How to Choose a Program

Social work tends to attract dedicated individuals with a desire to serve others, and the industry places a premium on strong values and well-rounded, versatile education. The need for trained professionals in the field has led schools to offer a variety of specialized social work programs, and even if you’re already in the industry, selecting the right school can be a formidable task. This guide offers an overview of how to choose a social work program that’s right for you, covering general but crucial factors that should inform your research, including delivery format, degree level, type of school, and tuition.

Program Delivery: Online vs. On-Campus

When exploring social work programs, one of the most significant factors to consider is a degree’s delivery method. Schools have increasingly embraced distance education for its convenience and flexibility, and today many of the best social work programs offer both online and on-campus options. If you’re a working professional with significant job or family obligations, it’s easy to see the appeal of online learning; many programs allow you to complete coursework when it fits into your schedule, and the time saved by avoiding a commute to campus can be invaluable. Additionally, online courses often cost less than their on-campus counterparts, as they require fewer resources on the part of the college.

At the same time, online learning brings its own unique challenges. Students must be motivated, organized, and able to work independently, as many courses use a primarily self-directed curriculum model. And while online learning may offer more convenience logistically, the typical distance program offers the same level of academic rigor as its on-campus counterpart, if not more, as online students must sometimes complete additional work to compensate for the lack of classroom meeting time. Both online and on-campus learning offer benefits, and ultimately it’s up to you to determine which format best fits your needs.

Factors to Consider in an Online Social Work Program

Hybrid/Blended Learning: While some programs deliver course materials in a fully online format that never requires degree candidates to visit campus, others use a blended or hybrid format that combines both on-campus and online learning. Some schools may split their course material evenly between online and on-campus delivery modes, while others offer a primarily online format that includes occasional campus sessions for workshops, classes, lectures, and other events. Some particularly flexible programs enable you to mix and match online and on-campus courses as it suits your schedule, with many classes available in either format. Hybrid programs offer a unique opportunity that blends the flexibility of online learning with the social connection of taking courses on a college campus. Conversely, if obligations outside of school make it difficult for you to visit campus and attend classroom sessions at designated times, you’ll likely find the fully online format more convenient.

Synchronous or Asynchronous: Another factor to consider when selecting an online program is whether course materials are delivered in a synchronous or asynchronous format. In a synchronous format, courses take place through live virtual meetings that imitate the classroom environment, enabling students and faculty to interact and collaborate in real time. In an asynchronous format, online learners log in at any time and independently complete assignments whenever it is most convenient for them, but most programs still use weekly assignment deadlines. While the asynchronous mode offers greater flexibility, the synchronous mode offers a cohesive learning environment that more closely resembles the on-campus model. For students with fewer work or personal commitments, a synchronous program may be a better choice, while those with less flexibility typically find asynchronous programs more convenient. Many programs offer a mixture of both delivery modes, combining asynchronous work with weekly synchronous class meetings.

Class Size: Online courses typically maintain the same student-faculty ratio as campus courses, and most schools attempt to offer the same sort of individualized attention for distance learners. Since online students are typically unable to interact with professors in person, most schools offer tools to communicate with faculty online, including email and discussion boards. Some teachers even maintain virtual office hours, hosting live meetings using a webcam to discuss class matters at certain times each week. The online format does require greater independence and self-directed study, so online degree candidates who desire more faculty support may want to consider programs with a lower student-to-faculty ratio, as this can offer increased opportunities for faculty interaction. Many of the best social work master’s programs maintain extremely small class sizes that offer many chances to interact with faculty, and strong undergraduate programs typically keep class sizes small as well.

