Social Work Degree Guide: 2023 Costs, Requirements & Job Opportunities

Social work is a powerful field enabling individuals to champion equal opportunities in health and well-being for all. If your mission involves upholding these principles, then pursuing a degree within the social work sector may be an excellent decision. As a social professional, you get the opportunity to work with different people across the social, political, economic, racial, and age spectrum, helping the disadvantaged like children, the elderly and the poor gain access to better opportunities in life.

But social work is not all charity work. It involves strategic planning and disciplined skills to deal with the powers that be such as the government, industrialists, the super rich, sectarian leaders, and the media. From a career perspective, this field holds promise not just as a purposeful profession, but one that pays well.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that from 2018 to 2028, the projected employment growth rate for social workers is 11% (U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). For students who aspire to become social workers, this means better chances of having a successful social work career path.

Whether you want to get started on your social work education or further advance your career as a social worker, there are quite a number of details you have to know about social work degrees. In this post, we have compiled expert information on social work definition and the base requirements that can help you achieve your goals in the social work discipline.

Social Work Degree Table of Contents

What is Social Work Degree?

One of the social science careers, a social work degree prepares students for direct-service positions centering around national social welfare policy, basic individual and family support services, intervention strategies, and casework planning. Aside from being able to practice social work, this degree also provides students with the knowledge and skills required to demonstrate academic capabilities surrounding social services.

Social work programs are also one of the many fields placing adequate emphasis on a diverse student population. According to the 2019 CSWE Annual Survey of Social Work Programs, the majority of enrolled students in bachelor’s degree level programs of social work belong to racial/ethnic minorities (CSWE, 2019). While 48.7% of graduates belong to the White/non-Hispanic race, the rest are a mix of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians, and Native Hawaiians. Pursuing a social work online degree or traditional programs allows individuals from diverse backgrounds to access education and contribute to the field of social work.

Source: CSWE (2019)

Furthermore, some of the core courses offered in a social work degree are the foundations of social work practice, social service delivery systems, social work practices, and micro human behavior in the social environment. In addition, studies involve ethics and values, cross-cultural skills and knowledge, and empowerment and advocacy in social work practices.

What can you do with a social work degree?

A social work degree allows you to work in a wide range of fields. These include working with children in public hospitals or with elderly individuals in care facilities, as well as with families in poverty or people coping with behavioral disorders and domestic abuse. Most of the jobs in social work also involve referring patients to community and social services and providing case management for clients.

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Cost of Social Work Degree

For the school year 2020-2021, the average cost of college fees in the United States is $11,171 at public colleges for in-state residents and $41,411 at private colleges (USNews, 2019). Many factors can still impact this tuition cost, such as the type of institution that you want to attend and the degree level that you want to pursue. When calculating the entire college costs, you’ll also have to consider additional expenses for room and board, books, and transportation.

In general, public schools receive funding from the government so they offer more affordable tuition. In-state residents also benefit from tuition discounts when they enroll at their local university. Meanwhile, there are some institutions that impose a per-semester or per-credit tuition cost.

How much does it cost to get a social work degree?

Social work degree tuition typically ranges from $7,000 to $45,000. To complete a bachelor’s degree in social work, you can expect to pay up to $30,412. As for a master’s degree, the average tuition and fees cost $43,545. An online social work degree is usually more affordable than its on-ground counterparts.

For the academic year 2020-2021, state residents pay an average of $19,680 for tuition and fees in a social degree program. Meanwhile, the tuition cost for out-of-state residents comes at $44,640 (Human Services Edu, 2020).

If you struggle with tuition, consider getting financial assistance, either a full-ride or full tuition scholarship.

Public In-StatePublic Out-of-StatePrivate
Associate Degree$3,570 - $9,289$13,585 - $17,090$25,431 - $44,551
Bachelor's Degree$7,043 - $24,800$24,800 - $30,700$52,000 - $57,250
Master's Degree$9,700 - $15,900$12,200 - $38,800$36,300 - $54,250
Doctoral Degree$6,000 - $11,120$32,370 - $61,850$24,712 - $44,020
*Values are estimates.

Is a degree in social work worth it?

