The number of fully online MSW programs has grown to over 200 as of 2021. At one time we might have called online MSW programs an “alternative” to traditional campus-based programs, but online MSW programs are now preferred by thousands of applicants interested in earning an advanced social work degree.In this guide
- Delivery and structure
- Admission requirements
- Campus visits
- Fieldwork requirements
- Online MSW curriculum
- Career opportunities
- Benefits of an online MSW
- Things to consider
- Online MSW tuition
- School listings
- Expert advice
An entire industry has grown around online social work graduate education, with programs generally having a director and staff dedicated specifically to the online program and its students.
Online programs are similar to campus-based programs in terms of curriculum, rigor, fieldwork requirements, quality of professors (many professors teach in both programs), and time it takes to earn the degree.
There are some differences as well, such as students not being on campus (perhaps ever), variations in durations of courses (for example, 8-week courses), and the many different modes of delivery students may choose from (for example, fully asynchronous versus having live class meetings – see more below).
What is certain, is being an online MSW student is not easier, and if anything, is more challenging, than being a campus-based student. People looking for an easier route to earning an MSW should not assume an online program is easier.
Modes of online MSW course delivery and structure
An online MSW program is a great option for students who are comfortable with online learning based on their previous experience learning online or just knowing that they can function well in a fully online learning environment.
It is helpful to understand all of your options as a future online student. This includes understanding variations in how programs are structured and a curriculum is delivered, the duration of courses, and other choices you may have as an online MSW student.
Fully asynchronous programs do not require students to attend live online class meetings. All of the course content and assignments are packaged and accessible through a learning management system such as Canvas or Moodle. You will need to be a highly independent learner to be successful in a fully asynchronous program because most of your interactions with classmates and the instructor will be via email and discussion boards.
A synchronous online MSW program requires students to attend weekly live class meetings via Zoom or another video conferencing platform. This mode of course delivery is good for students who enjoy learning online but feel they would benefit from weekly live class discussions and interaction with the instructor.
Some programs or courses only require bi-weekly meetings but during asynchronous weeks (when the class doesn’t meet) students generally will complete more online assignments such as discussion posts or voice threads.
Occasionally, programs allow students to take both types of courses throughout the program. Students may realize that certain courses, such as research, are best taken in a synchronous format while they are comfortable taking other courses in an asynchronous format.
Course length varies by school but many schools use an eight week model where students take two fully asynchronous or synchronous classes per semester. A student’s course load varies from semester to semester but often requires two classes per eight week session for a total of four courses per semester. Eight week courses move quickly and the workload is equivalent to that of a 15-week course. Students will need to think carefully about how many courses they can handle per session and semester. Most schools offer a part-time option should students need it, or allow students to take courses mainly in the evenings and weekends.
Online MSW admission requirements
Like most master’s degrees, online MSW programs usually have a set of minimum admission requirements. These include GPA minimums like 2.5 to 3.0 depending on the school. Many others include GRE thresholds, as well as a certain number of undergraduate semester hours or credits that count toward liberal arts classes or competencies.
If you’re a non-native English speaker, you may need to pass a Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, exam.
Additionally, if you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, your school may waive the first year of classes, as these are often foundational in nature. These are called advanced standing programs. Not only does this save you money, but it makes you a more attractive applicant for admissions teams. Be sure to mention this on your application if possible!
Regardless, you’ll at least need a bachelor’s degree. You will have a much easier time getting into the program if your major is in the humanities or social studies. Both of these broad major umbrellas relate more to social work than STEM fields.
Most online MSW students will never spend time on a physical campus, but some programs do require students to be on campus for a limited amount of time. Some programs encompass a residency, which is a few days of on campus learning per semester, or several weekend intensives per year.
The idea behind these campus visits is to build camaraderie within student cohorts and allow students to meet professors in person. Students typically engage in some classroom based learning while on campus. Some programs require a multi-day one credit seminar while others plan special presentations or lectures. Some schools that require time on campus are now giving students the option of attending residencies or seminars online as well.
Fieldwork requirements for online programs
Students enrolled in an online MSW program typically are required to complete fieldwork in-person. Online programs place students in appropriate fieldwork assignments in their local community. There may be some limited opportunities for students to complete an advocacy or research oriented fieldwork placement online; but for students interested in clinical work, the in person field work experience is vital to their learning and professional development.
