Earning an associate degree in social work (ASW) is a great option for students looking to gain insight and exposure to social work-related careers. This introductory degree provides a basic foundation to the field of social work and provides opportunities to gain entry-level positions to build career-related skills.In this guide
- What is an ASW?
- Why get an ASW?
- Online associate’s program
- ASW curriculum
- Potential career paths
An associate in social work also lays the groundwork should someone wish to further their education and qualify for higher level positions within the field. This article reviews the associate degree in social work, the typical admissions requirements, and course structure of these programs along with career opportunities for graduates.
What is an associate degree in social work?
An ASW degree is one that introduces a student to the field of social work and prepares them to work as a paraprofessional in the field. A paraprofessional is defined as “a person to whom a particular aspect of a professional task is delegated, but who is not licensed to practice as a fully qualified professional.”
This means that one with an ASW degree has been prepared to serve as a helper and assist social work professionals with higher level degrees, such as a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) or masters in social work (MSW).
Full-time students can complete the approximately 60-credit ASW program in two years, which includes general education courses including math, English, science, and humanities along with generalist social work classes that focus on working with individuals, families, groups, and communities.
The ASW degree also allows for entry into a bachelor of social work (BSW) program, should a student wish to further their education and greatly expand their career opportunities. It is highly recommended that students complete at a minimum a BSW degree in order to be competitive in today’s job market. Many community colleges and four-year schools now have agreements in place that allow for a seamless transfer of ASW credits into the BSW program.
Why get an associate degree in social work?
The associate degree in social work is appealing for a number of reasons. Since the ASW provides an introduction to the social services field, students can take classes and complete field experiences (practicum) to get hands-on experience and learn if the field is a good fit.
Completing an ASW provides the necessary general education classes needed for a bachelor’s degree, so most students who earn an ASW transfer their credits directly into a BSW program. Since most ASW degrees are offered through community colleges which typically have much lower tuition costs than four-year institutions, students can save a significant amount of money on tuition by completing their first two years at a community college and then transferring to another college or university to finish their BSW.
Another reason the ASW is appealing is that it provides the necessary foundation for entry-level social services positions. Many students are able to obtain these paraprofessional positions while they are in school, building up important and necessary skills to improve their future career prospects.
Are ASW degrees accredited?
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the sole accrediting body for social work in the United States. Accreditation confirms that a school or program meets nationally established standards. CSWE only accredits educational programs that prepare students for professional social work practice, which are bachelors and master’s degree programs.
As ASW programs prepare students to either transfer into a bachelor’s degree program or work in a paraprofessional capacity in the field, currently ASW programs are not accredited by CSWE.
However, schools that offer ASW degrees can be accredited by other accreditation organizations, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). Selecting an associated community college or four-year institution that offers an ASW degree is important, because students are then eligible for federal financial aid programs, and the credits earned through an accredited program are much more likely to be accepted when transferring to another degree program.
If a student wants to save money and earn an ASW degree from a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution to complete a BSW degree, the credits from the ASW degree from an accredited community college should seamlessly roll over into the BSW program.
Online associate in social work degree
The majority of ASW programs and classes are offered in-person. However, most community college courses are offered during the day, evenings or on weekends to accommodate students’ schedules. Some classes may be offered online or in a hybrid format, but not all will be available online. An exception is Tyler Junior College, which states their ASW program can be completed fully online.
Entry requirements to associate social work programs
In order to be accepted into an ASW program, students must submit:
- A high school diploma or GED
- Official transcripts from all high school, college and/or universities attended
- A completed application along with the application fee paid in full
Most community colleges have open admissions, accepting anyone regardless of grades or placement test scores. Some may require a minimum GPA, and/or specific placement test scores from standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT or COMPASS. Others may also require letters of recommendation and a written personal statement as part of the application process.
General courses in an ASW degree program
Beyond the traditional general education courses such as math, English, science and humanities, social work classes provide a high-level overview of the profession and skills needed to become successful in the field.
Classes weave in instruction on how to address problems at the micro, mezzo and macro levels. Micro level social work deals with individuals. Mezzo social work focuses on addressing issues at the local or community level and implementing community-wide interventions. Finally, macro social work focuses on working within large systems, such as state or nationwide in research, policy and advocacy efforts. By completing an ASW, students have the opportunity to learn about encouraging change at each of these levels and determine which area(s) are of most interest.