Social workers lead challenging but fulfilling lives. Most times, they are inspired by their own experiences of injustice and inequality. Such situations spur the desire of social workers to help others and advocate for the support and social services that they never had before entering the field. In turn, the social work field becomes to them a platform where they can uphold their own values and priorities, which are aligned with the discipline’s core principles.

Earning your social work degree is the first step toward becoming a social worker. Whether you’re pursuing personal fulfillment or a successful career path, social work is a meaningful discipline that places you in a position where you can help other individuals and make a difference in their lives.

With that being said, a degree in social work provides many exciting and fulfilling opportunities. With it, you can find jobs in hospitals, schools, health centers, churches, and nonprofit and advocacy agencies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also names it as one of the fastest-growing fields, with employment demand seen to increase by 16% by the end of 2026 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020).

Social Work Degree Jobs

As a degree-holder in social work, you’ll find jobs that involve working with individuals and groups of people from different backgrounds. The following sections discuss in detail the type of social work degree jobs that you can choose from.

Is social work in high demand?

As the demand for healthcare and social services continues to increase, employers from various sectors recognize the need for more social workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020), employment in social work will increase by 11% between 2018 and 2028. This means 81,000 job positions will need to be filled during the date range.

There are a number of reasons why employers are hiring more social workers today. One is the ever-increasing aging population. According to National Center for Biotechnology Information (2020), 78 million members of the baby boomer generation will have their 65th birthday by the year 2030. This doubles the number of people in this age compared to its current population. Hence, nearly 75% of social workers are projected to work with older adults in the coming years.

Another factor contributing to the rise in demand for social workers is the pressures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a Gallup survey, 26% of individuals aged 18 to 44 say that their mental health suffers (Gallup, 2020).

In the 2015 study titled Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, Julianne Holt-Lunstad and his co-authors noted that “individuals lacking social connections (both objective and subjective social isolation) are at risk for premature mortality. The risk associated with social isolation and loneliness is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality, including those identified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (physical activity, obesity, substance abuse, responsible sexual behavior, mental health, injury and violence, environmental quality, immunization, and access to health care.”

With quarantines and lockdowns intensifying isolation, depression, and anxiety for many people, the services of social workers are increasingly becoming more important.

Source: Gallup (2020)

What jobs can you get with a social work degree?

  1. Child welfare social worker. In this type of social work job, you will advocate for children suffering from disability, abuse, or neglect. You will also work with adoption agencies and help families with adoptions and foster care services.
  2. Social work counselor. As a professional in counseling services, you will work with clients from different and unique backgrounds. Your main role as a social work counselor is to assess your client’s mental health, listen to their problems, and offer them the support they need.
  3. Social service worker. This job will require you to work in homeless shelters, medical care facilities, and food subsidy services. Your duty is to help and ensure that groups of people in need have proper access to various community services.
  4. Health care social worker. In this social work career path, you will be working in hospitals and help patients navigate through the emotional, financial, and social implications of a medical condition. You will also facilitate proper communication between doctors, patients, and their families.
  5. School social worker. In this profession, you will work with teachers and administrators to help students succeed in their academic goals. As a school social worker, your help will be needed the most in handling students with behavioral, emotional, and physical disorders that affect their learning behavior.

What kind of salary can I earn with a social work degree?

In the United States, the average annual salary of social workers is $57,342 (Indeed, 2023). In the entry-level positions, you can earn up to $53,214 per year. Meanwhile, professionals with several years of experience can earn from $52,969 to $68, 209 every year, depending on how long they have been in the field and the type of industry they are working in.

Some of the company benefits for social workers are mileage reimbursement, 403-B, and health insurance. In addition, social workers qualify for student loan forgiveness, which means they can have up to $50,000 of their student loans repaid if they choose to work in a high-demand Health Professional Shortage Area.

Types of Degrees in Social Work

Like most disciplines, social work degree types are divided into four major categories. Depending on your choice of university, you can find associate, bachelor, online MSW, or doctoral degree level programs for social work.

What kinds of social work degrees are there?