Personal Learning Style: Online learning emphasizes flexibility, but the unique nature of the format makes it a better fit for certain types of students. First and foremost, online courses require high levels of independence, responsibility, and organization. No class meetings means no in-class announcements about tests, quizzes, and assignment due dates; online learners receive notifications either through email or through the school’s online learning platform, and it’s the student’s responsibility to keep track of course requirements. Distance students also need to be highly motivated, particularly for programs that use an asynchronous, fully online format. With no set class meeting times or campus visits, the lack of structure can make it easy for less motivated students to fall behind on their work. In general, you must hold yourself accountable for completing assignments and preparing for tests, though online counselors and academic success coaches can offer strategies to help you stay on top of coursework.

Practicums or Internships: Even entirely online social work programs often require students to complete a practicum or internship with a professional social work organization. These experiences offer students the chance to gain practical skills through hands-on learning, exploring the role that class theories play in professional social work practice. Most online programs allow you to complete an internship within your own community, even if you live far from the college campus. If you have a particular organization in mind, you can typically work with the school to arrange a practicum experience, enabling you to complete the experiential learning requirements without leaving you place of residence. Most programs can also help you identify an appropriate social work organization located in your own community. In general, it’s rare for online students to travel far for an internship opportunity, though if you live in a remote area you should check with schools to see what your options are.

Choosing an Accredited Program

When researching online social work degrees, it’s vital to ensure that a school holds proper accreditation. Indicating that a college has met certain national mandates for curriculum and instruction, accreditation serves as a sort of seal of approval, demonstrating a school’s academic credibility. Accreditation also ensures that credits earned at an institution can transfer to other colleges and apply towards prerequisites for advanced degrees. For most administrative and academic purposes, online programs do not differ from on-campus programs, and most online degrees receive accreditation from the same agencies that accredit their on-campus counterparts. However, given the proliferation of fraudulent and less reputable online programs, it’s increasingly important to verify a school’s accreditation status as part of your research process. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintains a comprehensive, searchable database of recognized institutions and programs, which can help you verify a college’s accreditation status quickly and easily.

National vs. Regional Accreditation

All colleges receive their accreditation status from either a national or regional accreditation agency. Regional accreditation is the more prestigious of these designations, at least when it comes to academic programs like social work. National accreditation typically indicates that a school offers vocational education, such as welding or dental hygiene. Regional accreditors certify schools that offer more academic programs, such as degrees in the humanities and social sciences, including social work. While neither type of accreditation is necessarily superior, the best social work undergraduate programs hold regional accreditation. Regionally accredited colleges also award more widely transferrable credits, whereas credits from nationally accredited schools may not always transfer over to regionally accredited institutions. Any reputable college should have an accreditation page on its website that indicates its accreditation status, so always make sure to check.

Programmatic Accreditation

Regional accreditation evaluates an entire college, but many individual programs also receive accreditation from agencies concentrated on specific fields of education. Like regional or national accreditation, programmatic accreditation indicates that a program has met certain standards that speak to its academic quality. For many fields, programmatic accreditation from a specific agency serves as the gold standard. For example, many of the most reputable social work programs receive accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which evaluates both bachelor’s and master’s social work programs. Going a step beyond regional accreditation, programmatic accreditation demonstrates a program’s capacity to adequately prepare students for work in the field. Programmatic accreditation may also be a requirement for professional licensure. For example, many states require applicants to hold a degree from a CSWE-accredited institution to sit for social work licensing exams. However, just because a certain program lacks programmatic licensure, or is accredited by a different agency, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s disreputable. Make sure to check with your state licensing agencies to determine what a program will prepare you for after graduation.

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Career Goals

While some students entering a social work program may have a clear career goal in mind, others need to take time to explore their options, determining their career path along the way. Regardless of where your goals currently stand, many different factors can influence your professional path, and it’s important to be aware of your options. Below, you’ll find an explanation of some of the most common factors that can affect your academic and professional prospects.

Degree Level

Your level of education often directly affects your career prospects, and the social work field is no exception. If you’ve just begun exploring social work programs, it can seem difficult to map out your educational goals in relation to your career goals, but this is an important step in determining which degree to pursue. The pages below offer a detailed overview of the different degree levels and their potential career outcomes, which can help you understand all your options.