Online students without a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) typically complete two field work assignments – one during their first year and another during their second year, while advanced standing students with a BSW may complete only one fieldwork assignment.
Online MSW programs network with social service providers across the country to provide online students with the best possible field work experience that matches their interests and learning needs. Online students, like all MSW students, are required to take an integrative seminar during which they process their field work experience and interact with their faculty field advisor.
Online social work program curriculum
Online MSW programs typically offer the same course options as campus-based programs. Some courses may be more readily available to on-campus students. This does not mean the course is not offered to online students, but rather it may be offered on a more limited basis, such as only during a specific semester.
Traditional program students (no BSW) take foundation courses during their first year such as generalist practice, human behavior, social policy, and research.
During the second year they take advanced clinical or macro classes such as:
- advanced clinical practice
- non-profit management
- special topics
Online students have the same concentration options as campus based students such as:
- clinical practice,
- macro practice (i.e., agency administration),
- clinical work with children and families,
- trauma-based work,
- advocacy or community organizing,
Educational outcomes, career development, and career opportunities
It is natural to wonder whether online students learn as much as their on-campus peers and whether career development opportunities and outcomes are similar.
According to a study conducted at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, there were no significant differences in educational outcomes between online and on-campus MSW students. The study also suggested that online and on-campus students performed equally on retaining knowledge and expanding their skills. The study did find, however, that on-campus students had higher GPAs.
Online students are provided with the same career development resources as their on-campus peers. Online students have full access to a school’s range of career development resources including resume assistance, job fairs, mentoring, alumni networks, etc. But a school physically located in one city, may not have the same number of connections to social service organizations in another city. Local alumni organizations can be of great help to recent graduates such as helping them find employment, network, and provide mentoring.
Ask programs you are interested in applying to if they provide career development resources to students and alumni across the country.
There are some differences between online and campus-based graduates in terms of where they are employed and the populations they work with.
According to the George Washington University Health Workforce Institute 2018 survey of social work graduates, online MSW graduates were more likely than campus-based graduates to be employed in rural or smaller communities (57 percent vs. 30 percent). Furthermore, they were more likely to work within children and families (44 percent vs. 33 percent) and individuals with substance abuse issues (9 percent vs. 6 percent).
Graduates of online programs have the same career opportunities as campus-based program graduates. An online degree from a specific university will be just as prestigious and attractive to employers as a campus base degree. There is some evidence, again according to the GWU study mentioned above, that on average campus-based graduates earn slightly higher incomes than online grads. Also according to the GWU survey, online and on campus graduates were equally likely to recommend pursuing an MSW.
There numerous career options for online MSW and campus based graduates including the following:
- School social work
- Private practice or agency based therapy
- Research and policy development
- Advocacy and community organizing
- Medical social work (hospital, hospice, nursing home, etc.)
- geriatric social work
- International social work
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for social workers are expected to grow, especially in the areas of mental health and substance abuse, through 2030.
Benefits of attending an online MSW program
You have probably already considered the benefits of attending a fully online MSW program. Here are some additional benefits you may not have thought of:
- Save gas/commuting money
- Save time commuting/traveling
- Convenience of learning from home, or occasionally from another location if necessary
- Convenient for caregivers
- Easy access to all your course materials through the program’s learning management system (e.g., Canvas)
- View lectures any time of day or night
- Attend live classes from the comfort of your home
Additionally, if you are an international student you won’t have to travel to the U.S. to get your MSW education.
However, online learning, especially asynchronous learning, is not for everyone, so you have to think carefully about your learning style, past experiences with online learning, and your social needs. Some people simply learn better when they are physically present in a traditional classroom with their classmates and instructor; they may feel that being online creates an artificial barrier between people or feels less natural as a learning environment.
You may enjoy getting to know classmates in person and find working in groups is easier in person. You may also be a highly social person who enjoys being on a physical campus where you have access to the library, organizations, dining, and other amenities.
The bottom line is, think carefully about your learning needs and preferences, and your personal needs, before applying to a fully online MSW program. If you are still not certain if online learning is for you, ask the admissions office to connect you with the program director, a faculty member who primarily teaches online, or a current online student to gather different perspectives.
Things to consider when choosing an online MSW program
- Apply only to accredited programs
Once you decide online learning is for you, there are several things you should be aware of as you choose which MSW program to attend. First, it is critical you apply to, and ultimately attend, a program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. As of late 2021 there were 212 accredited online social work programs in the U.S, and 35 online programs were in the candidacy or pre-candidacy phase of accreditation.
