A social work degree might be the right choice for you if you love helping others, enjoy working one–on–one with clients, and wish to develop a meaningful and rewarding career. A bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work can put you in a position to work with struggling people, helping them to navigate complex bureaucracies and access the assistance they need. Depending on your focus, you might work with children, the elderly, people with mental health issues, LGBTQ+ people, or those struggling with economic, family, or addiction issues. If you are socially–minded, compassionate, and want to make a difference, a social work degree can lead to a challenging but deeply meaningful career path.
A social work degree gives you a grounding in sociology, psychology, public health, and social justice, and prepares you to work with clients to solve social and personal problems. Social workers find employment in a variety of settings, including hospitals, mental health care facilities, nursing homes, counseling services, and various government agencies. Among a social worker’s potential clients are people going through medical or mental health crises, children in the foster care system, individuals struggling to overcome addictions, inmates transitioning back to everyday life, LGBTQ+ youth in danger of being homeless, and a host of others navigating difficulty and hardship.
With so many possibilities, the main attribute you need to begin your social work degree is a sense of compassion, as well as a desire to help people through their darkest moments. If these are qualities you possess, social work might be the field for you.
If you already know what kind of degree you’re looking for, you can jump right into the 40 Best Bachelor’s in Social Work Degree Programs or MSW Programs: The 25 Best Master of Social Work Programs.
If you’re planning to pursue your degree online, you’ll want to check out The 25 Best Online Bachelor’s in Social Work Degree Programs, The 25 Best Master of Social Work (MSW) Online Degree Programs, and Social Work Degrees and 25 Notable Online Programs.
What Kind of Accreditation Should My Degree Program Have?
Accreditation is the process by which colleges and universities are evaluated and validated. Colleges and universities that have earned accreditation have met the standards set by accrediting organizations. These organizations are comprised of faculty from various accredited colleges and universities. Legitimate regional and national accrediting organizations are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Typically, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognizes the same institutions, although CHEA recognition isn’t mandatory. A college or university must be accredited by a Department of Education-recognized accreditor in order for its students to receive federal financial aid.
For a detailed look at the differences between regional and national accreditation, check out What Do I Need to Know About College Accreditation?
- What is Regional Accreditation?
- Regional accreditation is the signifier of quality education; this includes the currency of curriculum, credentials of educators, and credibility of degrees. Regional accrediting agencies only accredit institutions in their geographical area.
- The Six Regional Accrediting Agencies
- Middle States Commission of Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE)
- The Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
To find out if a college or university on your list is regionally accredited, check the Department of Education’s Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
- What Is National Accreditation?
- National accreditation is often perceived as a less rigorous standard than regional accreditation and is governed by educational accreditors agencies that are not restricted by region or geography. This means that one such agency can provide accreditation to any college or university in the U.S. that meets its criteria. National accreditation is commonplace among trade schools, religious schools, and for–profit colleges.
Most regionally–accredited colleges do not accept or recognize credits or degrees earned from colleges that lack regional accreditation. However, national accreditation may be a useful indicator of quality for students pursuing vocational training, competency-based education, or other education models that operate under a for-profit model.
To learn more about National Accreditation, check out Understanding National Accreditation.
For help safely navigating the For–Profit Sector, check out our Guide to For–Profit Colleges: What You Need to Know.
- Programmatic accreditation certifies that an institution’s program, department, or college has met the standards of the programmatic accrediting agency. While programmatic accreditation agencies often have national jurisdiction, programmatic accreditation is not institutional national accreditation. In fact, programmatic accreditation often coexists with regional accreditation. In some disciplines, a degree with programmatic accreditation may even be required to earn a license or enter professional practice.
Social work is one of those fields. In order to become a licensed clinical social worker, you must have earned your degree from a program that is recognized by the following national accreditor:
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) confers accreditation status upon baccalaureate (bachelor’s) and master’s programs in social work. The CSWE “is responsible for developing accreditation standards that define competent preparation and ensuring that social work programs meet these standards.”
As of June 2019, the CSWE recognizes 528 accredited bachelor’s/baccalaureate of social work programs and 271 master of social work programs.
The CSWE is considered a preeminent national accrediting body in the field of social work. If you plan to pursue work in the field, it is imperative that you earn your social work degree from a bachelor’s or master’s program that is current and accredited by the CSWE.