Bachelor’s in Social Work: A bachelor’s degree offers a broad overview of social work practices, preparing you for positions such as community organizer or program manager, though typically not for counseling positions.

Master’s in Social Work: At the master’s level, you’ll gain advanced, specialized knowledge, typically in a specific area of social work, which prepares you for leadership or counseling positions.

Doctorate Degree: At the highest level of study, a doctoral program offers a comprehensive perspective on specialized aspects of the social work field, preparing you for top leadership positions or for academic research.

Social Work Specialties

If you’re planning to enter the social work field, you may have a specific area of interest or a certain type of client you want to serve. Different programs offer different specialization options, which will likely affect your choice of schools and degrees. In general, most bachelor’s degrees offer generalized programs without specialization options, while master’s programs almost always include some type of concentration, offering advanced specialization in one area of social work.

  • Clinical/Direct Practice: This specialty emphasizes direct contact with clients, training students to evaluate and treat various behavioral, psychological, and emotional issues.
  • Adult Mental Health and Wellness: Students in this track focus on strategies for treating the needs of adult clients, including recovering from emotional trauma and substance abuse.
  • Children and Families: This specialty focuses on the needs of underserved children and families, with most work typically taking place in community shelters and child welfare agencies.
  • Mental Health and Trauma: Dealing specifically with the victims of traumatic situations, these specialists offer psychological, emotional, social, and medical support to help clients recover.
  • Social Change and Innovation: Student in this concentration focus on the implementation, development, and improvement of social programs, determining the most effective ways to assist clients.
  • Community Development: In this specialization, students explore strategies to improve community services and support systems, building stronger bonds among community members.

Social Work Licensure

Many social work positions require professional licensure, so when pursuing a degree, it’s important to determine if the curriculum meets the state licensure requirements where you plan to practice. It’s also useful to examine the licensure exam pass rates for different programs, as this gives you an idea of how adequately the program will prepare you for your own exams. The table below offers a summary of the education and licensure requirements for several common social work careers.

Education and Training Requirements for Careers in Social Work

OccupationMinimum DegreeLicense/CertificationMedian Salary
Case ManagersAssociate/Bachelor’sCertification Optional$38,966
Clinical Social WorkersMaster’sState Licensing Required$52,619
Healthcare Social WorkersMaster’sState Licensing Required$54,870
Child, Family, and School Social WorkersMaster’sState Licensing Required$44,380
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social WorkersState Licensing RequiredMaster’s$43,250
Social Work Teachers, PostsecondaryMaster’s/DoctorateSocial Work License May Be Require$64,370

Field Placement

Many social work programs, particularly at the master’s level, include a practicum or internship component that requires students to complete field work in a professional social work environment. These opportunities provide invaluable hands-on experience that builds your resume and draws connections between course learning and professional practice. Field placements also create opportunities for networking and professional connections, which can make it easier for you to find a job after graduation. Many programs can connect you to field placement opportunities in settings tailored to your professional interests, and you can check with admissions advisers to determine what sort of opportunities are available.

Cost and Financial Aid

The cost of social work programs varies depending on many factors, such as degree level, program length, full-time or part-time enrollment, extra fees, and the selectiveness of the school. Since cost typically represents a major factor in selecting a program, it’s important to consider all the different details that might affect your total tuition, which can help you determine the type of degree that best fits your needs. Below, you’ll find an overview of the major factors to keep in mind when exploring different programs, along with more in-depth information on financial aid for social work programs.

Public vs. Private Schools

In general, a school’s status as public or private has the most significant impact on its average tuition. Public colleges receive state funding that subsidizes student tuition, making the cost of attendance lower. Private colleges, on the other hand, receive no state funding, depending instead on endowments, donations, and tuition to operate. As a result, private colleges often charge much higher tuition than their public counterparts. While most private schools do maintain objectively higher tuition rates than public schools, they’re also more likely to offer larger financial aid packages to qualifying students, particularly those with significant financial need. Many private colleges also offer generous scholarships to low-income students in an effort to create economic diversity on campus. While public schools typically offer lower tuition rates, it’s always important to examine all the factors that might affect your tuition before deciding on a school.