Associate Degree

Average time to complete: 2 to 3 years

An associate degree in social work is the ideal degree level for students who want to enter the workforce but aren’t ready to commit to a bachelor’s degree. In an associate degree program for social work, you will learn about the social work basics, ethics, human behavior, communication, and more. All these coursework will prepare you for entry-level positions in social services, human services, or healthcare. As an associate-degree holder, you will be tasked with assistant-level jobs under the supervision of managers.

Furthermore, an associate degree in social work can also serve as your stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree program.

Entry-level jobs: Social work assistant, personal care aide, recreation worker, teacher’s aide, psychiatric technician

Bachelor’s Degree

Average time to complete: 4 years

For any job in the social work field, a bachelor’s degree is usually the base requirement that most employers look for. This four-year degree provides students with a curriculum centered on the two of the three types of social work practices: the micro-level practice that involves helping individuals in specific situations and the mezzo-level practice where social workers deal with groups of people in health centers and social support programs. Meanwhile, the third type of social work, also known as the macro-level practice, is usually highlighted in master’s and doctoral degree levels.

Depending on the school, you may encounter three different types of bachelor programs for social work: Bachelor of Arts in Social Work (BASW), Bachelor in Social Work (BSW), or Bachelor of Science in Social Work (BSSW). The only difference among these programs lies in the general education requirements and bachelor’s degree credits as dictated by the school. However, you are more than likely to find BSW programs at schools with full departments dedicated to social work, while others fit their social work programs in their science or arts departments.

Entry-level jobs: Community service manager, substance abuse counselor, case management aide, correctional treatment specialist

Master’s Degree

Average time to complete: 2 years

A graduate human services degree in social work is usually the standard requirement for specialized social work positions, such as clinical, policy, and administration work. Many pursue this degree level to further advance in their career path as social workers.

In most cases, students pursuing advanced education for social work believe that the additional degrees they have will make them more marketable in a competitive job environment.

However, in the paper Mapping Dual-Degree Programs in Social Work and Public Health: Results From a National Survey published in the journal Advances in Social Work, Dory Ziperstein and his co-authors highlight that “this is likely not the only motivation for those drawn to MSW/MPH programs. Most current MSW/MPH students came of age at a time when global health, health equity, and health reform were subjects of popular heated debate and discussion. Many are frustrated by the medical model emphasis on diagnosis and treatment and seek to integrate prevention and population health into their skill sets. Finally, perhaps more than at any other time, a large subset of students appear to recognize the limitations of any one profession in addressing major issues such as obesity and health inequities. To be more effective, these students seek new ways to combine the skills of trans-disciplinary practice in prevention, population health, and other wide-lens approaches with social work.”

According to CSWE, the majority of master’s students are female and belong to the 25 to 29 years old age group (CSWE, 2019).

Social workers with an MSW can obtain two different types of licenses. They could either be a licensed master social worker (LMSW) or a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Master’s degree holders are also eligible to become a Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW) and join the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW).

In a master’s degree program for social work, you can choose from a variety of field concentrations, such as clinical social work, psychiatric social work, school social work, AIDS and HIV services, employee assistance social work, and more. Coursework will prepare you for specialized job positions in your chosen social work field.

High-level positions: Children and family social worker, criminal justice social worker, medical social worker, mental health and substance abuse social worker

Doctoral Degree

Average time to complete: 2 to 4 years

Doctoral programs in social work focus heavily on both qualitative and quantitative analysis methods and other research techniques in the field. With a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree, you are qualified to become a social work professor, a policy advisor, or a head of a social work agency. Accordingly, a doctorate in social work can help you become a more distinguished professional in this highly competitive field.

In a DSW degree, coursework will prepare you for advanced clinical practice and leadership. Some of the studies include advanced social work theory and practice, social policies, organizational leadership and administration, ethics, and technological fluency. Before completing the program, a dissertation, portfolio presentation, or capstone project is also usually required by universities.

High-level positions: Social advocacy organization executive, medical or health services administrator, manager of a government agency

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Social Work Degree Requirements

There are many benefits to becoming a social worker. It’s highly in demand and boasts a wide spectrum of career paths and workplace opportunities. Aside from those, the pay isn’t bad, either. According to DATA USA, the highest paying industries for social workers are pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing, insurance carriers and related activities, and elementary and secondary schools (Data USA , n.d.).

