Online Social Work Degrees

An online bachelor’s in social work (BSW) program trains students for a range of entry-level employment opportunities in the field, while master’s and doctoral programs prepare graduates for clinical social work. Both online BSW degrees and online master’s in social work (MSW) programs allow students to obtain practical experience through a practicum or internship while they’re in school. Master’s degree holders with at least two years of clinical experience can pursue their state-issued license to practice social work in a clinical setting.

Ideal candidates for an online social work degree are interested in pursuing advocacy on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged people. They should be sympathetic and sensitive to the needs of others, with an interest in justice and a desire to make a better world.

Online Social Work Degree Overview

Degree Avg Degree Cost Avg Loan Default Rate Time Commitment Early Career Pay Mid-Career Pay Unemployment Rate
Associate $6,396 22.76% 2 years $25,400 $33,300 9%
Bachelor's $15,188 9.06% 4 years $33,200 $45,700 5%
Master's $19,529 6.91% 1+ years $42,600 $58,200 4%
Whether you are new to the field, or looking to advance in your current career, you should weigh the costs and time of getting a new degree against its benefits. There is no one-size-fits-all degree. The best choice for you will depend on your current educational background, financial standing, employment history, and area of interest. For instance, those with no experience may want to consider an associate degree, due to its shorter time commitment and lower cost. If finances are tight for you, then you should prioritize the student loan debt and default categories, as you will want to choose a degree that offers you the best chance of improving your financial standing with minimal risk. If your employer or someone else is paying for your education, then you might want to consider the degree that will offer you the highest salary. All salary information is sourced from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and/or PayScale

Pursuing an online social work degree can be rewarding at any level of study, and MSW programs tend to have the best financial ROI among online social work degrees. While the average degree cost is higher than for associate and bachelor’s programs, MSW graduates stand to earn a higher average salary, with lower unemployment and default rates. Additionally, students enrolled in MSW online programs can gain the professional experience and training needed to qualify for licensing or credentials in their state.

Choosing Your Social Work Career

Average Social Work Salaries


Social Worker

Salary: $45,500
Growth Rate 2014-2024 Number of Jobs: 2014 Degree Certifications
12% 649,300 Bachelor's State-specific requirements

Social workers and clinical social workers provide assistance to patients struggling with problems impacting their daily lives. They act as advocates for underprivileged adults, children, or families, and offer help finding housing, applying for food stamps, or adopting a child. Clinical social workers are specially licensed to diagnose and treat mental health issues. Positions in social work are expected to grow; as the baby boomer generation ages, jobs in healthcare are expected to grow particularly quickly. Prospective social workers should be empathetic, and have strong communication, organizational, and problem-solving skills. Obtaining a bachelor’s in social work degree online is sufficient for entry-level jobs in the field. Clinical social workers must have a master’s degree, two years of clinical supervised field experience, and a state-issued license to begin practice.

Health Educator

Salary: $42,580
Growth Rate 2014-2024 Number of Jobs: 2014 Degree Certifications
13% 115,700 Bachelor's Dependant on employer requirements

Health educators promote health and wellness knowledge, behavior, and programs aimed to keep individuals and communities healthy. These professionals act as liaisons between healthcare and social services providers and community members by collecting data, disseminating information, and implementing programs designed to promote healthy living. Employment opportunities in this sector are growing as healthcare providers and the general public explore how to reduce medical costs through preventive health and wellness care. BSW degree holders with exceptional analytical and problem-solving abilities are well-suited to this area of social work. Of these candidates, some may choose to specialize in a particular demographic, medical condition, or disability.

Substance Abuse Counselor

Salary: $39,270
Growth Rate 2014-2024 Number of Jobs: 2014 Degree Certifications
22% 94,900 Bachelor's Dependant on employer requirements

Substance abuse counselors help those struggling with substance or alcohol addiction, or from related behavioral disorders. Professionals must be compassionate, patient, and have strong communication skills. Jobs in the field are expected to grow as health insurance increasingly includes mental health coverage. While a BSW is generally acceptable for most positions in the field, candidates wanting to counsel patients one-on-one should pursue a graduate degree. Private practice substance abuse counselors are required to be licensed in their state; certification requirements for those operating outside of private practice vary from state to state.

