Best Online Master’s Degrees in Social Work: Guide to Online Programs for 2023

Social workers have the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of others by helping them address various challenges in their daily lives. From assisting clients with disabilities to find the right services to help families cope with issues such as substance abuse, domestic conflicts, or child abuse, social work is a meaningful and rewarding profession. To increase your chances of obtaining higher positions in this field, an online master's degree in social work is highly recommended.

Pursuing an online master's degree in social work offers a range of benefits, such as the ability to research, plan, and correspond with other professionals and organizations. Social workers are also instrumental in advocating for improved social services, policies, and projects to benefit the communities they serve. This guide is designed to help those interested in pursuing an online master's degree in social work by providing answers to commonly asked questions about the advantages of distance learning.

Online Master’s Degree in Social Work Table of Contents

  1. Can you get a degree completely online?
  2. Will employers take my online degree seriously?
  3. Are online degrees recognized all over the world?
  4. Online vs. Traditional Master’s Degree in Social Work
  5. How much does an Online Master’s Degree in Social Work cost?
  6. What are the requirements of an Online Master’s Degree in Social Work?
  7. Courses to Expect in Online Master’s Degree in Social Work
  8. Things to Look for in an Online Master’s Degree in Social Work

Can you get a degree completely online?

Nowadays, students can complete their studies from bachelor's degree in social work to their choice of graduate degrees entirely online. Not only has advancements in technology made this possible, but also the reality that many prestigious institutions are now offering online degrees has made it much more accessible to students.

Moreover, online master's degree program offerings have become more diverse in recent years and more students are taking them online (Urban Institute, 2018). Based on the Urban Institute data, 38% of master's students stated that their program was completely online. Meanwhile, 48% were taking their degrees in person and 21% had a combination of on-campus and distance education courses.

Source: Urban Institute, 2018

Will employers take my online degree seriously?

Advancements in technology and the shift to online learning due to the pandemic have certainly helped improve the image of online degrees. Though negative perceptions of degrees earned online still linger, the good news is that more employers are taking them seriously.

In the study "How They See It: Employer Perceptions of Online Versus Traditional Learning at the Graduate Level" published in the Journal of Educational Leadership in Action, authors Cessna Winston and Logan Allen of Tarleton State University explored how employers perceive the qualifications of candidates with online credentials versus those with traditional degrees. Their findings suggest that employers have a qualified positive view of online degrees and measure an online program's quality using factors such as the rigor of the program, the reputation of the university, and the degree or discipline itself (Winston & Allen, 2020).

"In regard to the research questions, the data suggest that employers have a qualified positive impression of online learning. Qualified in that it depends on the discipline and the degree as most felt that certain disciplines are not ideally learned online and that online learning is better suited to graduate degrees," wrote the authors. When it comes to the reputation of the school, the study found that "employers do not hold a positive view about degrees obtained from for-profit colleges."

Aside from the abovementioned, the prevalence of remote work and the gig economy has also become a factor in the perception of online degrees. With an increase of 44% in remote work in the past five years and an estimated 36.2 million Americans who will be working remotely by 2025 (FlexJobs, n.d.), companies now also regard candidates who completed their degrees online as individuals capable of working in a remote environment. The fact that they finished their online degree is a good sign that they possess the digital literacy, discipline, and diligence to stay on track and work on projects independently.

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Are online degrees recognized all over the world?

Not all online degrees are recognized globally. This is the same with traditional degrees offered at major universities—not all will be respected all over the world since each country has its own standards for specific degrees. So if you plan to work in an international setting, you might still need to take additional courses or gain job-specific experiences to meet the requirements of other locations.

The good news is social work is one of the fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. and internationally. This means careers in this field will continue to offer more local and global opportunities to those who possess the right education and skills. Occupations such as Behavioral Disorder, Substance Abuse, and Mental Health Counselors, for example, are among the top 20 future jobs in the U.S. According to current data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH),  44.8% of U.S. adults with Any Mental Illness (AMI) received mental health services in 2019 (NIMH, 2021).

Source: NIMH, 2021

Online vs. Traditional Master’s Degree in Social Work

Online and traditional programs both have their pros and cons. The ideal mode of delivery for a student will largely depend on their personal situation. That said, there are factors that you might want to consider before pursuing an online degree, among which are:

  • Flexibility. Online programs provide schedule flexibility to students, which can be a better option for social workers who need to meet and help clients during different hours of the day. You can study on your own time, access course content entirely online, and do not need to quit your job to attend physical classes on campus. However, if you are looking for structure and strict pacing that is determined by your program, then a traditional degree may be a better fit.
  • Interaction. Social workers interact with individuals and families to better understand and address their needs. It is also important for social workers to interact with other social workers and learn from their experiences and perspectives. This is how they stay up to date with their profession and expand their professional network. When you take an online program, you might not be able to experience this interaction since most online degrees are offered via asynchronous learning and seldom require students to attend lessons in the classroom.
  • Access to more universities. Depending on your desired area of concentration in social work, you might need to take a program at a school not located in your home city. With an online master's degree, you can get access to the best online accredited universities and find the program that suits the social work specialization you want to study since you are no longer limited by your place of work or where you are living. In fact, graduate students are 18.8% more likely to pursue online programs than undergraduate students (, 2021).

