This resource was created to help students find and research online Master of Social Work (MSW) programs. For students who are considering or have already decided to pursue an MSW online, we offer a comprehensive guide. For professionals who already work in the field or for individuals looking for a career change, an MSW is required to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW).
Through extensive research, we have created one of the most thorough resources on the Internet for students interested in schools offering an MSW online. OnlineMSWprograms.com includes information on graduate degree details, admission requirements, and tuition for a variety of schools. All of the schools listed on the site are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the only organization that provides accreditation for Master of Social Work degrees in the United States.
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Unfortunately for prospective students, there is no one set of standards for how an online MSW degree must be structured or even what can be called an “online” program. Degree requirements, course structures, and instruction methods all vary by school. Our goal is to make it clear how different graduate institutions work so that students are better prepared to determine which one fits their needs, accepts students from their state, and meets their professional aspirations. While there are advanced degrees that offer courses entirely online, all online MSW programs have a field education requirement where students must work at health services agencies in their local area.
Overview of Top Master of Social Work Programs: Online and Campus
All accredited online MSW programs must meet the same CSWE accreditation standards as campus-based counterparts. Currently, there are 223 universities with accredited MSW programs and an additional 12 schools that have online MSW degrees that are candidates for accreditation. Through our research, we have identified 34 schools that offer a CSWE-accredited MSW online and at least 13 schools that offer hybrid MSW degrees, which combine online and campus-based instruction.
For students who earned a Bachelor of Social Work from a CSWE-accredited undergraduate program, some graduate schools offer students the ability to enter an online Master of Social Work program as an advanced standing student. Typically, advanced standing students are able to waive the first year of classes, which are also known as foundation classes at many institutions. From our research, there are 24 schools that currently offer advanced standing MSW programs online.
Master of Social Work: Online Versus Hybrid Delivery Methods
When researching online MSW graduate degrees, it is important to understand the different delivery methods that are being used by universities and how they impact students. We classify online programs into two categories: online and hybrid. Online programs are further broken down by whether or not the program requires students to visit the campus during the program. Programs that require students to visit campus two or less times per year are still classified as online programs on OnlineMSWprograms.com. As noted above, all online MSW programs have a field education component that requires students to work in a local health services agency during their schooling.
MSW Programs Online:
- Online MSW Programs with Classes 100% Online: As the classification suggests, these programs have classes that are entirely online and do not require students to travel to campus at all during the program. These programs are especially convenient for students who have travel or financial restrictions and cannot be away from their home for any period during the year. Most master’s in social work online programs make it a point to ensure that online students have access to the same resources as campus-based students. As mentioned above, all online MSW programs still require students to complete field education at a local health services agency.
- Online MSW Programs with a Campus Requirement: A small subset of schools that offer online graduate courses will require students to visit the campus a limited number of times during the program. Based on our research, 8 out of the 34 online MSW programs have this requirement. The campus visits range from one visit, usually for a week or a weekend, during the entire length of the program to multiple visits per year. Online programs with a campus requirement are clearly noted on the site.
- For students who want the convenience of classes online, but who would also like to meet and network with classmates and professors face-to-face, this type of program provides that option. In addition, for some students, visiting the campus can help them connect more with the university. However, travel expenses are usually not covered with tuition costs and university fees, so there will be some additional expenses with these types of programs.
Hybrid MSW Programs:
The structure of hybrid MSW programs varies widely from institution to institution. Consequently, some of the programs classified as hybrid on OnlineMSWprograms.com are actually called online by the university, even though they use a combination of online and on-site instruction. For simplicity, we have sorted hybrid degrees into two basic categories: blended MSW and distance education MSW.
- Blended MSW: Blended programs typically combine online and on-campus instruction in one of two ways: 1) students take courses online with a limited number of campus visits each semester, or 2) students take a combination of on-campus and online courses during their degree program.
- Distance Education MSW: The term distance education has historically been used as a synonym for online education. However, it appears that the majority of MSW programs that use this term have a similar format. This format involves on-site instruction at an off-site location. In many cases, the off-site location may be another college or university and classes are conducted using interactive television.
Online Master of Social Work Programs: Class Structures and Instruction Methods
In addition to the different delivery methods described above, online MSW programs have different class structures and instruction methods. It is important to understand these differences when researching online degree programs, since they impact how and when students attend classes.
Cohort Model versus Flexible Course Scheduling
- Cohort Model: The majority of online MSW programs use a cohort model where students are accepted into a specific class of students that proceed through the program together. Schools that employ the cohort model typically have a set schedule of courses that must be followed in a specific order; otherwise, students can get out of sync as they proceed through the program. Programs that use a cohort model may still allow students to take elective courses, but they are typically taken during specific semesters. One of the advantages of the cohort model is that students can become very familiar with their classmates — a student’s cohort can become his or her professional network and support group.