The easiest way to determine accreditation status is to contact your school of choice, or visit the website for any of the above accreditation agencies. Each provides a searchable database of accredited institutions and degree programs. You can also look at the Department of Education’s database of all recognized accreditors within its purview.
Or, to learn a little more about navigating the tricky accreditation landscape, check out Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who’s Accrediting the Accreditors?
Now that you get the idea, let’s look at some of your degree options.
What Kinds of Social Work Degrees Are There?
Associate Degree in Social Work (AA or AAS)
If you’re looking for a cost–effective way to get started on your path to a degree in social work, an associate degree is a good option. While this two–year program won’t qualify you to work in the field, it could be the most affordable way to advance toward a bachelor’s in social work (BSW).
And if you plan to pursue your BSW at an online college, you’ll find that most programs require some pre–professional courses. The right associate degree will provide you with these credits. As always, when you consider a two–year program, be sure that your credits will transfer to most private, public, or online four–year colleges and universities.
What Social Work Courses Will You Take in an Associate Program?
- Crisis Intervention
- Introduction to Health and Human Services
- Introduction to Psychology
- Introduction to Social Work
- Public Health Issues
- Principles of Sociology
What’s the Difference Between an AA and an AAS?
An associate of arts in social work (AA) is usually your best bet if you plan on advancing into a bachelor’s degree program. This should provide you both with a theoretical grounding in the field and the start to a parallel liberal arts education. The associate of applied science (AAS) in social work is preferable if you are seeking training for a specific position. In most instances, your educational and professional development will be better served by an AA.
Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW, BASWs or BSSW)
The bachelor’s in social work degree is conferred upon students who have completed a full course load through a four–year private, public, or online college. There are only a few accredited online BSW programs and most of these require completion of the kinds of pre–professional courses you might take while earning your associate degree. If you do plan to pursue your BSW online, it may be a good idea to earn your AA or AAS first.
Your course of study will touch on subjects like family dynamics, social policy, abnormal psychology, topics in healthcare, case management, community building, and organizational management, as well as concentration–specific courses. Your social work degree program will demonstrate the breadth of the social work field and, in many cases, will also give you a chance to intern or volunteer in a real–world setting.
The bachelor’s in social work is also extremely valuable if you plan to pursue a master’s in social work (MSW). Though you can qualify to pursue an MSW with a bachelor’s degree in a related or alternate field, earning a BSW from a CSWE–accredited program first will dramatically reduce the number of credits required to complete your MSW. In many cases, earning a BSW will put you in a position to earn your MSW in as few as 30 credits. Naturally, that’s a huge money saver. Again, be sure to check for the CSWE stamp of approval.
What Social Work Courses Will You Take in a Bachelor’s Program?
- Communication in Social Work Practices
- Communities and Organizations
- Field Practicum
- Foundations of Social Justice
- History of Social Welfare
- Human Behavior
- Introduction to Social Work
- Issues in Addiction
- Issues in Global Economics
- Seminar in Social Work Practice
- Social Statistics
What’s the Difference Between a BSW, a BASW, and a BSSW?
The bachelor’s in social work (BSW) is the basic educational threshold for becoming a social worker. It provides the knowledge, skills, and practice needed to enter the profession. The BSW also provides opportunities for hands–on experience and offers courses of study within specific areas of focus including community outreach, human behavior, urban development, family therapy, and more. The bachelor of science in social work (BSSW) may offer a sharper focus on hands–on training. The bachelor of arts in social work (BASW) offers a similar course of study, but the degree is pursued in tandem with a liberal arts concentration like English or psychology.
Master’s in Social Work (MSW)
A master’s in social work (MSW) is an advanced social work degree. The CSWE–accredited MSW is increasingly seen as the standard degree in the field, and is required for work in educational, healthcare, and clinical settings. Your master’s in social work degree program will allow you to choose an area of concentration, one that should prepare you for work in your specific field.
Typically, those who hold a master’s in social work will enjoy higher salary prospects and greater opportunities for advancement. And depending on your preference, this advanced degree could place you in a position either to practice social work hands–on or to direct organizational efforts from an administrative level. Be aware that at some point in the pursuit of your MSW, you will be expected to choose between macro– and micro–level studies. Macro–level studies will put you on a path toward administrative and organizational leadership, whereas micro–level studies will put you on a path toward counseling and other hands–on work.
It’s worth noting that an MSW degree can also function as a suitable alternative to a psychology degree for those ultimately working toward a professional counseling career. Consider this a particularly attractive path to a counseling career if your undergraduate studies are more compatible with a degree in social work than one in psychology.