Common courses in an ASW program include:
- Social work as a profession
- Examples of these courses include Introduction to Social Work, Introduction to Health and Human Service Organizations, Report Writing as a Social Service Aide, Principles of Casework, and Ethics and the Social Work Professional.
- Human development
- Examples of human development courses include human behavior and the social environment and lifespan development
- Social work practice methods
- Examples of social work practice methods courses include crisis intervention, social work interviewing skills, mental health, introduction to the dynamics of addiction, introduction to clinical diagnosis and treatment, group counseling, and family therapy.
- Social policy
- Examples of social policy courses include the development of social welfare, social issues in diversity, and poverty and social welfare policy
- Research methods
- Examples of research methods courses include probability and statistics for the social sciences, social research methods and research and writing for the workplace.
- Field education or practicum
- Field education placements are when a student serves as an intern in one or more social service agencies and gains hands-on experience in assisting professionals deliver programs and services. Most ASW practicum placements require up to 400 hours of service from the student. This provides excellent practical experience in the field and may even lead to employment opportunities with the agency after completion of the degree.
Each school may have slightly different requirements, but typically in order to graduate with an ASW degree, students must complete all coursework, sometimes with grades of B or above. Students must also successfully complete all field education/practicum hours.
Social work licensure for an ASW
Social work licensure, which demonstrates a social worker possesses the necessary skills and credentials to competently provide services, typically requires a minimum of a BSW degree in addition to passing a licensing exam.
However, some states, such as Massachusetts, Ohio, and Michigan offer the opportunity for ASW graduates to apply for credentialing as a licensed social work associate (LSWA) through the Association of Social Work Boards. Even with this level of licensing, ASW graduates are still not able to provide direct client services and must have supervision within clinical settings.
This is why most ASW graduates interested in providing direct services go on to complete their BSW and MSW degrees and then become licensed.
Career options for ASW graduates
As previously mentioned, the ASW provides graduates with the education and skills to gain entry-level assistant type employment in the social services. Work can be found in a variety of settings, from hospitals, to schools, to courts and counseling centers, but again, the ASW graduate will serve in an assistant/paraprofessional position, helping professionals provide services.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that employment for social service assistants is expected to grow 17% between 2020 and 2030, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. The average salary for ASW graduates is $35, 960 per year, or $17.29 per hour.
Comparatively, the growth rate for social workers with a BSW is expected to be 12% from 2020-2030, still faster than the national average. The average salary for social workers according to BLS is $51,760 per year, or $24.88 per hour. It is easy to see why so many ASW graduates decide to continue their education for just two more years in order to significantly raise their earning capacity and the ability to provide a variety of direct client services.
According to the National Association of Social Workers, career options for ASW graduates include:
- Activity assistant for a long-term care facility
- Case management aide
- Community outreach worker
- Social work assistant
- Intake specialist
- Victims advocate associate
- Family support assistant
- Home-health assistant
- Recreation assistant
- Camp counselor
As most ASW programs graduates want to further their education and increase both their job prospects and earning capacity, a BSW degree is the next logical step. The ASW prepares students to apply for BSW programs, confident that most, if not all of their credits from the ASW degree will be accepted for transfer.
Acceptance into a BSW program from an ASW program typically requires:
- A completed application along with the application fee paid in full
- A minimum grade point average of 2.5 out of 4.0 from the ASW program
- Official transcripts from the ASW program
- Standardized test scores from the ACT and/or SAT
Students with an ASW can typically complete their BSW within two years if attending school full-time.
Courses are extensions of those which were covered in the ASW program, providing additional knowledge and opportunities for professional skill-building. Required courses include social justice, social policy, social work values and ethics, research methods, social work practice methods and practicum/field experience. In the BSW program, up to an additional 600 field practicum hours beyond the ASW may be required.
The ASW is an excellent degree choice for students wanting to explore the social work field and determine if it is a good fit. This degree also enables students to complete the first two years of a baccalaureate degree program at a greatly reduced cost (if completed through a community college as opposed to a four-year institution).
The ASW allows for entry-level assistant positions within social services. However, since most are drawn to this field to help the most vulnerable people improve their lives, alleviate human suffering and promote social justice at individual, community and national/international levels, the desire to work directly with clients is strong. Unfortunately, this is not an option for those with only an ASW degree, so most students go on to complete their BSW and possibly even their MSW. Continuing education to earn these higher degrees dramatically expand the career opportunities and earning capabilities of social work professionals.