Returning to School

Today’s job market is competitive, and candidates for upper-level positions need experience and education. However, older students returning to school have a different experience than recent high school graduates with limited responsibilities. Most experienced professionals who return to school do so to enhance their skill set and advance their careers. Many are considering a career in a different industry, and others want to specialize in their current field.

Social work professionals return to school for various reasons. Some professionals entered the workforce after earning their associate or bachelor’s degree and, after working and learning about the field, want to pursue positions that require additional education. Social workers with a master’s degree often become interested in working independently or teaching, which leads them to explore further degree and licensure options.

Social workers can gain a competitive edge over other job applicants by obtaining further education. The combination of education and experience creates subject-matter experts with higher earning potential. This guide discusses the benefits of returning to school, the types of programs available, and how students can fund their education.

Benefits of Returning to School for Social Work

Professionals with an associate degree in social work may consider earning a bachelor’s degree in social work. While an ASW qualifies professionals for assistant and advocate positions, BSW holders can obtain licensure to work directly with clients. Professionals with a BSW often work in hospitals, clients’ homes, and schools. BSW holders considering pursuing a master’s degree in social work can specialize in a specific area of social work. Furthermore, an MSW prepares learners for positions in clinical settings, which can lead to administrative roles and higher earning potential.

Professionals with an MSW qualify for administrative and supervisory roles, such as a nonprofit director, social and community service manager, or social service permanency worker. MSW-level positions typically pay about 25% more than positions available to BSW holders. Upper-level positions often require specialization and licensure only available to professionals with an MSW. Common specializations for master’s students include clinical mental health, children and family, and school social work.

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Average Salaries for Social Workers by Educational Attainment


Online Learning for Social Workers Returning to School

Individuals returning to school often have professional and personal responsibilities, which make attending scheduled classes difficult. Fortunately, many online programs are accredited and comparable to on-campus programs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 73% of higher education students are enrolled in nontraditional programs.

Online programs often comprise asynchronous classes, in which learners study at their convenience while meeting set due dates. Students in asynchronous programs complete coursework through a learning management system, which houses all materials, syllabi, discussion boards, and submission dropboxes. Many learning management systems offer mobile apps.

Distance learners often save money on costs associated with transportation and campus housing. Additionally, online courses are frequently less expensive than on-campus classes. Most MSW programs include internship and clinical requirements, which online students generally complete at a local site.


Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

Professionals who have previously attempted to further their education but did not complete the program can apply to their previous school as a returning student. They can also apply to a different school as a transfer student. Returning and transfer students do not need to retake or pay for courses they’ve already completed. Returning students should contact their admissions office, and transfer students should apply to their school of choice. Applicants must submit official copies their most recent transcripts.

Universities often set a limit on the number of credits students can transfer. Additionally, the previous school’s accreditation status affects credit transferability. Many schools have specific requirements for content covered in each course. Universities exclude credits that do not meet coursework requirements. Students who have been out of school for an extended period of time should ensure their credits have not expired.

Transferrable Credits

Transfer students should research requirements prior to applying. Transferring between public schools within the same state is the simplest transfer process, while private schools may have more stringent transfer requirements. Transfer students should also note each school’s semester format, which can impact transfer credits.

Course Equivalency: Schools that evaluate transfer credits through course equivalency typically require transfer students to have earned credits from a university with accreditation from the Council on Social Work Education. Most universities provide an equivalency table that displays which courses transfer from other universities. Accepted transfer credits often depend on subject. Students should compare all prior coursework to their prospective university’s requirements.

Course Level: When using this type of transfer system, the university considers the topic and level of the course before awarding transfer credit. Typically, 100- and 200-level courses transfer the most easily because these standard courses contain foundational information. Upper-level courses are more specific, and universities tend to have more specific requirements about topics covered in these courses. Schools may request syllabi to ensure the transfer student has covered all pertinent information.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: Course length is an important factor when transferring credits. While most schools operate on a semester schedule, many schools use quarters. Additionally, accelerated online programs typically have unique program formats. Students transferring to or from programs with uncommon program structures may have difficulty transferring credits. Students should consult their counselor prior to applying.

