the Elderly, and Supervision in Social Work.

  7. Humboldt State University

    Arcata, CA

    Students looking for an MSW online degree will find that Humboldt State University may offer them exactly what they are looking for in terms of their education. It is a 100 percent online degree that is focused on intercultural populations and diversity; students who take this degree on will find themselves able to work in various regions in America, making a positive change for all Americans. This degree has two pathways: General and Advanced Standing. Advanced Standing is for students who have already earned an undergraduate degree in social work. This is a part-time program that is accredited by the CSWE and can be completed in just over three years. Students can expect to complete 75 units of coursework, an internship in their community, a capstone project, and a comprehensive exam. Sample courses include Social Work Practice in Native American and Rural Communities, Generalist Social Work Practice, and Advanced Practice and Indigenous and Rural Communities.

  8. University of Central Florida

    Orlando, FL

    The University of Central Florida offers one of the best online MSW programs in the country. Designed for students who do not have an educational background in social work, this degree is delivered 100 percent online and can be completed in a little more than two years of part-time study. Students who do have a degree in social work can apply for the Advanced Standing Option, which allows them to complete their program in just over a year. Both programs are currently accredited by the CSWE and offer opportunities to professionals to become skilled practitioners in their chosen field of work. While the degree is conferred online, students will be expected to complete field experiences in their community. Students will also be expected to complete 32 credit hours of coursework, 600 hours of practicum experience, a capstone project, and a comprehensive exam. Sample courses include Diverse Client Populations, Social Welfare Policies and Services, and Policy Analysis and Social Changes.

  9. University of North Dakota

    Grand Forks, ND

    Students who have received their undergraduate degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited school are invited to take on the MSW degree online at the University of North Dakota. This degree is designed for those who already have a background in social work; those who do not will have to take entry into the hybrid MSW program. While this degree is conferred online, there is one residency requirement that is necessary. Students will also find that the courses are taught live but held in the evenings for their convenience. Additionally, all students are afforded the program at the in-state graduate tuition rate, making it an affordable choice for everyone. Students can expect to complete 36 credit hours of coursework, practicum experiences in their community, and a research capstone project. Sample courses include Advanced Generalist Human Behavior and the Social Environment, Advanced Generalist Practice with Families, and Advanced Generalist Tools for Policy.

  10. University of Arkansas

    Fayetteville, AR

    The University of Arkansas offers an accelerated online MSW program that is perfect for professionals. The main criteria for entering the program is that a student must have successfully completed an undergraduate degree in social work from a Council of Social Work Education-accredited program. If students meet this requirement, they will be offered the chance to attend the 12-month cohort program that is delivered 100 percent online; it does require full-time attendance. They will also be required to complete an internship in their community which will be arranged by the department. Other requirements include 39 credit hours of coursework, a thesis, and a comprehensive exam. Sample courses include Social Work Research and Technology, Evidence-Based Social Work, and Advanced Practice with Children and Youth Using the MSLC Perspective.

Research for this ranking began with collating information pulled from the National Center for Education Statistics and its public College Navigator database. In initial pool of 45 schools was created from NCES with the final 10 being chosen based on in-state graduate tuition rates. They are listed below, from most to least expensive MSW programs.

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