Online MSW programs are generally embedded in a larger school of social work. The accreditation process for schools and online programs is rigorous, therefore you can be confident an accredited online program has been thoroughly evaluated and meets all of the standards upheld by CSWE. Schools must engage in a comprehensive self-study process, site visits from a member of the commission on accreditation (COA), and the completion of benchmark reports.
Online social work programs, just like campus programs, also must adhere to Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS), which were most recently updated in 2015. These standards require programs to teach a set of core social work practice competencies. Accredited MSW programs must meet high academic standards including delivering a curriculum that prepares students to engage in advanced social work practice. All MSW programs must undergo a periodic reaffirmation of the accreditation process. After initial accreditation, programs are re-accredited after four years, then every eight years thereafter.
Students should be highly skeptical of non-accredited online MSW programs, especially those that require little work or are for-profit. For-profit online social programs that are not accredited will have lower academic standards but charge high tuition fees. Typically graduates of for profit school have lower employment rates compared to those who graduated from a nonprofit private or public university. Then there are diploma mills.
Purchasing a bogus degree from a diploma mill will backfire when it comes time to sharing your credentials for employment and advancement. And of course, as eminent social work professor Bruce Thyer points out, misrepresenting your social work education and training is in direct violation of the social work code of ethics.
- Find out if there is an advanced standing program (if you have a BSW)
Advanced standing programs are accelerated programs for MSW students with a BSW. Advanced standing students may complete their online MSW degree in as little as three semesters, but this varies by program. Advanced standing students are exempt from taking certain courses such as the first social policy courses, or human behavior and the social environment, if they have already taken these courses as undergraduates.
Some programs require students to transfer eligible credits from their undergraduate degree in order to qualify for advanced standing. Advanced standing students generally complete one fieldwork assignment as opposed to two, over the course of the program.
- Compare tuition and financial aid
Tuition and opportunities for financial aid and scholarship vary widely between online programs, just as they do between on-campus programs. Some online programs cost considerably less than their campus-based programs. It is important to compare costs within different programs at a particular school, and across schools. Make sure you are getting the most value for your dollar.
Also, explore which schools provide financial aid in the form of assistantships, or provide scholarships or fellowships. Most online students are eligible to do a research or teaching assistantship to earn tuition remission, but as noted above, they may have to complete these jobs on campus. Research independent scholarships and fellowships (not school based) as well and apply to anything you are eligible for. As an online student you are eligible for the same government loans and grants as your on campus counterparts. You may also qualify for loan forgiveness if you work in the public sector after graduation.
- Think about location
Why think about a school’s location, you may ask, if a program is online? A program will work with you to find a suitable fieldwork placement no matter where you are, but if you are halfway across the country from your program’s home base will they be as familiar with opportunities and social service networks in your local community? There are a handful of online programs that require students to be within a certain proximity to campus so that you can complete fieldwork in that area. Some schools require online students who are TAs and RAs to work on campus. These are all details you have to research and ask questions about.
This is very important as well. Look into whether the state where you want to live after graduation requires you to do your fieldwork training in that state as a prerequisite for licensing. Applicants should also talk to programs on their short-list about the types of career development or mentoring the school offers where the student wants to live after graduation. This includes whether the school has a strong network of alumni and employers in that area. Another consideration is time difference. If you are on the east coast and your school is on the west coast, you will be limited to registering for earlier classes so you don’t have to attend classes late at night.
- Review admissions requirements
All online MSW programs require applicants to have an undergraduate degree. You are not required to have a BSW, but having one will greatly increase your chances of being admitted. Having a closely related undergraduate degree such as human services, nursing, or sociology is helpful as well, but not required. People from diverse backgrounds including those with business degrees, science degrees, and even fine arts undergraduate degrees apply for admission to online MSW programs. Most programs want to see that applicants have a strong undergraduate GPA.
Admission materials vary somewhat by program, but most online MSW programs require GRE test scores, letters of recommendation, a resume, an undergraduate transcript, and a personal statement. It may take some time to take the GRE and gather the other required items, so give yourself six months to a year to take the test and complete your application. Some programs have rolling deadlines but many have a specific cutoff date. Make sure you gather the correct information about application procedures as you make a short list of schools to apply to.