College Credit for Work Experience

Students with relevant experience can request college credit when applying to programs. Obtaining credit for experience helps students save money on tuition. Many employers offer professional development, during which employees spend hours learning and practicing skills. Depending on the content, students may receive credit for a course that is similar to that experience. Students who have served in the military often receive credit for job-related coursework they completed during their service. Institutions often determine qualification for credit through prior learning assessments.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning recognizes a number of methods for evaluating prior learning, including standardized exams and training. Students pursuing a BSW often have opportunities to obtain credit for experience; however, master’s students are less likely to receive credit for prior learning because of the rigor of MSW programs.

Standardized Exams: Institutions use a variety of standardized exams to evaluate students’ knowledge. Common prior learning assessments include the College-Level Examination Program and the Denver School of Science and Technology Examination Program, which offer 33 and 39 exams, respectively. About 3,000 programs across the U.S. accept these examinations.

Individual Assessments: While schools may consider interviews, skill simulations, or demonstrations when awarding credit for prior learning, portfolio assessments are the most common method for determining eligibility for credit. Portfolio assessments may include assessments of projects or previous research, written narratives with documentation evaluated by a supervisor or professor, and prior interviews. A faculty member evaluates and approves portfolios. Students may also hire an external portfolio evaluation service to review their content and verify their knowledge.

Evaluation of Non-College Education and Training: The National College Credit Recommendation Service and the American Council on Education evaluate student knowledge acquired through sources such as employment, professional certification, apprenticeship programs, and volunteer work. Employers are often willing to help institutions verify employee knowledge because many employers offer tuition reimbursement; students who qualify to waive courses save money for the organization.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Universities have different methods of allotting prior learning credits. Some schools exclude courses from program requirements, while others include credits fulfilled with PLA credits on the student’s transcript. Institutions typically apply credits that do not fit any specific course toward elective or general education requirements.

Students should consider the policies of their prospective institution. Some schools have a credit maximum, which means students may need to complete coursework in areas in which they already have experience. Additionally, some schools do not accept transfer credits.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

Students returning to school have access to the same financial assistance programs as other students, including federal and private scholarships.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

Students should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine their eligibility for federal grants, work-study programs, and loans. While grants do not need to be repaid, loans do. Unsubsidized loans accrue interest while the student is in school, but the government pays the interest on subsidized loans while the student is enrolled. Learners can also apply for work-study programs, part-time jobs scheduled outside of class time.

When completing the FAFSA, students must demonstrate financial need, include their social security number, confirm citizenship or prove noncitizen eligibility, and show proof of high school graduation or a GED certificate. The application process is the same for traditional and nontraditional students. Almost all institutions require students to complete the FAFSA before applying to the school. Students should submit the FAFSA as soon as possible, since funding is allocated on a first come, first served basis.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

  • Social Security Number: When completing the FAFSA, applicants must provide a social security number. Students who are unable to provide this information receive a student aid report after their FAFSA is processed. Students without a social security number do not qualify for federal financial aid.
  • Driver’s License Number: Students with a valid driver’s license must submit their identification number, which provides additional security. Students without a driver’s license must obtain a state-issued ID card.
  • Federal Tax Information: Returning students are often employed, in which case they must submit W-2 information. Married students must also report their spouse’s information. Students who are self-employed may need to submit a 1099 or a Schedule C form. Students employed in a foreign country must submit appropriate documentation.
  • Records of Untaxed Income: Many students receive funds they do not consider to be income. Students who receive child support, veterans benefits such as disability, or interest income should report this information so as not to be disqualified for inaccurate reporting.
  • Information on Assets: Students must report liquid money that is in cash, savings accounts, and checking accounts. Students must also indicate if they have money in the form of investments, such as stocks, bonds, or real estate, excluding the student’s home. Students should also list any businesses they own.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

Funding their education is a major concern for most students, which is why completing the FAFSA is crucial. The first step in determining financial need is calculating the cost of attendance, which institutions provide in per-semester and per-year formats. Most schools also indicate the total program cost, which includes tuition and fees, campus housing, class materials and books, and childcare costs, if applicable.

Students must also identify their expected family contribution through a formula that considers the income of the student’s family, along with family size and the number of family members currently attending college. To calculate financial need, students subtract their cost of attendance from their estimated family contribution.