Source: DATA USA (2017)

The initial step to becoming a social worker is earning your degree in the discipline. That being said, we compiled a list of the social work degree prerequisites that you must complete before applying for a social work degree.

Admission Requirements

  1. GPA. Aside from a high school diploma or a GED equivalent, most schools offering social work degrees require a GPA that meets their prospective standards. Usually, the minimum GPA required for admission in bachelor’s degree programs in social work is 2.0.
  2. Transcripts. Most schools will also ask you to prepare all your transcripts from the schools you have attended. Collecting and submitting these transcripts can be a daunting and time-consuming task, so it’s a good idea to plan ahead to avoid missing your application deadline.
  3. Test score. Depending on the school, you may also be required to submit your SAT or ACT score. For undergraduate studies, the accepted ACT scores are usually between 1050 and 1060, while the average accepted ACT score is 21.
  4. Letters of recommendation. Typically written and signed by your former teachers, employers, or coaches, these letters contain testimonials that will help attest to your academic aptitude and good qualities. When writing a letter of recommendation, make sure to remind your writers to highlight your best qualities, skills, and past academic achievements.

Skill Requirements


Communication is among the essential social work degree skills. Since the core of the study mainly focuses on dealing with unique kinds of individuals and groups of people, it is important for you to have good verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Furthermore, the field requires you to have a thorough understanding of body language and other nonverbal cues. These will help you communicate effectively with clients regardless of their cultural backgrounds, age, gender, and literacy skill level.

Critical thinking

The field of social work requires deep thinking and analysis. Hence, critical-thinking skill is a must if you wish to complete a degree program in social work. More often than not, coursework in a social work degree will require you to analyze data gathered from unbiased communication and observation. With critical thinking skills, it will be easier for you to objectively evaluate information through research, interviews, and observation.

Cultural competence

Extensive knowledge of different cultural backgrounds can give you an edge in the social work field. As someone pursuing a social work program, cultural competence can help you get through most of the coursework involving different cultural beliefs and practices. As you advance in the study, you will have a better understanding of the varying cultural experiences associated with people’s gender, ethnicity, race, class, age, religion, and disability.

What to Look for in a Social Work Degree

When deciding which social work degree program to join, there are a few details you have to iron out first. In essence, acknowledging these factors can help you make a final decision that will best serve your academic and career goals in the social work field.


The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) serves as the main accrediting body of social work programs in the United States. With most states mandating CSWE accreditation as part of the educational requirement for social work licenses, it is incredibly important for you to choose CSWE-accredited social work programs.

Accordingly, social work degree programs accredited by the CSWE follows a set standard that meets core social work competencies. This means that the program is heavily invested in producing graduates with the know-how in applying ethical principles and critical thinking to social work practices. Thus, having a CSWE-accredited social work degree ensures that outstanding credentials will follow you throughout your entire career path.

Program reputation

Another deciding factor that you must consider is the reputation and credibility of a social work program. This means assessing the value the degree holds in the field. For instance, degree programs from top-ranking and well-renowned institutions are deemed more competitive than others. Hence, graduating from such institutions can give you better employment opportunities.

In addition, you may also want to take a look at how many graduates a school produces in a year. For instance, a report by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Completions (Data USA, n.d.) reveals that the institutions with the most degrees awarded in social work in 2019 are the University of Southern California, the University of Texas at Arlington, and Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Of course, beyond this, it is also important that you take a look at the reputation of the alumni from your prospective schools.

Majors Related to Social Work

  1. Psychology
  2. Education
  3. Sociology

Ready to Become a Social Worker?

As you have gathered from the article above, the path to becoming a social worker is not an easy one. However, the key to beating all odds is coming prepared for what the future might hold for you. Through this guide, we hope you now have a better understanding of what a social work degree entails and which requirements you need to prepare to enter the program.

Whether you want to pursue an associate, bachelor, master’s, or doctorate degree program, the social work field brings exciting and fulfilling experiences. Albeit the life of a social worker could be challenging at times, it is also a rewarding profession that can provide you with a purpose and personal fulfillment in life.

In case you also want to check out more related career paths, you can check out our guide to psychology careers or sociology career requirements.



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