Is an online degree cheaper?

An online degree can be cheaper when you look at the other costs that you do not need to shoulder. For example, there are no gas and parking fee expenses since you take your lessons online. The overhead that is associated with running a traditional on-campus program, such as building and office maintenance and support staff which are often factored in the average cost of college, are also no longer applicable to online learners. There are many reliable sources when it comes to the cheapest online MSW programs available.

Is an online degree as good as a regular degree?

The perception of whether an online degree is as good as a regular degree depends on some important factors. As stated in the research of Winston and Allen, employers look at the reputation of the degree-granting institution and the type of degree itself when assessing the quality of a degree obtained online. So it is recommended that you choose an accredited program from a university that has a good reputation for producing quality graduates.

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How much does an Online Master’s Degree in Social Work cost?

The cost per credit hour of a master's program is estimated to be around $420 to $1,000. Master's degree programs in social work can require 30 to 65 credits and can take between two and three years to complete. Therefore, how much you spend on your online degree will also depend on the length of your program.

Moreover, the type of school you choose will also have a direct impact on the fees. For instance, the average tuition and fees of public postsecondary institutions in A.Y. 2018-2019 was $12,171, which also made them the most affordable online schools. Meanwhile, the average cost of tuition and fees was $27,776 for private schools (NCES, 2019). Other costs that graduate students of social work should consider are expenses on textbooks, application fees, and conducting research work that is often required as part of the program's capstone project.

Is an online master’s degree in social work worth it?

What can you do with a human services degree? Obtaining your online master's degree in social work can help you advance your career since there are many occupations in the field that require advanced degrees. If you want to work in the medical, education, or mental health fields, for example, your master's degree can help you qualify for positions such as healthcare social workers, clinical social workers, and therapists. According to the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE), 34.8% of graduate students of social work focus their practice on children and families (CSWE, 2018). Other fields are school social work, mental health, and substance abuse.

On the other hand, if you are not currently in the field of social work, pursuing a master's degree can still be beneficial, especially if you are interested in assisting people to live better lives. Social work is a combination of many disciplines, including communication, public work, and psychology which can also be found in some of the best psychology masters programs. This, however, only means you can explore many opportunities that match your credentials when you graduate.

Source: CSWE, 2018

What are the requirements of an Online Master’s Degree in Social Work?

Graduate admissions committees set several requirements to ensure that students who want to enroll in their master's program are ready for the rigorous work involved in graduate studies. Aside from the academic and general skills requirements, students taking online programs also need to prepare the technology needed to participate in the course.

Admission Requirements

  • Bachelor's degree in social work or a relevant field. Most master's programs will require the applicant to have completed a bachelor's degree. Some programs will ask for an undergrad in social work, but others might be open to accepting students who finished their degree in another field, granted that it is relevant to social work.
  • Minimum grade point average (GPA). Your GPA is easily one of the numbers that admission committees will look at when you apply for a master's program. The required grade will vary depending on the college or university but it is usually between 3.0 and 3.5.
  • Personal statement. Schools often ask a graduate school applicant to submit a personal statement. This helps admission committees learn more about the applicant and his or her reasons for applying to the program.
  • Recommendation letters. Most graduate programs ask applicants to provide at least three recommendation letters. If you are working, it is best to ask for recommendations from your professional contacts. If you are still in college, you can ask professors who are directly working in the field of social work and can speak about you and the skills you have that make you a good fit for the program.

General Requirements

  • Technology skills. Social work uses a variety of technologies to conduct research, provide services, and carry on with case management. Social workers, therefore, need to possess basic computer skills as well as be willing to learn new software to aid them in their work.
  • Interpersonal and communication skills. Social workers interact with clients who have different personalities. They need to actively listen to clients' needs and foster healthy professional relationships to successfully handle their cases. Without good interpersonal and communication skills, it would be difficult to accomplish this task.
  • Emotional skills. Social workers need to have strong emotional skills such as patience and compassion. This helps them expertly and calmly handle the many difficult—and sometimes distressing—cases presented to them.
  • Project management skills. These are the competencies and skills a social worker needs to successfully coordinate projects, lead teams, or take charge of a research project. These include organizational and problem-solving skills, for instance. A social worker can handle multiple cases at one time. One needs to meet clients, attend meetings, and even appear in police investigations or court hearings. You will need good organizational and problem-solving skills to properly manage cases and your schedule. Based on Payscale's data, project management skills have a 27% effect on the salary of a social worker (Payscale, 2021).