After identifying financial need, students should research need-based aid programs, including the Federal Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, Direct Subsidized Loans, Federal Perkins Loans, and Federal Work-Study jobs. The government also offers non-need-based aid; eligibility for this aid is determined by subtracting the student’s cost of attendance from the amount of financial aid they have already received. Non-need-based aid programs include Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Federal Plus Loans, and Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education Grants.

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students


  • Scholarships: These awards assist with tuition and other school-related costs. To win these awards, students must meet the specific criteria and values of the sponsoring organization.
  • Grants: These funds do not need to be repaid. The government, foundations, and other organizations provide grants to help students further their education.
  • Federal Loans: The government offers funds to help students pay for school. These loans typically offer low interest rates and flexible repayment choices.
  • Private Loans: Students can apply to for private loans from banks or credit unions. Private loans typically have higher interest rates than federal student loans.


  • School Aid: This funding is only for students attending colleges and universities located in the United States. Students can obtain these awards from the federal government, their institution, foundations, and private organizations.
  • Federal Aid: Of all sources, the federal government provides the most money for students who need assistance funding higher education. Students apply for this support by completing the FAFSA.
  • State Financial Aid: Most states offer grants and scholarships to residents who need help paying for school. States use the student’s FAFSA to determine eligibility.
  • Privately Funded Scholarships: Private scholarships are available from donors with a personal mission to assist students with funding their education.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Learners pursuing a graduate degree in social work often worry about funding their education, since many financial aid programs support only undergraduate students. However, multiple financial aid programs exist for MSW students. For example, graduate students can borrow up to $20,500 per year in federal Direct Loans. Borrowers who need additional assistance can obtain the remaining amount through the Direct PLUS Loans program.

Work-study programs provide students with part-time jobs scheduled around class hours. Students often receive jobs related to their field of study, which provides valuable experience. Students may also qualify for the TEACH Grant, which provides up to $4,000 per year to aspiring educators. Federal Pell Grants are need-based awards that recipients do not need to repay. MSW students currently working in a related field should contact their employer about tuition reimbursement programs. Below are scholarships available to MSW students.

Scholarships and Grants for Social Workers Returning to School

American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work
Who Can Apply: This national organization promotes ethical and consistent social work. The organization promotes high standards of practice among emerging social workers. Applicants must be graduate students in their first or second year.

Verne LaMarr Lyons Memorial MSW Scholarship
Who Can Apply: This scholarship assists social work students specializing in the mental health field. Applicants should be completing an MSW and must display interest in working with the African-American community.
Amount: $5,500

NASW Foundation Social Work Heals Fellowship
Who Can Apply: The NASW Foundation offers this grant to improve healthcare services in the U.S. by advancing social worker education at the BSW, MSW, Ph.D., DSW, and post-doctoral levels.
Amount: $56,000

The Senior Care Scholarship
Who Can Apply: This award supports students interested in working with aging clients. Geriatric patients comprise a growing, underserved population. Applicants must be enrolled into an accredited university in the U.S and must be a permanent citizen.
Amount: $3,000

Ann Weaver Nicholas Scholarship Endowment
Who Can Apply: Applicants must be interested in promoting social change for underserved populations. The selection committee awards preference to single parents and applicants who demonstrate financial need.
Amount: $500

The Melanie Foundation Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Candidates must be pursuing an MSW or a DSW in mental health. Applicants must provide evidence of volunteer, research, or career-related experience. Students must demonstrate an interest in the work of Melanie Merola O’Donnell.
Amount: $2,500

Tips for a Successful Return to School

Returning to school after an extended period of time requires students to adjust the demands of a rigorous schedule. Use these tips to acclimate to the educational environment.

Brush Up on Tech Skills: Learners should spend time navigating their school’s website to familiarize themselves with the institution’s resources. Online learners should explore the school’s learning management systems prior to beginning class. Students can contact their school’s technical department for assistance with technology use.

Find Support Network: Students returning to school often need a support network to be successful. This network can include counselors and classmates. Students should also consider joining a professional organization that offers resources, access to professionals in the field, and development opportunities.

Choose a Flexible Program: Demanding coursework can be a challenge for students returning to school. Online learners often have more flexible coursework. Students who benefit from in-person instruction can consider hybrid options, which blend online and in-person learning.