Public schools are also generally much larger than private schools, offering a wider variety of degree options. However, private colleges, with their smaller enrollment numbers, usually offer a lower student-to-faculty ratio, which in turn leads to more individualized attention for students. Private colleges may also offer more specialized programs unavailable at larger colleges.

In-State vs. Out-of-State Schools

If you’re considering a public college, your state residency status may affect your tuition as well. Public schools typically offer lower tuition rates to state residents, but out-of-state students may find themselves paying rates closer to a private school if they choose to attend a public institution outside their home state. Financial aid offerings may also differ for in-state and out-of-state students. Public colleges are typically more selective with financial aid for out-of-state students, making scholarships and other aid offers more competitive. Many states do maintain reciprocity agreements with neighboring states, allowing residents to attend college across state lines while still paying the in-state tuition rate, but there are many exceptions to these rules, and it’s best to check with individual schools to determine their policies. Below, you’ll find a comparison of average tuition rates between in-state public, out-of-state public, and private tuition.

In-State vs. Out-of-State College Tuition Prices

Public Four-year In-State College$9,670$9,970
Public Four-Year Out-of-State College$24,820$25,620
Private Four-Year Nonprofit College$33,520$34,740

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Schools

Another major decision that can affect tuition costs is whether you study at a two-year or four-year school. As a rule of thumb, two-year schools, such as community colleges, are more affordable than four-year schools, due to two factors: time and cost. Community colleges and other two-year schools generally offer less expensive tuition than four-year schools, even if you’re earning the exact same credits. Many two-year colleges maintain articulation agreements with four-year colleges, enabling you to earn the first two years’ worth of undergraduate credits at a more affordable community college before transferring to a four-year school to complete your bachelor’s degree. The chart below showcases the dramatic difference in tuition between two-year and four-year schools.

Two-Year vs. Four-Year College Tuition Prices

Public Two-Year In-District College$3,470$3,570
Public Four-Year In-State College$9,670$9,970

Online vs. On-Campus Programs

If you’re looking for the most affordable social work degree possible, online learning may be a very effective option. Distance education requires fewer campus resources, enabling many colleges to offer dramatically reduced tuition rates to online learners. Online learning also cuts down on many of the costs commonly associated with education, such as commuting, parking, childcare, and room and board. By taking courses from the comfort of home, you can eliminate most of these expenses, reducing the total cost of education even further. Online students also often receive the same financial aid offers as campus students, meaning there are no real financial disadvantages to taking online courses. Below, you’ll find a chart that compares typical room and board fees at public and private colleges, showing just how much you can save through online learning.

Room and Board Fees

Public Four-Year In-State/Out-of-State College$10,480$10,800
Private Nonprofit Four-year College$11,850$12,210

Program Reputation

Outside of financial factors, a school or program’s reputation may play into your decision-making process. While there’s no exact formula for defining prestige, several factors come together to indicate the quality and reputation of a social work program, four of which you’ll find outlined below.

Licensed Social Worker (LSW) Exam Pass Rate: A program’s overall student pass rate for the LSW exam offers a sense of how well it prepares students for the professional rigors of the field.

Graduate Job Placement Rate: Another indicator of graduate success is a program’s job placement rate, which indicates how well students fare in the workforce, and by extension, how well you are likely to fare after graduation.

Teacher Credentials: Faculty who are experts in the field, with many strong publications to their names, also indicate a serious program with a rigorous curriculum.

Accreditation Status: Accreditation indicates that a program fulfills all major social work education standards, and accreditation from multiple bodies often indicates a particularly strong, interdisciplinary program.