School Counselor

Salary: $53,370
Growth Rate 2014-2024 Number of Jobs: 2014 Degree Certifications
8% 273,400 Masters State-issued credentials required

School counselors help students succeed by assessing their abilities and goals and developing their social and academic skills. Professionals may choose to specialize in elementary, secondary, or postsecondary education counseling services. Online MSW students interested in this field are required to have 1-2 years of classroom experience and must undergo a criminal background check as part of the credentialing process. School counseling candidates should have highly developed communication skills and should be familiar with various learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. An online MSW and state-issued credentials are required.

Rehabilitation Counselor

Salary: $40,763
Growth Rate 2014-2024 Number of Jobs: 2014 Degree Certifications
9% 120,100 Masters Dependant on position

Rehabilitation counselors help people living with disabilities overcome and lead productive lives. These professionals are typically well-versed in the core psychological and social adjustments generally needed among clients with disabilities; they may specialize in newly or temporarily disabled patients or provide youth or senior care. Though most jobs require a graduate degree, there are a variety of job opportunities available due to the opportunity for diversity and variety within the industry. Rehabilitation counseling is well suited to candidates with a compassionate, patient manner and acute listening and interpersonal skills. While some employers may accept a bachelor’s degree, an online MSW is typically the minimum education requirement in the field.

Online Social Work Degrees


Most associate programs require a two-year commitment. Graduates can expect to earn an average hourly wage of $14.32 in an entry-level or assistant position.

Sample Courses
Principles of Sociology, Interpersonal Communication, Group Dynamics and Counseling, Multicultural Issues, and Psychology
Potential Jobs
Social and Human Service Assistant, Community Health Worker, and Childcare Worker
Average Income
$14.32 hourly
Employment Prospects
11% increase for Social and Human Service Assistant, 13% increase for Community Health Workers


A bachelor's degree in social work is often required for most positions in the field. BSW graduates have significantly higher earning potential than associate degree-holders, with lower unemployment and student loan default rates. They also have a wider range of career options involving counseling and education. Some bachelor's degree graduates pursue online MSW programs to advance their career or practice clinical social work.

Sample Courses
Social Welfare and Social Work, Policies and Strategies of Community Intervention, Ethnicity, Race and Culture, and Human Behavior Social Environment
Common Majors
Social Welfare, Human Development/Family Studies, and Sociology
Potential Jobs
Social Worker, Substance Abuse Counselor, and Health Educator
Average Income
$39,270 annually
Employment Prospects
12% increase for Social Workers, 22% increase for Substance Abuse Counselors, 13% increase for Health Educators


Graduates from online MSW programs are prepared to meet state licensure requirements and may also be eligible to practice clinical social work in their state. Job candidates holding a master's degree in social work meet the requirements for state licensure and supervised clinical experience. Graduates may also be eligible to pursue additional specialty certifications in the field.

Sample Courses
Social Welfare Policy, Human Neuropsychology, Cognitive and Behavioral Treatment, Clinical Practice with Groups, and Mental Health and Social Policy
Potential Jobs
Rehabilitation Counselor, School Counselor, and Marriage/Family Therapist
Average Income
$53,370 annually
Employment Prospects
9% increase for Rehabilitation Counselors, 8% increase for School Counselors, 19% increase for Marriage/Family Therapists

The Top 5 Online Master's Degrees in Social Work

Rank School Name School Logo City Cost

Fordham University

  • annually: $43,902

California State University - Long Beach

Long Beach
  • in-state tuition: $6,240
  • out-of-state tuition: $17,400

Case Western Reserve University

  • annually: $41,800

Catholic University of America

  • annually: $38,526

The University of Tennessee - Knoxville

  • in-state tuition: $11,194
  • out-of-state tuition: $29,684

See full rankings


Ph.D. holders in social work are eligible for senior industry positions. Many doctoral graduates become postsecondary teachers or assume an advanced management role, such as director of social work for a nonprofit or government agency. Those interested in earning a Ph.D. should have a particular career objective in mind.