The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is a standardized test many graduate programs require applicants to take. It can help admissions departments assess an applicant’s potential for doing well in a graduate program and can be especially helpful in assessing preparedness for students with a low undergraduate GPA. The exam is divided into a verbal and quantitative section. According to the ETS GRE Worldwide Test Taker Report 2015-2020, social and behavioral science graduate students, on average, earned a 153 verbal score, 152 quantitative score, and 4 for analytical writing. The exam is not without controversy, however, and more and more social work graduate programs are deciding not to require it.
Your personal statement also is a very important component of your application because it reflects how well you write, your interests and passions, your personal experiences, why you want to be a social worker, your capacity for empathy, and your sense of social justice (does this give you a good idea of what to include in your letter). Proofread your statement well and have one other person, preferably a good writer, review it as well.
Recommendations can also be key to admission into a preferred program. If you already work in a social service setting, get a recommendation from your supervisor. If you do not work in social services, you should still ask a work supervisor for a letter. Your other recommendations can come from undergraduate professors, community leaders, or colleagues. Finally, you have to put together a resume if you don’t already have one. Use your undergraduate career office for help with writing a resume, or if you already have one, make sure it’s updated and proofread.
- Create your short-list and apply!
Begin your research on online MSW programs by reviewing the information on this site and visiting program websites. There is no need to visit a school’s physical campus unless you’re really interested in talking to the director and faculty in person, otherwise you can simply speak to people via videoconference. Review everything you need to know about a program as outlined above, before putting it on your short-list. To review, do you want to apply to a school that has an advanced standing program? Also, do you want to attend a program that has a specialty track in a certain field of practice such as family therapy, working with traumatized children, or doing environmental social work. Also, what kind of reputation does a program have? Talk to some current or former students to gain different perspectives.
Tuition for online master’s in social work programs
Master’s in social work programs normally require between 30 to 60 credits depending on university policy and prior experience of the student. According to US News and World Report, credits can cost anywhere between $300-$650. A student should expect to pay between $11,000 and $39,000 in total tuition for the entire master’s program.
Several things can affect the total cost of your degree:
- Location: generally, most online programs are attended by out-of-state students. Try to attend an online program within your state or find a university that doesn’t charge higher tuition for out-of-state students
- Part or full-time: while the degree will cost of the same in the end, taking it on a part-time basis may make it more affordable if you need to pay for some costs out-of-pocket
- Size: many larger universities charge more for their credits because they offer more diverse class options
Ultimately, there are several things you can do to lower your tuition costs across the board. Fill out the FAFSA to get started; if that doesn’t cover your tuition, there are some scholarship opportunities you can take advantage of. Some of the best are:
- Student funding opportunities from the CSWE. They provide several scholarships and awards, many of which are based on demographic or economic need. These are exclusive to social work program students, so the competition is less high than for generalized scholarships
- American School Health Association Scholarship. This scholarship is ideal for students looking to pursue careers related to helping children. It’s an annual scholarship opportunity and is given to two winners each year
- Cenie Jomo Williams Tuition Scholarship. This award is open to African-American college students that are enrolled in a full-time social work program. It provides up to $2500 for two students who show commitment toward improving their communities through social work
In 2015, 65 percent of applicants to any type of full-time MSW program were accepted. The acceptance rate for part-time applicants was 72 percent.
Some states require students to complete their fieldwork in that state to qualify for licensing. Make sure to review the requirements before deciding on an MSW program.
Just like their campus-based counterparts, online programs have alumni networks and offer CEUs to graduates and other social workers. They also offer career development workshops and job fairs. Find out if the online school you are interested in offers all of these things in the city where you live, if you live far from the physical campus.
MSW students need a working computer and access to internet to attend virtual classes and to complete assignments and lessons. Most online programs will require students to be on camera during class so students will need a built in camera or webcam. You will also need a good headset with a mic.
A majority of online MSW students work. Some work at social service agencies, where they also complete their fieldwork. According to the George Washington University study referenced earlier, more online MSW students return to work full-time with the agency they did their fieldwork after graduating when compared to on-campus students.
Just like the on-campus counterparts, some online programs require a thesis or capstone project while other do not.
Expert advice for future graduate students
- What are the most important factors for students to consider when choosing an online MSW program?
- What do you think is the most challenging aspect of an online MSW program?
- How do the fieldwork components of an online MSW program work?