- Flexible Course Scheduling: MSW online programs with flexible course scheduling allow students to choose courses like a traditional undergraduate degree. Individual courses may still have prerequisites, but there is no set structure where students must take a specific number of courses per session or semester. Schools with this format usually set a limit on the number of years during which students must complete the degree requirements and graduate. One advantage of flexible scheduling is that students can vary their course load from semester to semester depending on how much time they have to pursue their degree.
Synchronous versus Asynchronous Instruction
- Synchronous Instruction: Online courses with synchronous instruction require students to log in and attend classes at specific times. Classes are conducted in real time where students watch lectures and can interact with teachers and classmates. For courses that have synchronous instruction, a webcam is often recommended. Typically, class times are set before the course starts and are included in the syllabus. Programs with synchronous instruction are ideal for students who want a classroom environment, but who cannot attend a traditional on-campus experience.
- Asynchronous Instruction: Online courses with asynchronous instruction do not require students to attend classes in real time. Instead, students can log in and view lectures and other class materials at times that are convenient for them. Classes with asynchronous instruction still have deadlines for assignments and tests that students must meet in order to pass. Asynchronous instruction is ideal for students who do not have set schedules and need the flexibility to view lecture materials at times that work best for them.
For some master’s in social work online programs, the type of instruction depends on the professor who is teaching the course. Other programs use exclusively synchronous or asynchronous instruction methods. Independent of the type of instruction method used, most online programs utilize an online environment or course management system where students can find course information, view lectures and submit assignments. In addition, students interact with classmates and teachers through forums and discussion boards
Online MSW Degree: Full-Time versus Part-Time Options
Students interested in earning a Master of Social Work online have a variety of options in terms of length, depending on how much time they have to dedicate to their studies. While some schools offer both full-time and part-time options, others only offer one schedule. Most schools that offer full-time programs recommend that students do not work full time while they pursue their degree. Full-time online schedules are demanding due to the combination of coursework and field education, and students who cannot dedicate that much time to the graduate degree should consider a part-time option instead.
- Full-Time Degree: A full-time online master’s in social work program typically takes approximately two years to complete for traditional standing students and one full year (three semesters) to complete for advanced standing students.
- Part-Time Degree: Traditional part-time programs can take two-and-a-half to four years to complete depending on the structure of the curriculum, while advanced standing programs are typically one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half years. The majority of part-time programs still use the cohort model; students simply take fewer courses per session or semester.
Field Education Requirements in Online Social Work Master's Programs
Field education, sometimes called a field internship or field practicum, is a key component of all online MSW degrees. During field education work, students are placed at a local health services agency where they will work closely with field instructors who mentor them on the practical applications of social work. Field education allows students the opportunity to apply their classroom education to real-world situations in a controlled and supervised environment. All field instructors are required to have earned an MSW and typically have at least two years of experience post-graduation, so they can directly relate to MSW students. Local agencies may include (but are not limited to):
- Community organizations
- Addiction treatment centers
- Mental health facilities
- Family counseling centers
- Medical care facilities
Students enrolled in an online MSW degree must complete a required number of field education hours in order to graduate. For traditional students, field education requirements typically range from 900 to 1,200 hours depending on the school. For students in advanced standing, the requirements range from 450 to 1,000 hours. Online MSW programs typically have set semesters when students complete their field education requirements, which vary depending on length.
The number of hours students spend in field education per week depends on whether they are enrolled in a full-time or part-time program. Students enrolled full-time typically need to spend 16 to 20 hours per week to meet the requirements during their two-year degree program. The structure of field education for part-time students is more varied. Since these programs tend to be longer, there is more time for students to complete the requirement. Typically, part-time students can expect to spend at least one day per week at an agency during semesters where they take field education classes.
Careers in Social Work: Master of Social Work Concentrations
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are two main categories of social workers: direct-service social workers and clinical social workers. Direct-service social workers help people solve everyday problems, from accessing government assistance programs, to adopting a child, to helping people deal with life changing events like losing a job. Clinical social workers diagnose and treat patients who are experiencing issues like anxiety or depression. They use psychoanalysis and psychotherapy and can treat patients individually or in group sessions.
Both direct-service and clinical social workers are employed in a variety of settings including health services agencies, hospitals and other medical facilities, mental health clinics, and schools. Students interested in specific fields of social work should consider an online MSW with a concentration that matches their interest. In general, one downside of an online MSW is that there are fewer concentration options when compared to campus-based programs. However, students still have a variety of concentration options to choose from, including:
- Advanced Generalist (with or without sub-specializations)
- Clinical Social Work Practice
- Administrative Leadership
- Children, Youth and Family Social Work
- Community Organization, Planning and Administration
- Community Social Work
- Mental Health and Adult Social Work
For students interested in clinical social work, licensing requirements are determined by state specific licensing boards; therefore, licensing requirements are different for each state. For some states, it may be necessary to earn an MSW with a clinical concentration; for other states, it may not. Students should review the requirements for their state of residence before deciding on the best online MSW program for them. For states that have specific course requirements, students may be able to complete those requirements by taking additional classes post-graduation.