Sample Courses
Advanced Knowledge of Social Work, Applying Action Research, Contemporary Issues in Social Work, History of Social Work Education, and Interprofessional Education in Social Work
Potential Jobs
Professor and Human Services Director
Average Income
Employment Prospects
13% increase for Professors

Professional Requirements

Most states require non-clinical social workers to obtain certification, and all states require clinical social workers to have a license to practice in their state; specific rules and regulations vary between states. The Association of Social Work Boards oversees four categories of social work exams for licensure: bachelor’s, master’s, advanced generalist, and clinical. Each test was developed by licensed professionals according to a universal set of qualifiers spanning a variety of practical applications and settings in social work. Prospective licensees should consult the ASWB for state credentialing information.

Bachelor's Social Work Exam

The bachelor’s exam comprises four major subject areas of social work: (1) human development, diversity and behavior in the environment; (2) assessment; (3) direct and indirect practice and professional relationships; (4) values and ethics. The structure of this exam is designed to test the candidate’s general knowledge of broad social work concepts, along with professional competencies and knowledge, and skills and abilities statements (KSAs). The test focuses on acute development of introductory concepts and assessment techniques.

Is it required?

Requirements vary by state

How long will it take?

Candidates have four hours to complete the test

Master's Social Work Exam

The master’s in social work exam tests the candidate’s broad understanding of social work concepts, professional competencies and knowledge, and KSAs. The exam for master’s students is organized into similar categories as the bachelor’s exam (human development, diversity and behavior in the environment, assessment and intervention planning, direct and indirect practice and professional relationships, and values and ethics) though this test requires a rigorous understanding of treatment and intervention in action and direct practice techniques.

Is it required?

Requirements vary by state

How long will it take?

Candidates have four hours to complete the test

Advanced Generalist Exam

The broadest test, the advanced generalist exam features categories similar to the bachelor’s and master’s exams, but with a primary focus on professional relationships, values, and ethics. Additionally, the exam does not explore any one speciality in the field deeply, but instead tests the candidate’s general knowledge of human development, diversity and behavior in the environment, micro assessment and planning, micro practice and social work relationships, and macro practice. The advanced generalist exam is intended for candidates aspiring to obtain licensure in their state for a niche or entry-level job in social work. This credential may qualify candidates for employment in a range of professional settings.

Is it required?

Requirements vary by state

How long will it take?

Candidates have four hours to complete the test

Clinical Exam

Clinical social workers are responsible for using advanced diagnostic and treatment methods, and the clinical exam helps evaluate the candidate’s acute abilities in assessment, diagnosis and treatment planning, psychotherapy, clinical interventions, and case management. The exam also tests human development, diversity, and behavior in the environment (exploring the entire lifecycle) as well as professional ethics and values, including potential conflicts that may arise in this area.

Is it required?

Requirements vary by state

How long will it take?

Candidates have four hours to complete the test

Advanced Practice Specialty and Professional Social Work Credentials

Speciality credentials are available in a variety of areas to social workers who have already obtained state licensure and are otherwise qualified to legally practice social work. Advanced Practice Specialty Credentials (APSC) are aimed at social workers in individual areas of expertise, including treating a particular demographic (e.g. military, youth, and families) or providing specialized health care (e.g. addictions or hospice and palliative social work services). Other professional social work credentials such as the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) and the Diplomate of Clinical Social Work (DCSW) are exclusive to those who are members of the NASW. Speciality credentials vary according to state licensure laws and regulations.

Is it required?

Requirements vary by state

How long will it take?

Exam availability and times vary