What are the technological requirements of students for online learning?

  • Desktop or laptop. You will need a functional desktop or laptop to participate in an online master's program. Luckily, as social work is a field that is not as tech-driven as computer engineering or software programming, you will not need to spend on expensive top-of-the-line computers. However, do try to aim for computers with technical specifications that can run not only run an office suite but also support learning management systems (LMS).
  • Reliable internet connection. For social work students or any other student taking up an online degree, you will need a fast and reliable internet connection. Free wi-fi may allow you to work anywhere as you please, but that connection may be spotty. When you need to download course material, work on an assignment, or participate in a video call for your program, you will need a stable internet connection.

Source: Payscale, 2021

Courses to Expect in Online Master’s Degree in Social Work

The courses you can expect to attend in your online master's degree in social work cover a wide range of theories and perspectives on social work practice and policies that impact social issues.

  • Essential Skills in Social Work Practice. This course teaches students the skills needed for professional social work practice. Topics usually include ethical conduct, active listening, professional demeanor, empathetic response, and interviewing skills.
  • Diversity and Social Justice in Social Work. This course covers theories and issues surrounding diversity and social justice. Topics that are broadly discussed are race and ethnicity, privilege and power in society, socioeconomic class and status, gender, and theories of social oppression, among others. It is also important to note that, while criminal justice and social justice are closely interconnected, the latter encompasses broader societal issues of equality, human rights, and access to resources and opportunities. But if you are more focused on maintaining public safety, ensuring due process, and holding individuals accountable for their actions, a criminal justice degree online accredited program might suit you.
  • Social Welfare and Policies Issues. This course looks into the historical development of policies in social welfare and teaches students the knowledge and skills that can help them analyze, develop, and advocate for social policies. Students learn about methods of policy analysis, how to identify and approach culturally sensitive issues, and discuss topics that impact social and economic justice, human rights, the legislative process.
  • Social Work Research. Students learn research methods that they can use in their social work practice, including qualitative and quantitative methods. They also study data analysis and visualization, which are important skills in sociological research. Other topics that are usually covered in this course are informed consent, ethics, and cultural sensitivity in conducting research.
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment. This course trains students on how to closely examine the connection between human behavior and the environment. This is an important foundation course, especially when you consider that 82% of social workers reported that their job role has direct contact with individuals, families, and groups (CSWE, 2020). Social environments directly impact how a person behaves and how a family, group, or community develops. Thus, social workers must understand the concepts and theories used in interpreting human behavior and social environments. These include person-centered theory, family systems theory, and cognitive-behavioral theory, among others.

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Things to Look for in an Online Master’s Degree in Social Work

Students often look at the price tag of a program, but there are other equally important details to check. For example, how long a particular program takes to complete has a direct effect on the cost, so you might want to confirm this information as well when comparing programs and schools.

  • Cost. It is very common for students to compare the tuition rates of their prospective online programs. However, when you are researching cost, you should also consider the total expenses you will accumulate for the entire program to know if it is something that suits your financial situation. Other common expenses for online degree courses in social work include textbooks, application fees, technology, or online learning fees. It can also help to look for Title IV schools if you are planning to apply for financial assistance for your graduate education in social work.
  • Program Length. Something that has a direct impact on the cost of your master's degree is the length of the program. Most master's programs require 32 to 48 credits, which can normally be completed in two years. But there are also master's programs in social work that require 60 credits and can take up to three years to complete. Needless to say, longer programs mean more expenses for the student. So, if you are considering the costs and time you can dedicate to your studies, it can also be good to look for accelerated programs that suit your study goals.
  • Specializations. There are many specializations within the field of social work, such as aging, children and families, clinical social work, and forensic social work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among the 713,200 social workers employed in 2019, 342,500 were child, family, and school social workers. If you already have a particular specialization or concentration in mind, it is best to look for an online master's program that offers the specialization you would like to pursue.

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021

Is an Online Master's Degree in Social Work right for you?

Becoming a social worker can be a very fulfilling job, especially if you are interested in partnering with other professionals and organizations to improve people's lives. If you are already in the field of social work, an online master's degree in social work can be the most practical and cost-effective option for you. If you are still finishing your undergraduate degree and want to continue to an advanced degree, a traditional or on-campus program would also be a great choice.

As stated by NCES, the employment rate in 2019 was highest among people with a bachelor's degree or higher degree (87%) (NCES, 2019). With this in mind, pursuing an advanced degree in social work can definitely add value to your credentials and give you an edge in the job market. For further reading, you can check the different types, costs, and requirements of master's degree programs.