An online master’s degree in social work is a great way for people interested in the profession to specialize and become dedicated therapists, rehabilitators, or counselors. Social work is a field in high demand for new talent, particularly as mental health issues are on the rise.
For these professions and more, you’ll need an advanced degree. In the day of digital communication, online social work master’s programs are just as effective and even more accessible than traditional campus options.
Seven steps to pick the right online master’s in social work program
First off, be sure to do some heavy research before settling on an online program. You won’t be visiting the campus in-person and you won’t have an opportunity (or as many opportunities) to talk with people face-to-face compared to going to a university in real life.
This involves checking out everything that the degree offers, including concentrations or required work experience components. Many online programs at the graduate level still require that students complete an internship or have prior work experience in the field in order to receive the degree. This means many of these programs are not “completely” online, just mostly.
Additionally, you should always make sure that a given master’s in social work program is CSWE-certified. This means that the program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. It’s essentially a stamp of authenticity and academic value. A degree from a university with this seal of approval will be more valuable to future social work employers.
Next, consider any possible prerequisite that a degree program may have. For instance, the vast majority of all master’s level degrees require a bachelor’s degree before you can apply. Alternatively, some online programs may allow you to compress the bachelor’s plus master’s curriculum into a 5-year plan if you start the graduate courses during your senior year of a bachelor’s degree.
For a social work program, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in at least a field related to social work, if not social work itself. Acceptable degrees are usually in the humanities, communication, psychology, or similar majors.
Many online master’s in social work programs also demand that you have specific grades or classes completed in order to apply for the program. Sometimes, depending on what degree you have, you might need to take a few catch-up courses before you can dive into the master’s level.
The university you plan to apply to may also have its own unique requirements for all applicants regardless of major. For instance, some universities only allow you to apply during certain months of the year. Others have flat GPA requirements or GRE requirements.
The GRE, or Graduate Record Examinations, are a series of exams taken over the computer that measure your critical thinking and reasoning skills. Lots of master’s programs, including many master’s in social work programs, have certain GRE section thresholds you have to meet before being accepted into the program.
After double-checking all these aspects, investigate the degree requirements for graduation. As mentioned above, some online programs do involve some in-person components, whether it’s a work internship or some seminars you need to attend at one or more points over the curriculum. A really common example is an orientation seminar and a wrap-up seminar at the end of your studies.
Furthermore, some online master’s in social work programs require that you complete a project or thesis, depending on the school in question. For some online students, doing a project is easier than writing a thesis and vice versa for others. This requirement is also dictated by the type of degree you earn: a Master of Science will likely need to do a thesis as part of the research component of the curriculum.
Online degrees of all majors are useful for many people thanks to their schedule flexibility and largely asynchronous educational opportunities. But you should double-check what a given program offers before sending in your application.
Some online programs are only partly asynchronous; this means you’ll still need to attend web chats or video conferences every now and again. Others are completely online and flexible and are perfect for those who need to work a busy schedule while completing their education.
Keep the application deadlines in mind as well. Some programs follow a cohort format, meaning there’s only one application deadline per year and all students proceed through the curriculum in lockstep with one another. Other universities may have multiple start dates every year, allowing you to jump in when it works best for your needs.
Part-time online MSW programs can usually be completed within three to four years while full-time programs can be completed in two years or less.
Once you’ve done all your research and found out what a particular online master’s in social work program provides, go ahead and apply. This involves putting together a portfolio showcasing your GPA, GRE scores, and other academic merits along with any required letters of recommendation. Many master’s programs need at least two letters of recommendation from either your former faculty or your current boss.
You can also make your application more attractive by adding work experience in the social work or communication fields.
Look at financial aid
Finally, be sure to check out financial aid if and when you get accepted into the program. Many online programs are quite affordable, but you might still need a little aid in order to pay for everything. The FAFSA is the first step in applying for financial aid overall, and you might be eligible for certain grants or loans backed by the federal government.
Alternatively, you can check out social work scholarships and financial aid pages at the university you’ve applied to.
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.
Online social work program curriculum
Online MSW programs have rigorous and somewhat interdisciplinary curriculums that cover several major topics and ideas, including economics, human behavior, philosophy, ethics, and clinical/real-world social work practice.
In general, the first year of these programs covers foundational social work knowledge to shore up your expertise on these subjects or explain them to you for the first time. Some of these introductory courses may have titles like:
- the dynamics of racism and systemic oppression
- human behavior and their environment
- introduction to social work
- social work services for children
- couple and family therapy
Second-year curriculums usually focus on a concentration or specialization if the program in question offers these opportunities.
Social work program concentrations normally identify where a student has his or her interest and what type of social work they are particularly qualified for. A few examples of these concentrations include:
- child and family studies
- mental health
- older adults and aging populations
- marriage counseling
- and more
You’ll also likely take a few research-oriented classes depending on the focus of your degree. Many online MSW programs also qualify you for clinical or macro social work.
Clinical social work takes place within medical practices or in direct intervention situations like social services organizations. In essence, these graduates will directly help individuals and families who need their services. On the other hand, macro social work is more concerned with creating interventions to facilitate social change. It’s much more political and based on affecting the underlying societal causes of many social issues.
Some online MSW programs give you fieldwork opportunities despite their digital nature, and many may even require it. These can help you identify where your interest lies and help you figure out the kind of social work that you want to concentrate in.
As mentioned before, online programs usually incorporate at least a single in-person seminar or component at some point during your studies. These will usually be included within your tuition costs, and they normally take place over a weekend so you can continue to work even while attending the seminar or work experience class.
If you do need to take a field educational internship, this can be completed at a local agency organization near your location; you won’t need to visit the university in person. Local agencies you can earn the required credits from include mental health facilities, family counseling centers, and addiction treatment centers.
But the majority of online master’s in social work programs will feature asynchronous courses that have material that can be reviewed and work that can be turned in whenever it works best for you. Most programs will have you discuss things with your professors or peers via message boards and other educational portals.
Most online MSW programs allow students to pick their classes with a great degree of flexibility. Others that follow the cohort model will require you to take the same courses as your peers, which allows for greater networking and connectivity with your fellow students.
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
Master’s in social work career opportunities
Those with master’s degrees in social work usually end up specializing in more advanced occupations than regular social workers, who earn average salaries of about $50,000 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For instance, marriage and family therapists earn about $51,000 per year and are growing at a rate of about 22 percent over the next 10 years. This normally requires an MSW degree with a marriage counseling specialization.
You can alternatively become a rehabilitation counselor, which has an average annual salary of about $36,000 per year. These individuals will help addicts overcome their problems and reintegrate into society over time.
Or you could become a school and career counselor, whose members earn about $56,000 per year. These individuals can find jobs at schools, career centers, and even within companies to help people maneuver within an organization to the spot that fits them best.