As noted above, if you plan to earn a social work degree at the graduate level, holding a bachelor’s/baccalaureate from a CSWE–accredited social work program can significantly accelerate your progress.
It’s also important to note that you must have your MSW if you intend to work as a clinical social worker. And again, remember, if you plan to use your degree to procure work in the field, it must be from a CSWE accredited program.
What’s the Difference Between a Clinical and a Non–clinical Social Worker?
While the non–clinical social worker will often function as a counselor, a clinical social worker will have the training and qualifications to offer medical advice and therapeutic treatment. A clinical social worker is a healthcare or mental health professional who applies the theories and practices of social work in providing prevention, treatment, and service. And remember, in order to reach the level of clinical practice, you will need to obtain your master’s in social work from a CSWE accredited school.
What Social Work Courses Will You Take in a Master’s Program?
- Advanced Clinical Social Work Practice
- American Racism and Social Work
- Child, Youth, and Family Therapy
- Human Behavior in the Social Environment
- Human Services Management
- Issues of Race and Gender
- Organizational Leadership
- Philosophy of Social Welfare
- Policy Practice
Doctor of Social Work
If you're contemplating doctoral level studies in social work, your two leading options are a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or a Ph.D. in social work. Both will focus on the refinement of clinical practice skills and training in the development and leadership of social service programs. The primary distinction between the two is that a Ph.D. in social work will also contribute to research and public policy in the field.
What Kind of Licensing or Certification Do You Need?
In addition to earning your social work degree, you will be required to earn certain licenses to practice social work, particularly at a clinical level. These licenses will vary from state to state, so be sure to check with your state’s social work board of licensure for appropriate licensure details. The following are examples of the most notable and important licenses for practice:
- Licensed Social Work Associate (LSWA)
- This licensing is required for candidates seeking entry level work in the field. You must have an associate or bachelor’s degree in social work or a closely related field in order to earn this certification.
- Licensed Social Worker (LSW)
- This licensing is required to practice non–clinical social work services, including case management and administrative supervision. You must have a bachelor’s degree in social work to earn this license. If your degree is in another field, you may be able to earn your LSW by completing a certain number of work hours under the supervision of an LSW.
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
- This licensing is granted for the practice of advanced non–clinical social work and requires the completion of a master’s degree program.
What Can You Do with a Social Work Degree?
A social work degree opens you up to a wide range of job opportunities. The path you choose will largely depend on how you believe you can best help others. The following are among the most common occupations open to those with a degree in social work:
- Behavioral Disorder Counselors
- Correctional Treatment Specialists
- Health Educators
- Mental Health Counselors
- Marriage and Family Therapists
- Probation Officers
- Recreational Therapists
- Rehabilitation Counselors
- Social and Community Service Managers
- Social and Human Services Assistants
- Social Workers
- Substance Abuse Counselors
For a look at the brightest prospects out there in your field, check out The 10 Best Social Work Jobs here.
What Kind of Salary Can You Earn With a Social Work Degree?
Your earning potential in this field is closely tied to your level of educational attainment. Your degree will have a direct impact on the types of jobs available to you and the opportunities for advancement within these jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides data on the potential earnings for some of the leading jobs in the social work field. The following data reflects median annual salaries as of 2018:
|Social and Human Service Assistants||$33,750|
|Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors||$44,630|
|Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists||$53,020|
|Healthcare Social Workers||$56,200|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Are There Professional Social Work Associations or Societies You Should Join?
Professional associations are a fantastic way to make connections in your field, learn about valuable seminars or certifications, and improve your own credentials. There are a few preeminent associations in the social work field, and several others that may offer valuable support or resources depending on your area of concentration.
- The National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
- This organization is world’s largest membership organization comprised of and dedicated to professional social workers. With more than 120,000 members, the NASW is committed to the professional growth of its members, the maintenance of professional standards in the field, and the advancement of sound social policies.
- The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
- This organization is dedicated to improving the quality of social work education with the goal of ultimately producing better qualified professionals. You’ll recognize the CSWE from our section above on accreditation, but the leading social work educational accreditor also has 2,500 individual members, with students, faculty, and practitioners among them
Other notable associations include:
- School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA)
- Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA)
- National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW)
- North American Association of Christians in Social Work (NAACSW)
- Social Welfare Action Alliance (SWAA)